Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
If you are not currently participating in a consistent strength training regime, you are leaving serious gains on the table. Not only does regular strength training provide a host of benefits to the general population, including improved muscular strength and endurance, motor function, healthy body composition, insulin response, decreased risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and all-cause mortality, but strength training is an essential for running performance. Whether you are an elite-level sprinter, a weathered marathon competitor, or a beginner 5km runner, a well-designed strength training programme can directly impact your running through a number of factors.
The research on strength training improving endurance performance is unanimous. Studies involving elite runners, cyclists, rowers, cross-country skiers . . . all show significant improvements in time trial performances, time to exhaustion, economy of movement (efficiency), power output and speed (1,2,3,4). Lets first address efficiency first. Strength training improves the size and stiffness of tissues, including muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones (what else is there?), allowing a greater transfer of force throughout the body and to the external environment (1). Efficiency is also enhanced through several neural mechanisms, as the body becomes better at firing and recruiting the neurons responsible for controlling muscular action (1,2,3,4). This includes greater rate of force development, neural firing, synchronicity, down-regulation of inhibitors . . . essentially an improved ability for your central and peripheral nervous system to activate and control your muscles. In addition, these factors directly contribute to a runner’s ability to hold and move through proper running positions, similar to how we focus on running mechanics drills such as A Skips (5). If the Tannenbaum 10k were equivalent to pushing a weighted sled across a field, would you rather have a limp rope to push with or a steel rod? Strength training will turn your limp rope to a steel rod, and shave seconds if not minutes off your 10k time. Secondly, and obviously, strength training improves an athlete’s maximal force output, a.k.a. strength, which is inextricably linked to both speed and power. This is more obviously beneficial to sprinters, as a greater power output allows athletes to cover more distance per stride, carrying them to their finish line faster. However this is a highly beneficial adaptation for endurance runners as well (4). Not only will an increase in stride length improve a marathoner’s endurance performance, it will improve the relative ease at which the athlete can sustain submaximal speeds (1,3,). When incorporating regular strength training, you are increasing your body’s ability to produce force, and therefore decreasing the relative effort to sustain the same pace. Furthermore, the same relative effort sustains a higher running pace (4). This means that after consistently strength training in addition to your runs, bikes, swims, you will be able to sustain a faster pace with the same level of effort!
Now, lets move on to practical applications of this information! Firstly, I want to share my favourite part of the research, because commonly athletes are already burdened with many workouts. Consistently research shows that athletes can reduce their typical training volume by approximately 15-20% and replace those sessions with strength (2). In these studies athletes who reduced training hours to include strength workouts performed better than athletes who neglected strength training to log more endurance hours. Let's remember that more is not better, better is better! The research indicates optimal practice is x2-3 strength sessions each week, spaced out on non-consecutive days, and each lasting 45 minutes in duration. For example, on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday spread focus on strengthening the full body in 5-7 exercises. In terms of exercises, it’s easier to break down daily movement into 7 key fundamental movement patterns, and include an exercise for each one. These movements are:
Squat (ex: goblet squat, front squat, back squat, Zercher squat)
Hinge (ex: RDL, deadlift, good morning, pull throughs)
Lunge (ex: split squat, reverse lunge, lateral lunge)
Push (Push-ups, incline dumbbell press, overhead dumbbell press)
Pull (dumbbell rows, barbell bent over rows, seated cable rows, pull-ups)
Rotate (wood chops, windmills, Pallof presses)
Carry / Gait (farmers walks, sled pushes, running)
Of course within each of these categories is a vast variety of options, but here are some basic strength exercises that cover majority of the bases and are proven to improve your performance.
Sample Workout 1
A1 Goblet Squat
One of the most basic and effective squat patterns, the goblet squat strengthens the legs together with the upper back and core musculature. It is also an excellent tool to improve mobility, and counteracts much of the negative positions reinforced by our seated lifestyle.
Dumbbell held 1-2 inches from chest, shoulders pulled together and upper back remains tight.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed forward and feet angled no more than 15° outward.
Maintaining upright posture, descend in a controlled manner with the knees tracking over the outsides of the feet.
Pause at the bottom briefly, ensure that weight is evenly distributed over your entire foot, and drive back up.
A2 Single-Leg Dumbbell RDL
Single leg exercises are an essential component for runners. Consider that running takes place entirely on one leg, and never are both legs on the ground simultaneously. Therefore it is paramount to train strength in conjunction with the balance and coordination required by single-leg exercises. If you do not feel sufficient with the bilateral Dumbbell RDL, then continue to master that before moving to the more advanced single leg version here.
Dumbbell is held in the contralateral hand, and descends down close to the leg, pausing at mid-shin level.
