Strength Training for Endurance Athletes By Matt Foreman
There’s a lot of discussion about whether strength training is valuable for endurance athletes. It’s not a new topic, by the way. Endurance athletes and coaches have debated this for years. If an athlete wants to be successful in Ironman, 70.3, duathlon, cycling, or any other long-distance athletics…is strength training important? Does it have any benefit? Are there any potential risks or hazards that could go along with it?
We know some of the concerns about it. If endurance athletes start hitting the weight room, they’ll put on muscle mass. Then they’ll have to drag that extra mass around a race course for several hours, which will kill their performance. Sure, it’s an understandable worry. This is the mentality that’s caused many endurance people to adopt a “no way, never” attitude towards strength training. There are some high-level coaches in the triathlon world who simply don’t incorporate it at all with their athletes.
But should we dismiss the whole possibility of strength training because of this worry? Is there any chance that it might NOT destroy an endurance athlete’s performance? Could it actually provide some benefit and lead to faster race times?
One of the first things we have to understand in this discussion is the idea that not every endurance athlete is in the same situation. Some are professionals who are trying to produce 8-hour Ironman times so they can win at Kona and make a ton of money. Others are older age group athletes who are doing this just for fun and fulfillment. And then there are dozens of other types of athletes in between those two points.
So…because we understand that not everybody is in the same competitive bracket in endurance sport, wouldn’t it be logical to understand not everybody is going to fall under the same set of training rules? Can we establish the idea that the training programs for 9-hour professionals in their 20s might be different from 12-hour age groupers in their 40s and 50s (or older)? Can we also accept the fact that athletes’ bodies are highly individual, and some people might need different things in their training because of physical needs that are specific to them?
Of course we can. Anybody with a decent level of common sense and experience can tell you this. Training rules and guidelines don’t always apply equally to everybody. Age changes things. Busy life schedules change things. Injuries change things. This means we have to be willing to think outside the box when it comes to training programs. And that should lead us to the idea that strength training could potentially be a valuable possibility for some endurance athletes, if it gets done right.
We’ve got elite triathlon coaches in the business who basically disregard weight room strength training for their athletes. They’re coaching pros who are trying to win at the highest levels, so their training is almost entirely swim/bike/run. Personally, I agree with this mentality. If you were coaching an Olympic weightlifter who was trying to lift 500 lbs and win a gold medal, you wouldn’t waste their training efforts on endurance workouts. It would be counterproductive. The same idea goes back in the other direction. If a professional triathlete is trying to win at Kona, they need a “tunnel vision” approach to their training, meaning complete focus on the competitive skills of their sport. Plus, I’d be inclined to agree with the training methods of proven coaches who have produced success at the highest levels.
However, we need to go back to the idea that most endurance athletes aren’t professionals in their 20s or early 30s. Most of you are in a different place, which opens up the door to different thinking and different training approaches.
Let’s take a look at what I’ve seen while working with two athletes who incorporated strength training into their endurance sport lives. My experiences with these two yielded some predictable outcomes and conclusions.
Case #1: Jen is a female athlete in her late early 30s. She was a CrossFitter at first, which is a blend of strength sports and cardio-related disciplines. Then she spent some time as a competitive Olympic weightlifter with some CrossFit training still incorporated, along with running for fun. Finally, she decided to become a full-time amateur triathlete. Throughout her time in triathlon, she has continued to do strength training twice a week with me.
Strength programming in triathlon- She has continued to do the same strength lifts and movements she was doing when she was a competitive lifter (snatch, clean and jerk, back squat). Marilyn is her triathlon coach, and she felt it would be helpful for Jen as an athlete to continue with this kind of lifting. Plus, Jen loves lifting weights, so it’s good for her mentally.
Reduction in intensity- This is where the major changes have taken place. We felt it would be okay for her to continue with her weightlifting training…but only if the intensity was lowered quite a bit. The simplest way to put it is this: she could be a triathlete and still do weightlifting, but the weights she worked with in training would have to be significantly reduced. In Jen’s case, the heaviest weights she handles in her weightlifting workouts now are around 70% of her old max lifts, at the most. And she only works with these 70% weights during specific training periods when there are no races coming up soon. As races get closer, the weights continue to taper down, leading to an eventual elimination of weight room workouts right before the race.
