In Part I of this series, I discussed the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes. Research shows that there is indeed a place for strength training in the overall conditioning program of endurance athletes as it seems to have the potential to improve movement economy and reduce the risk of overuse injuries (1,2).
The term “strength training” is rather broad, however, and encompasses a wide variety of training modalities. Although any periodized and properly executed strength training program will most likely confer some degree of benefit, it seems that the general focus of an endurance athlete’s strength training program should be on muscular strength and power as opposed to muscular endurance. When it comes to categorizing the focus of a strength training program, the following repetition, set and rest period guidelines are typically used (1):
Rather than performing resistance training with high repetitions and short rest periods (i.e., focusing on muscular endurance), the goal should be to spend a good portion of your time developing muscular strength and power as these may have the greatest effect on movement economy (2). Although the nature of endurance sport is exactly as it may seem, primarily endurance-based, you may be wondering why you wouldn’t focus on further developing your muscular endurance with an endurance-focused strength training program full of high repetitions and short rest periods?
The truth of the matter is that focusing your strength training on muscular endurance doesn’t confer the greatest improvement in maximal muscular strength or muscular power, which has been shown to benefit endurance athlete’s movemement economy. The time you spend swimming, cycling, or running is what builds your muscular endurance. The thousands of swim strokes, pedal strokes, or foot strikes all require submaximal muscular contractions, and when these submaximal contractions are performed over a prolonged period of time in a training session (e.g., a 30 min jog, a 2-hour bike ride, or a 3000 yd swim session), you are developing muscular endurance. The goal of strength training is to make those submaximal muscular contractions require less effort and exertion on your end through an increase in maximal strength and power.
So now that you understand what to focus on with strength training, how do you actually go about implementing strength training into your program? Well first off, any strength training program, regardless of experience level, should progress in a periodized fashion (i.e., regular variation in training intensity and volume) much like your endurance training program should in order to minimize the risk of overuse injury and to maximize the adaptations that take place. The table below provides a sample 12-week training program that rotates between 4-week blocks of muscular endurance (first 4-weeks) and muscular strength (second 8 weeks). The 4-week blocks are broken down into 3 weeks of full training volume + 1 week of reduced training volume in order to promote adequate recovery between training blocks. The rotation between muscular endurance and muscular strength provides regular and systematic variation in training volume and intensity (i.e., periodization) while also primarily emphasizing (i.e., 8 of the 12 weeks) improvements in movement economy through a focus on muscular strength.
Note: Although strength training that targets improvements in muscular power has been shown to be beneficial for endurance athletes, it is not included in this sample program as there are many considerations to take into account when deciding whether or not to perform plyometric-based and power-based exercises. There are many athletes that shouldn’t perform these types of exercises or that should perform modified versions of these exercises due to pre-existing or current injuries, a lack of strength training experience, or an insufficient strength development foundation.
If you are completely new to strength training and would like to implement it into your training plan, I would highly suggest working with a knowledgable coach in order to make sure that you are performing strength training exercises properly and in order to avoid injuring yourself. Additionally, always consult with your physician prior to adding a new training modality into your routine in order to make note of potential contraindications to performing strength training.
The sample program below is designed to be very general in nature and not specific to any particular sport or individual. It includes a focus on all major muscle groups of the body and I have included some basic strength training exercises to choose from in the “exercise bank”, but if you are unfamiliar with how to perform these exercises, as I mentioned previously, working with a knowledgable coach may be important. However, you can also find many of these exercises with descriptions and visuals on the following website: https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/exercise-by-bodypart/.
Perform strength training 2x/week in order to see improvements and 1x/week in order to maintain. During your off-season or lower endurance training volume blocks, 2x/week is acceptable. During heavy endurance training blocks or recovery weeks/taper weeks, 1x/week is acceptable. This 12-week program can be cycled through over and over again with the intent of progressing in the amount of weight you are using as well as progressing in the types of exercises you choose (e.g., building from a squat to a single-leg squat).
Baechle, T. R. and Earle, R. W. (Eds.). (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 3rd Edition. Human kinetics.
Bazyler, C. D., Abbott, H. A., Bellon, C. R., Taber, C. B., & Stone, M. H. (2015). Strength training for endurance athletes: theory to practice. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 37(2), 1-12.