Why Every Endurance Athlete Needs to Strength Train

By Amber Thome

strength-for-endurance-amber-friends-wedding5k-327x341Whether you’re a recreationally competitive runner, triathlete, or cyclist, or participate in adventure races and 5Ks just for the fun of it, you may be missing a crucial component of your training plan: strength training.

It’s no surprise that many endurance athletes don’t strength train. After all, many follow-along endurance training programs solely address running or cycling, and don’t schedule in the proper complementary work such as strength training, mobility work, and active recovery. What’s more, since endurance sports are cardiovascular in nature, and require that you have a solid aerobic base to perform well throughout the distance of the event, it is true that the majority of your training program should involve performing that specific activity (running, swimming, cycling, etc.).

However, that doesn’t mean that all of your training should be centered around that endurance activity.

After all, not performing strength training increases the risk of exercise injury and sacrifices optimal endurance exercise performance.

Strength training is an integral part of any well-rounded endurance training plan.

Benefits of Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Why is strength training necessary even in endurance athletes? For starters, endurance activities are repetitive in nature. During running, cycling, and swimming events, the same movements occur over and over, potentially contributing to overuse injuries. Strength training helps to combat those injuries related to repetitive movement by keeping the joints in proper alignment, preventing muscular imbalances, and maintaining proper technique of endurance activities. Specifically, a well-rounded strength training program helps keep the knees, ankles, feet, hips, and core (abdominals, back, and pelvic floor) functioning properly throughout the duration of the endurance activity.

strength-for-endurance-amber-triathlon-450x388Pelvic floor health is especially important, but we rarely talk about it in relation to endurance sports. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see marathoners lose control of their bladder and wet themselves at the end of a grueling race. This is a literal leak in their kinetic chain and something that a proper training program can address and help to prevent.

Certainly not every athlete suffers from pelvic floor dysfunction. However, losing control of the pelvic floor indicates that a system in the body with a specific function is breaking down. The same goes for other issues that are common among runners such as low back, hip, or knee pain, which all can be indicators of pelvic floor dysfunction. The muscles of the body function to allow us to move and should be able to contract and relax fully in proper coordination. So, if you’re experiencing hip, low back, knee pain, pain in the buttocks, or in the pubis symphisis, you may benefit from visiting a physical therapist to help you understand how best to address these issues. Advisory Board member and women’s health physical therapist Ann Wendel provides more information and suggestions for resolving pelvic floor dysfunction in this article.

In training endurance athletes, I have found that muscular imbalances and mobility issues are common among runners. They often suffer from IT Band and hamstring issues, lack ankle mobility, and have very tight hip flexors. As mentioned above, it may be best for you to meet with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer to develop a strength training program that helps resolve these issues and helps you perform your best.

strength-for-endurance-cyclist-327x341One very common strength imbalance among runners and cyclists in particular that can be addressed through proper strength training occurs between the muscles of the quadriceps and those of the posterior chain (lower back, glutes, and hamstrings). Often, while their endurance training routinely works and strengthens the quads, the glutes and hamstrings do not receive the attention they need, thereby contributing to poor biomechanics and possible injury. Including posterior chain-dominant strength training exercises into their program can greatly reduce their susceptibility to injury. As an added bonus, it can also help improve speed and race performance.

All of the endurance athletes I’ve worked with have felt better running, were able to maintain good running technique for longer distances, improved their economy, and performed better in races as a result of including strength training in their program.

The Importance of Mindset and Training Cycles

strength-for-endurance-amber-writing-program-327x341Many endurance athletes participate in their favorite activities year-round. If you’ve ever gone long stretches of time without mixing up your activity, you may have experienced burnout and/or lack of motivation to continue with the same activity. It may be important for you to consider cycling your training based on different times of year, for example your competition season training may look very different than your off-season training. Varying your training routine throughout the year can prevent burnout due to focusing primarily on one activity, help you feel great while you perform different activities, and enjoy all aspects of your training year-round.

When training for endurance events, it’s incredibly important to listen to your body and to adjust your plan accordingly. If you’re following an endurance training plan, make sure you adjust the number of endurance and strength training sessions you complete each week based on your schedule, current training level, and how you feel. If you find that you aren’t motivated to get in your scheduled run, bike, swim, or lift, consider reducing your intensity for that workout, taking an additional rest day, going for a leisurely walk, or doing some foam rolling, flexibility, and mobility work instead.

With any type of physical training, it is important to learn how to modify your training based on how your body feels and performs.

Strength training provides another means for you to understand your body’s needs. This can help you monitor your performance in your endurance activity of choice as well as in the gym and in life.

How to Include Strength Training in Your Endurance Training Plan

1. Perform 2-3 Strength Workouts Per Week

Generally speaking, most recreational endurance athletes will benefit from doing full-body strength training workouts two to three times per week throughout the year.

2. Adjust Your Strength Workouts Based on Competition

An athlete’s competition/race schedule, the number of events they’ll participate in, and the distance of the races they’ll complete will all impact their training schedule leading up to a race. If an athlete is training to complete a local 5K on a Saturday morning and is mostly concerned with getting through the distance without a goal time in mind, she may consider continuing to perform one or two strength training workouts during the first half of the week before the race. This type of athlete may also drop the weight/resistance they use during their workouts that week as well. I’ve found that sticking to a lower intensity version of a “typical” training week works well for many athletes. This allows athletes to keep a regular training schedule and to move through various ranges of motion to stay loose and feel great for their event.

3. Taper Your Strength Workouts, Too

If an athlete is tapering for something like an Olympic or longer-distance triathlon, half or full marathon, their taper in training for both endurance activity and strength training will likely be a bit longer than for shorter races like a 5K. These athletes might start with two to three strength training workouts per week early in their training, and then drop to one or two strength training workouts as they get closer to an event. Again, I prefer that they perform at least one lower-intensity strength training session earlier in the week of the race to keep them feeling great.

4. Switch Up Your Routine in the Off-Season

The “off-season” for a recreational endurance athlete is the significant stretch of time between races, and varies a lot from person to person. During this part of the year, it would still be beneficial for athletes to do two to three strength training workouts per week, but to also include activities they enjoy or those they can participate in as the weather and seasons change. The off-season also allows an athlete to adjust their intensity, volume, and duration of their endurance training and other activities.

The off-season is also a great time to try different strength training exercises, equipment, and routines. This time of year offers opportunities to change the focus of your strength training program. During the competition season, your strength-training program should focus on maintaining your strength to allow you to stay injury and pain free while performing your best in your endurance activity. In the off-season, you might shoot for improving your max strength on larger lifts like the deadlift, squat, or bench press, for example.

Start Strengthening!

At Girls Gone Strong, we want you to absolutely enjoy the activities you participate in. That said, making sure you are following a well-rounded comprehensive training program (that includes strength training!) is what can truly take your performance to the next level.

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About the author:  Amber Thome

Amber Leonard-Thome is a coach, curriculum developer, and contributor for GGS. Since 2008, she has held multiple positions in the fitness industry as a personal trainer, wellness and nutrition coach, a university lecturer, and managed a fitness and sports performance facility. Amber holds a M.S. in Kinesiology, a B.S. in Exercise Science, and is an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and is Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified.

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