At Espresso Performance Coaching, we believe that strength training has a part to play in the programme of all endurance athletes. It’s an important factor that has benefits for health, general athleticism and sports performance.
How does it improve performance?
The first thing you need to know is that it works. Here are a couple of solid examples from the research literature:
Blagrove (2017) found in a systematic review that strength training improved running economy, time trial performance and anaerobic speed, concluding that “the addition of two to three ST [strength training] sessions per week, which include a variety of ST modalities are likely to provide benefits to the performance of middle- and long-distance runners.”
Ronnestad (2011) found that combining heavy strength training and regular endurance training increased cyclists' mean power output production during a final 5-min all-out sprint after 3 h of submaximal cycling by 7%. Sounds like a race winning strategy to me
If you need any more convincing, then several mechanisms have been suggested:
Methods of strength training
This blog post focuses on strength training for performance and the recommendations reflect that. There are many other strength training modalities, like plyometrics, that we can and should use for general athleticism. Some coaches, like Renato Canova, have had huge success combining endurance work with strength circuits in a single workout. However, we’ll save those for another day.
The exercises most likely to benefit endurance athlete’s performance are multi-joint movements biomechanically similar to their event. I’d suggest you start with deadlifts and squats and, if seeking variety or progression, look at variations of these. As you progress, unilateral, single limb options like split squats or single leg deadlifts could be more specific, help to address muscle imbalances and also develop your core stabilisation.
If you’re new to strength training, you should start cautiously and get individual coaching from a qualified professional. Lifting heavy weights with poor technique is a recipe for disaster so please seek advice. You can also develop your technique while gaining the benefits of strength training using low to moderate weights or even just body weight. If you are happy with your technique, select 3-5 exercises and for each complete:
As you become more experienced, move to heavier lifts. You can change your protocol:
Ideally, you’ll be strength training 2-3 times a week but if you can only manage one session, do that.
Combining strength and endurance training
For the novice athlete, including any strength training in your programme is likely to be effective and the single recommendation is simply to do it and not worry too much about the details. You’ll see gains in performance and your volume of endurance training is unlikely to compromise this.
For the more experienced or advanced athlete, we need to pay attention to programming strength training to get the maximum benefit. There’s little evidence that strength training interferes with developing endurance, but endurance training can certainly interfere with strength gains. This is one reason why you are unlikely to get huge from two or three short strength sessions while also running 80km a week. Sorry to break that to you.
To avoid interfering with our strength gains, one simple option is to complete the training on different days. However, advanced athletes might be training around 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day, and may need to complete strength and endurance work on the same day to maintain training volume. In this case, research suggests that signalling from strength training lasts 3-12 hours following a session. Endurance training in this window will blunt your adaptations to strength training. To avoid this, complete the endurance training first and strength training later in the day. To get the most from the strength session, make sure you allow adequate rest and recovery after an endurance session to avoid reducing the quality of your second session.
Finally, consider when in the week to complete your strength work. At Espresso we believe in keeping easy days easy so hard days can be hard. This means we usually schedule strength training on the same day as a hard run or bike workout, with the endurance work completed first. This isn’t the only viable approach, however. In a recent conversation with an Olympic triathlon coach I learned that the GB Elite Squad completed strength training on an easy endurance day. This programming meant their high intensity endurance sessions, which were the primary focus, were not compromised. As always, the solution depends on the needs of the individual athlete. The self-coached athlete will need to experiment with different strategies to find what works best.