Why Endurance Athletes Need More Intentional Strength Training (Not More Endurance)

When we think of endurance athletes, images of marathon runners, cyclists, and triathletes pushing their limits over long distances often come to mind. The primary attribute these athletes are known for is, unsurprisingly, endurance. However, a growing body of research and expert opinion suggests that what these athletes might need more than additional endurance is intentional strength training. Here’s why.

The Limits of Endurance Training

Endurance training, characterized by long, steady-state activities, is fundamental for endurance sports. It enhances cardiovascular efficiency, increases muscle stamina, and improves the body’s ability to utilize oxygen. However, focusing solely on endurance can lead to a plateau in performance and an increased risk of injury.

  1. Plateau Effect: Once an athlete reaches a certain level of endurance, the returns on additional endurance training diminish. The body adapts to the repetitive stimulus, and further gains become harder to achieve.
  2. Overuse Injuries: Repetitive strain from constant endurance training can lead to overuse injuries such as stress fractures, tendinitis, and chronic muscle strains. These injuries are often due to muscle imbalances and weaknesses that endurance training alone cannot address.

The Role of Strength Training

Strength training involves exercises designed to improve muscle strength, power, and endurance. For endurance athletes, incorporating intentional strength training into their regimen can offer several critical benefits:

  1. Injury Prevention: Strength training helps build stronger muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which support joints and bones more effectively. This structural support reduces the risk of injuries, especially those resulting from repetitive strain.
  2. Enhanced Performance: Stronger muscles can generate more power and sustain higher intensities for longer periods. This can lead to improved performance in endurance events, allowing athletes to run faster, cycle harder, and swim more efficiently.
  3. Improved Running Economy: Research has shown that strength training can improve running economy, meaning athletes use less energy at a given pace. This efficiency translates to better performance and less fatigue during long events​ (TrainingPeaks)​​ (Semi-Annual Sale | Onnit)​.
  4. Balanced Muscle Development: Endurance training often emphasizes specific muscle groups, leading to imbalances. Strength training promotes balanced muscle development, ensuring that all muscle groups are equally developed and can work together harmoniously​ (Semi-Annual Sale | Onnit)​.
  5. Bone Density: Weight-bearing exercises in strength training increase bone density, which is crucial for long-term athletic health, especially in sports like running where impact is a significant factor​ (Suunto)​.

Client Testimonial: Real-World Benefits of Strength Training for Endurance Cycling

Late in 2023, I attended a presentation at Strength Warehouse put on jointly by Velocity Depot owner and cycling coach Matt Allen, and Strength Warehouse owner Nate Boley. I’m an amateur cyclist and take part in local gravel races, XC and endurance mountain bike races, as well as cyclocross. I’d been thinking about adding both coaching and strength work to my training to try to move myself up the placings in my age category, so this presentation came along at the perfect time.

Just before Christmas 2023, I started the on-ramp process at Strength Warehouse. I don’t have any real background in lifting and had no idea that a powerlifting gym would be compatible with my goals as a cyclist. The one-on-one sessions in the on-ramp gave me a great introduction to the technique of the main lifts, as well as an idea of how the classes would be structured. After two weeks of on-ramp, I started with two classes a week, focusing on the squat and deadlift. In the first four months of this year, I’ve seen good improvements in the weights I’m able to move. This is partly from getting the technique dialed in, and partly from the early gains after not having lifted weights before.

Combining the strength improvements from the gym with the structured training I’ve been doing with Matt has already made a big improvement to my riding. Power numbers are up at least 10% with only a small increase in weight. I feel stronger and more balanced on the bike, especially off-road, thanks to the upper body and core strength gains.

A revelation for me was that doing the work in the gym didn’t necessarily mean putting on lots of muscle bulk, which is the last thing I wanted to do. The focus of the powerlifting training is on developing strength; exactly what I need to improve my cycling. The focus on squat, bench, and deadlift in the powerlifting training is very complementary to cycling training. The compound movements strengthen not only the big muscles but all the stabilizing and support muscles as well.

The class approach at Strength Warehouse works really well for me. We have a regular crew showing up for the 7:00 am class, the instructors are very professional and supportive, and having the program pre-planned lets me know exactly what I’m going to be doing before I arrive at the gym. The atmosphere in the class is very supportive – nobody is competing with anyone else to lift more, it’s all about what each person needs to get out of the workout for their own reasons, whether they are a competitive powerlifter, an endurance athlete, or for general health and fitness.

I am only at the start of this process of combining strength work and structured training for cycling. I have seen early gains already, but for me, this is a long-term process, and I expect to keep improving.

An additional benefit from the strength training is the general health and fitness improvements it brings. Cycling is a non-weight bearing sport, so adding in strength work to my training will give me injury-prevention benefits including bone strength, joint strength, and general functional movement capabilities.

Integrating Strength Training into an Endurance Program

For endurance athletes, the key is not to replace endurance training with strength training but to integrate the two effectively. Here are some strategies:

  1. Periodization: Structure the training program to include different phases where the focus shifts between endurance and strength training. This approach ensures that both elements are developed without overtraining.
  2. Functional Strength Exercises: Focus on exercises that enhance functional strength, such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and core workouts. These exercises mimic the movements used in endurance sports, providing direct performance benefits.
  3. Low Volume, High Intensity: Strength sessions should be short but intense, ensuring they do not detract from the necessary endurance training. Two to three sessions per week, lasting 30-45 minutes, are often sufficient​ (Semi-Annual Sale | Onnit)​.
  4. Recovery and Adaptation: Allow for adequate recovery between strength and endurance sessions. This balance helps prevent overtraining and promotes optimal adaptation to both types of exercise.

Endurance athletes may be tempted to focus solely on what they perceive as the most critical aspect of their sport – endurance. However, to truly excel and maintain long-term health, incorporating intentional strength training is essential. Strength training not only enhances performance but also plays a vital role in injury prevention and overall athletic development. By integrating strength training into their regimen, endurance athletes can break through plateaus, reduce injury risk, and achieve a more balanced and effective training program.

For more detailed information, you can read related articles from Suunto​ (Suunto)​, TrainingPeaks​ (TrainingPeaks)​, and Onnit Academy​ (Semi-Annual Sale | Onnit)​.