Predicable results- Unsurprisingly, she has experienced a significant strength decrease since becoming a triathlete. This was an understood part of the process that we were all okay with from the beginning. If a strength athlete transitions to endurance sport, the athlete’s strength level is going to drop. The amount of drop will depend on the individual. In her case, it’s been around a 30% decrease during non-race preparation times.
Impact on triathlon results- Jen’s race results have improved steadily in the initial stages of her triathlon training. She started with sprint and Olympic distance races, and she finished her first 70.3 with a time of 5:42 in the amateur 30-34 category after one year of training. Strength training does not seem to be causing any hindrances in her endurance sports.
Case #2: Marilyn is a female athlete in her mid-late 30s. She was a professional endurance athlete who had retired and converted to CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting. After a couple of years in these sports, she transitioned to competitive powerlifting for a year before eventually making the decision to return to endurance sports (cycling and triathlon). She continues to do
weight training twice a week as part of her program.
Strength programming in triathlon- Marilyn no longer does many of the competitive lifts in training, unlike Jen. However, this is due to the need to work around the injuries she’s sustained from a lifetime of hard activity in various sports. To keep her as healthy as possible, we’ve had to narrow down her list of weight training exercises quite a bit. Her strength was at a much higher level than Jen during her time as a competitive lifter, so the corresponding reductions in her weight training workouts have had to be more significant. Her lifting routine is mainly back squats, straight-leg deadlifts for posterior chain strength, and simple bodybuilding exercises for her upper body (dumbbell presses, lat machine pulls, etc.).
Reduction in intensity- As with Jen, there has been a significant reduction in lifting intensity. During her time as a powerlifter, Marilyn squatted a one-rep max weight of 225 lbs. Now, her squat workouts consist of multiple sets of 5-8 reps with weights in the 125-155 lb range, depending on how her legs feel. So her top working range is around 70% of her old maximum, although she does this weight for multiple reps. These weights are challenging for her, but not exceptionally difficult. I would estimate her strength drop-off is very similar to Jen’s, possibly a little less.
Predictable results- Once again, the expected strength decline has happened, and the percentage has been fairly consistent with our first case (around 30%). Marilyn came to me with a much longer sports background, resulting in more pre-existing bodily wear-and-tear. The need to curtail her weight training regimen to work around injuries has been higher than Jen’s, although she has still been able to sustain an impressive lifting level despite the re-introduction of several weekly hours of endurance training.
Impact on triathlon results- Marilyn’s return to endurance sport has followed several years of almost no swim/bike/run training. When she first started back, she was doing simple 30-minute runs and 2-3 hour bikes rides, at the most. Now, after several months of training, she has built back up to 18-mile running workouts and 105-mile bike rides. She has continued to do strength training throughout this entire process with minimal injury trouble.
What can we conclude from these examples?
Can we definitively say their strength training is making them better triathletes? No, not really. But is strength training stopping them from making progress as triathletes? No, it isn’t. Would they be faster if they dropped strength training altogether? Maybe, maybe not. That part of the discussion is a bit of a guessing game. You could guess that strength training is holding them back, and you could just as easily guess that it’s contributing to making them better.
Have either of them experienced muscle mass increases that hindered their triathlon training? No, they haven’t. Has it been easier for them to keep strength workouts in their training because they already had previous experience with it? Yes, definitely. Prior experience clearly helps, but it’s not a deal-breaker if you don’t have it.
Part of this discussion is the need for people to live healthier, more physically complete lives as they get older. There’s research all over the place proving that strength training contributes to better bone density, stronger connective tissue, and improved posture. These are things people need as they age. And guess what? They can also be very valuable tools for an endurance athlete!
Jen and Marilyn are different athletes with different needs. That’s why they have different strength training programs. The main point we want to establish is that they’re both using strength training to make themselves better endurance athletes. There’s plenty of information in the discussion to indicate that it’s not holding them back and, quite possibly, helping them. Who knows? Maybe there are some strength exercises out there that would add a missing component to your own training regimen, leading to a healthier body and, possibly, faster race times. An open mind is the bottom line here.