Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Why it’s important what to look for in a good program

Strength Training is rapidly growing in the field of endurance sports and we know why! There are many benefits to incorporating a well-planned strength and conditioning program into your training including: 

  1. Improved neuromuscular qualities 
  2. Improved economy
  3. Reduced injury occurrence
  4. Improved performance

A recent study that was conducted throughout Australian and New Zealand Universities aimed to investigate the effect of a 12 week moderate and a 12 week heavy strength program on cycling economy and running economy in long distance triathletes. The study involved twenty five long distance triathletes over a 26 week progressive strength training program. Athletes completed 12 weeks of  progressive moderate strength training (8-10 repetitions, 3-4 sets and <75% of 1 repetition maximum (RM)), a 2 week recover period, and a further 12 weeks of  progressive heavy load programs (1-6 repetitions, 3-5 sets and .85% of 1RM). All participants completed a validated simulation triathlon test at baseline (wk 0), week 14 and week 26. Energy cost of running, running economy and cycling economy were collected during the tests.

The results…

A 12 week moderate strength program can significantly improve cycling economy in long distance triathletes, however does not appear to improve running economy. In contrast 12 weeks of heavy strength training significantly improves running economy in long distance triathletes, however did not further improve cycling economy. In summary, a progressive strength training program moving from moderate to heavy loads may be required to improve both cycling and run performance in long distance triathletes.

With an array of strength and conditioning programs out there to follow, how do you know what you should be and shouldn’t be doing?

Ideally you want a program that is periodised, not just random sessions of the latest fad. A periodised program focusses on progressive phases of training in relation to your A races and generally works on an annual plan. A more specific periodised program should meet your need as an individual athlete including; muscular imbalances and biomechanical inefficiencies, improved muscular condition, specific sports development, and one that continues to maintain and improve on your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, and neuromuscular qualities throughout an annual training cycle.

Endurance athletes generally already have a pretty busy schedule, a strength training program needs to take this into consideration and be structured into your already existing busy training plan without effecting your primary training first, running, swimming and biking. Strength training should complement your program not hinder it, therefore it’s important to know what type of training to do, how much, how hard, how long, and how often. 

Common mistakes athletes make implementing a strength and conditioning program include:

  • Incorrect loading – too heavy too soon based on training age, not heavy enough
  • Incorrect form and technique – trying complex power movements with poor posture and improper technique
  • Incorrect planning and placement in programming – no periodised planning, no de-loading, hindering key training running/triathlon sets and performance 
  • Over training – No consideration of de-loading and taper aligned with key races
  • Not complimented with a stretching/recovery session
  • Incorrect choice of exercises
  • No consistent measure of determining the training load (Rate of Perceived Exertion)
  • No consistency with their strength training

To avoid these mistakes you must take the following basic training principles into account when designing and choosing a program:

  • Progressive Overload – a continual and gradual increase in work load
  • Specificity – adaptions will occur that are specific to the training
  • Variety – the need to have variety in the program to avoid boredom
  • Individualisation – tailoring the training to suit the individual athlete
  • Recovery/adaption – training + rest = the training effect
  • Reversibility – if you don’t use it you will lose it

(ASCA Level 1 S&C coach Accreditation, module 2)

Along with the broad training variables including;

  • F – frequency – how often?
  • I – intensity – how hard?
  • T – type – what type of training?
  • V- volume – how much?
  • D – duration – how long?

These broad variables are impacted by acute variables such as sets, reps, rest periods, exercise choice and difficulty etc. 

(ASCA Level 1 S&C coach Accreditation, module 2)

In addition to this a holistic program will focus on the key elements of Mobility, Flexibility, Movement Patterns and Strength.

  • Mobility – the ability to move fluidly through a movement or skill without physical hindrance 
  • Flexibility – the Range of Motion (ROM)
  • Movement Patterns – fundamental primal movement patterns and sports specific drills
  • Strength – progressive overload of a muscle or chain of muscles to increase strength eg isometric loading or functional training

Endurance training and racing places a large amount of stress on the body. It’s important the body is structurally sound and strong to be able to handle loads. Just like a training plan for racing, a strength and conditioning program needs to come from an athlete centred approach and be specific to the individuals needs as to not overtrain the athlete both physically and psychologically, it is best applied in a 12mth periodised program that’s well-planned and flexible.

Careful consideration must be practiced when programming for long distance triathletes. To ensure significant and worthwhile changes in running economy are achieved from strength training implementation, programming must include heavy loads. However, moderate strength training loads maybe sufficient to significantly improve cycling efficiency in long distance triathletes. With any program it is important to progress into these loads over time to prevent injury.

If in doubt always consult a professional strength and conditioning coach prior to commencing training.

Happy lifting

By Amber Heaft

Amber is a ASCA Strength and Conditioning level 1 coach and a Certified Personal Trainer


Australian Strength and Conditioning Resources and Publications

Moderate VS Heavy strength training: what is best for long distance triathlon performance? Kate M Baldwin-Luckin, C. Badenhorst, A.Cripps, R.Merrells, M.Bulsara & G. Hoyne, School of Health Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Australia, School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition, College of Health, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand, Institue for Health Research, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Australia.

ASCA Level 1 S&C coach Accreditation, module 2

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