Strength Training for Endurance Athletes


Myth #1: Strength training makes you gain weight.

Truth: The only way to gain weight is to consume more calories than you burn. While eating a maintenance diet, strength training can increase strength by improving recruitment and firing rate of motor units, without an increase in muscle size.

Myth #2: Strength training makes you inflexible.

Truth: Anything short of becoming the next Mr. Olympia will have no negative effect on your flexibility. In fact, strength training through a full range of motion can actually increase flexibility![1]


If you are an endurance athlete – specifically a runner – chances are you are either currently training for your next event, or rehabilitating a recent injury. If we were to play the odds, you are more likely to be in the latter category. Research shows that up to 56% of runners will experience an injury in any given year that will keep them out of training for a period of time. Of these injuries, up to 75% are due to overuse[2] – in other word, no contact. This is an alarming number, as non-traumatic injuries are almost entirely preventable.

A key to preventing overuse injuries is to implement a well-balanced, well-thought out training regimen that includes strength, endurance, and mobility/stability training. Of these three, strength training tends to be the one that gets left on the back burner for most endurance athletes. Many of these athletes devote 5-7 days a week to training for their event, which leaves them little time for strength training. Others fear that strength training will leave them heavy, tight, and slow. Combine these factors with a “9 to 5” desk job and you have a recipe for ITB strains, plantar fasciitis, and any of your other favorite overuse injuries. However, following a strength and conditioning program that addresses all three of these qualities, endurance athletes can expect to see a reduced chance of injury as well as an increase in their performance.    

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The first – and most important – reason to begin a strength training program is to prevent overuse injuries. Athletes that are injured cannot compete – It seems like an easy concept, yet athletes from all sport arenas fail to take the necessary steps in their training to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing an injury in competition. By adding resistance training, endurance athletes can strengthen the muscles, tendons, and bones of their bodies leaving them less susceptible to common overuse injuries such as stress fractures and tendonitis.

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Another risk factor for many runners is their large strength discrepancy between their anterior and posterior leg musculature. Because running is primarily a hip flexion and knee extension activity, with minimal hamstring and glute involvement, muscles of the anterior thigh and hip tend to become overused. This creates strength, but with this tends to follow tightness/over-activity, postural misalignments, and injury. To combat this, a runner’s strength training program should focus heavily on hamstring, glute, and core development.

On top of the injury prevention benefits of strength training, endurance athletes can expect to see an increase in their performance as well. On the surface, there may not be much correlation between squatting a heavy barbell and running 26.2 miles, but when taking an over-simplistic look at the running stride it is merely a repetitive single-leg squat – improve the squat, improve the stride. By increasing strength, endurance athletes can improve their endurance without improving their VO2 max.[3] This improvement can be attributed to an increase in the economy of the movement. To exemplify this, image two 180 pounds athletes. One athlete can maximally squat 200 pounds, while the other can maximally squat 300 pounds. If both of these athletes were to squat a 200 pound barbell, one would be completely smoked and fatigued, while the other would not break a sweat. Which of these athletes do you think will fatigue first in a race?

Another means to improve movement economy is to increase the control of the body’s “core.” The body’s core is generally considered the musculature of the body that connects the torso to its extremities – essentially everything, but the arms and legs. When producing movement, the muscles of the legs and arms pull on the torso to create force. Without stability through the core, these muscle contractions do not produce the same level of force they would if there was no movement throughout the torso. Image towing a car with a bungee cord – even though force is being applied to the bungee cord, little to no force is reaching the object you are trying to move. Now, picture a body with a stable core. When the muscles of the legs contract and pull on the pelvis almost all of this energy is applied to the ground, propelling the body forward.

Core training is especially relevant to runners because of the potential to receive “free” energy through the stretch shortening cycle. The stretch shortening cycle is a mechanism of the body that relieves primarily on the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons to receive, store, and use energy placed on the body similar to a spring. When in flight, the body is pulled towards the ground by gravity. When the body’s foot strikes the ground, force is transferred from the ground up through the body. With a stable core, the energy of this force can be stored in the muscles and used as free energy for the next powerful stride. An athlete that does not possess the necessary core stability will lose much of this energy and be forced to exert himself/herself much harder to create a similar powerful stride. The result of this poor running economy is an athlete that fatigues quickly and eventually loses to the athlete with greater core control. 



How to strength train:

#1 Lift Heavy – Lifting heavy is relative to the training age of the athlete, but experienced athletes should aim to keep their core lifts (eg. squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.) under 5 reps and their accessory exercises (eg. lunge, step-up, incline press, etc.) under 10. These rep ranges are ideal to increase recruitment and firing rate of the muscle’s motor units. Lifting with too light of loads will not stress the body enough to elicit these adaptations. 

#2 Lift Explosively – The ground contact time for average runners is between 0.16-0.3 seconds.[4] In this time; the athlete must decelerate the body from the force of the previous stride, bring it to an instantaneous stop, and generate an explosive muscle contraction to propel the body forward into the next stride – all within a fraction of a second.

The dynamic nature of these movements requires that their training mimics their explosiveness. Adding in a plyometric program is a great way for runners to learn to absorb, store, and produce larger amounts of force. When doing these exercises, it is important to keep sets short with ample recovery time to keep the quality of movement high. Generally, sets should last less than 10 seconds with 2-5 minutes rest in between.  

#3 Lift Often – Endurance athletes should aim to strength train a minimum of 2x/week. These sessions should be short and sweet lasting only 30-45 minutes. The focus of these sessions should be multi-joint exercises (eg squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.) with minimal time spent on isolated movements (eg. tricep extension, bicep curl, hamstring curl, etc.).

During the off-season, athletes can and should increase their strength training to 3-4x/week. During this time, they can also increase their workout duration to 45-60 minutes to allow for extra sets to improve their strength and to rehab any chronic injuries.


How to get started:

The first step you should take is to stop into Drees Performance Training for a complimentary movement assessment. The goal of this 60-90 minute assessment is to spot muscular imbalances resulting from poor mobility and/or stability in the body. Once these imbalances are identified, we can build a training program tailored towards your specific needs ensuring peak performance and minimal off-time due to injury.

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[1] Morton Sk, Et al. Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. J Strength Cond Res. 25(12) (2011). 3391-8. Pub. Med. 30 July 2014.
[2] Van Mechelen W. Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature. Sports Med. 14(5) (1992). 320-35. Pub. Med. 30 July 2014.
[3] Hickson, R.C., et al. Potential for strength and endurance training to amplifly endurance performance. Journal of Applied Physiology. 65 (1988) 2285-2290. APS Journals. 2 August 2014.
[4] Garmin. Ground Contact. Garmin. 2014. 3 August 2014.