Chin should stay tucked to the chest throughout the movement.
The stance-leg’s hip pulls back to initiate the movement, and is responsible for contracting and pulling the body back upright.
When hinging, extensors and core muscles are always tight to maintain a straight spine.
A3 Pronated-grip Inverted Rows
Inverted rows integrate much of the body's musculature together, making it an excellent exercise for training back and arm musculature in conjunction with the glutes and abdominals. This is important for both posture and arm drive while running.
Ensure glutes and core are firing to create a sturdy trunk throughout the exercise (hips stay tall).
Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back, and driving your elbows to pull your lower chest to the bar.
Pause with your chest at the bar to ensure your shoulder blades are retracted and back muscles are firing, then lower back down in a controlled manner until arms are once again straight.
Studies suggest pushups are a superior alternative to bench press, as it allows freedom of movement for the shoulder blades as well as an increased recruitment of core and leg musculature. Training the chest, shoulders, and arms in this way improve arm drive while running.
Hands should be placed shoulder width apart with the chest over top.
Similar to inverted rows, brace glutes and core muscles to maintain a sturdy body throughout the exercise.
Descend down slowly with elbows remaining over top of your hands, upper arm at approximately 45° angle from your body (not flared, not tucked).
Pause at the bottom of the rep, hands level with your lower chest, and drive back up to the top.
Sample Workout 2
A1 Dumbbell RDL
One of the most basic and effective hinge patterns, the dumbbell RDL focuses on strengthening muscles of the posterior chain, which includes the hamstrings, glutes, and low back extensors. The posterior chain helps maintain proper running posture, as well as provides significant power to our stride.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed forward and feet angled no more than 15° outward.
Standing tall with your chin tucked toward your chest, brace stomach and extensor muscles to create a brace around your core.
With a soft bend in the knees, initiate the movement by hinging at the hips and reaching your butt as if to touch a wall behind you.
Pause at the bottom briefly, ensure that weight is evenly distributed over your entire foot, and drive back up using your posterior chain.
A2 Dumbbell Reverse lunge
Once again, single-leg exercises are essential for running performance. Reverse lunges train the body to exert force with the reduced stability of a unilateral stance, specific to running. Key Features:
Begin standing tall and feet close together, pointed forward.
With weight evenly distributed on the front foot, step back with the opposite leg and descend until back knee is 1 inch from the ground.
Using the front leg, drive back up and return to standing tall. A slight forward lean from the torso throughout the lunge is acceptable.
Ensure the front knee remains in proper alignment with the front foot; the knee should track over the lateral edge of the foot.
A3 Supinated-grip Pull-ups
Pull-ups are an excellent exercise to train arm and back muscles together, while simultaneously deloading the spine which is beneficial for lumbar health. For running, this exercise improves posture and arm drive.
Beginning in a full hang from the bar first, initiate the movement by pulling the shoulder blades down the back towards the feet.
Maintaining this position drive the elbows to the hips and pull your chest to the bar. Pause here.
Lower back down to a full hang in a controlled manner until arms are straight.
A4 Incline Dumbbell press
Similar to the pushup, this trains the upper body to drive the arms with more force to match a powerful running stride. By increasing the angle of the press, a greater proportion of shoulder musculature is involved.
Lying on a bench set to 30°-45°, strongly drive feet onto the ground and back of the head into the bench for a sturdy base.
Control the dumbbells down towards armpits, allowing a natural external rotation of the arms.
Drive the arms pack up, keeping elbows under the hands and upper arms at approximately a 45° angle from the body (not flared, not tucked).
Alternate these circuits on non-consecutive days for your strength training. Complete 3-5 rounds (taking sufficient rest between exercises) of 6-12 reps per exercise. Weights should be heavy enough to be challenging while allowing you to complete each rep with perfect form. Reap the benefits!
1. 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 and Conditioning Journal, 37(2), p.1-12. 2. Vorup, J., Tybirk, J., Gunnarsson, T. P., Ravnholt, T., Dalsgaard, S., & Bangsbo, J. (2016). Effect of speed endurance and strength training on performance, running economy and muscular adaptations in endurance-trained runners. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 11(7), p. 1331-1341. 3. Sedano, S., Marin, P. J., Caudrado, G., & Redondo, J. C. (2013). Concurrent training in elite male runners: The influence of strength versus muscular endurance training on performance outcomes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(9), p. 2433-2443. 4. Beattie, K., Kenny, I. C., Lyons, M., & Carson, B. P. (2014). The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Medicine, 44, p.845-866. 5. Moore, I. S. (2016). Is there an economical running technique? A review of modifiable biomechanical factors affectiong running economy. Sports Medicine, 46(6), p.793-807.