An increasing number of our in-person and online clients here at TD Athletes Edge are endurance athletes. From runners to cyclists to triathletes, it’s rewarding to work with these distance junkies to make them go faster for longer with greater durability. Yet a lot of those who we recommend strength training to are suspicious of it at first, because they assume that as they’re using their legs to propel themselves on runs and rides, their legs are just fine. In this post, we’ll explore whether this is true or not, and how endurance athletes might benefit from resistance work just as much as those who compete in power-focused sports.
Improving Durability and Reducing Injury Risk
The simple answer to the question, “Isn’t my normal training enough?” is no. This isn’t to say that endurance sessions don’t subject your legs to forces and require you to create them. But rather that running, cycling, rowing, and other endurance activities don’t place your legs under enough load to develop strength, power, and durability.
The cumulative load exposure of each stride or turn of your pedals can be quite high, particularly if you train for and compete in ultramarathons, triathlons, Ironman races, and so on. But the acute loads are actually fairly low and do not provide a sufficient stimulus to produce beneficial structural changes in your muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons. This is where resistance training comes in. Though it does not mimic the endurance demands of your sport/s, it can prepare your body to withstand the rigors of racing and volume-centric training.
The higher your total mileage, the more you compete, and the longer, harder, and more frequently you train, the more essential this load tolerance becomes. Just because you’ve been able to get away with infrequent gym sessions – or skipping them entirely – doesn’t mean that this will be the case forever. Without resilient muscle and connective tissues, springy fascia, and durable joints and bones, your body will eventually break down, whether you suffer an acute injury or start to struggle with a chronic condition like plantar fasciitis, shin splits, Achilles tendonitis, and so on. As running coach Jason Fitzgerald put it in an interview with NBC News, “Runners want to run — but if you don’t find the time for strength training, sooner or later, you’ll have to make time for injuries.”1
There’s plenty of evidence to back up what Fitzgerald is saying. A trio of Danish exercise physiologists examined 25 prior experiments involving a total of more than 26,000 endurance athletes. Publishing their findings in The BMJ, they concluded that “strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved.”2
Getting Faster and More Efficient
Resistance training won’t only make you more resilient but will also allow you to tap into speed, power, and strength you never knew you had. An underrated component of running, cycling, swimming, and other endurance sports is the ability to create a burst of speed. This could be utilized to make a strong start, catch a breakaway, begin one of your own, or deliver a devastating finishing kick like British 5,000 and 10,000-meter Olympic champion Mo Farah. While working on intervals and sprints will obviously be beneficial, so too is the consistent strength training that will provide you with a platform stable enough to layer on power and speed.
It’s easy to put endurance and strength training in two different buckets and to assume that they have little to do with each other. But the latest research demonstrates that this isn’t the case, and that there are crossover benefits between the two. For example, a meta-analysis of previous studies published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that resistance training had a “large beneficial effect” on running performance3. The greatest positive impact noted by the researchers was on running economy – in other words, how efficiently athletes performed their running technique. Those who regularly did resistance exercises increased their running economy by three to four percent. This might not sound like much, but it could be the difference between missing a PR and breaking it or qualifying for a race like the Boston Marathon or not.
The frequency with which the athletes who improved their efficiency was two to three times a week. They stuck with this over the duration of an eight to 12-week training block. Their program involved a combination of two to four lower body resistance exercises, sprinting, and plyometrics. Another study released via Physiological Reports concluded that heavy strength training improved the cycling and running performance of participants who did three to four sets of four lower body resistance exercises twice a week for 11 weeks. So exactly what movements are most beneficial? Here are a few that I’ve found to be effective with a broad range of clients and at varying levels of expertise:
Wall 1-Leg Heel Raise w/ 3s Ecc
DB Mid-Band Neutral Grip RDL w/ 3s Ecc
Ecc Only 1-Leg Box Squat w/ 3s Ecc
DB Goblet Curtsy Lunge
Nordic Hamstring Drop w/ 3s Ecc
Need more help with nutrition, hydration, or sleep? We offer personalized online coaching to get you to your goals. Click here to learn more.
1. Amanda Loudin, “How Strength Training Can Prevent Running Injuries,” NBC News, October 14, 2017, available online at https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/important-reason-runners-need-strength-train-ncna810431.
2. Jeppe Bo Lauersen, Ditte Marie Bertelsen, and Lars Bo Andersen, “The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions to Prevent Sports Injuries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” The BMJ, May 9, 2014, available online at https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/11/871.abstract.
3. Carlos Balsalobre-Fernández, Jordan Santos-Concejero, and Gerasimos V Grivas, “Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, August 2016, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26694507/.
4. Olav Vikmoen et al, “Heavy Strength Training Improves Running and Cycling Performance Following Prolonged Submaximal Work in Well‐Trained Female Athletes,” Physiological Reports, March 2017, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5350167/.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.