Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete

Runners run, cyclists cycle and swimmers swim. For the most part that’s just how it is: endurance athletes sticking close to their sport of choice, with very few venturing into the forbidden realm of strength training. In fact, if you talk to many athletes and avid exercisers, the two forms of training appear to be totally mutually exclusive.

New scientific findings, however, paint a very different picture. Many experts even point to strength training as a reliable way for endurance athletes, especially runners, to greatly reduce their risk of injury.

The Arguments For

Of course, your musculoskeletal system is deeply involved in everything you do, even when you hardly notice it.

A quick look at the human knee, for example, shows a complicated system of muscles used, not only to move your leg, but also to support the movement. If any of those muscles are weak, it places more stress of the others to compensate.

This effect grows when you widen your lens and look at the body as whole. There are muscles that act as shock-absorbers, muscles that keep you steady and, obviously, those that move you forward. All of these need to be strong enough to meet the demands of your sport and keep you injury-free.

While you could make the argument that running builds the muscles needed for running, that’s only true to a point. Any endurance activity builds endurance. In order to build a more solid support system, strength needs to be developed.

Designing Your Program

To be most effective, your strength training program needs to be tailored to your sport. Although balance training would be vitally important to a runner, it doesn’t mean as much to a swimmer or even a cyclist. Swimmers would likely also want to put more emphasis on their upper-body than runners or cyclists would.

Consider the unique challenges of your sport, then, when deciding on which exercises to include in your program.

Since the goal here is to reduce the risk of injury rather than to cause injury, it’s best to start light on the resistance and work your way up. Body weight training is a perfect modality for endurance athletes since it isolates certain muscle groups, requiring them to bear nothing but the weight you use doing your endurance training. Eventually, additional weight could be added to increase the difficulty of a given exercise.

To keep your progress steady, without interfering with your endurance training, dedicate one day to your strength training each week. If you really have to scratch the cardio itch, you can still do a light cardio cool-down for 10 minutes at the end of your workout.

An example workout, aimed toward a runner, might look something like this:

  1. One-legged Squats – 3 sets of 15 on each leg
  2. Back Lunges – 3 sets of 15 on each leg
  3. Push Up on an uneven surface – 3 sets of 10
    • Place your hands on a pillow or balance plate
    • Modify the movement to make it easier, if you need to, by kneeling
  4. Plank – 30 seconds

Rest for 90 seconds after each set before moving on to the next.


DOs and DON’Ts of Cardio

The many benefits of cardiovascular training are well recognized and understood. But despite the simple appearance of this mode of exercise, there are several common mistakes that people make in their cardio routines that can cause injury or prevent proper recovery. There are also many techniques that could help you enjoy your workout more and provide faster results that you may not have yet put into practice.

DO Eat Before

A myth has crept into the exercise realm that you can lose more weight by exercising without eating beforehand. There is no science to back up this claim. In fact, a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism directly contradicted this assertion. The findings suggest that a light meal with little-to-no fat will cause you to actually burn more calories for up to 24 hours following your workout.

DON’T Perform the Same Workout Everyday

It’s a fairly well known fact that your workout should vary from day to day. Too often, though, this does not translate to cardio and people commonly practice the same form of cardiovascular exercise every day. This can lead to muscular imbalances and overuse injuries, ultimately being counterproductive. If you’re a runner, for example, consider mixing biking, swimming and other cardio activities into your schedule.

DO Be Choosey About Your Equipment

Not all cardiovascular equipment is created equal. Equipment that is poorly made could not only limit the effectiveness of your workouts, it could also increase your risk of injury. If your favorite form of cardio is running, it’s worth investing in the best treadmills for running. The best equipment also allows you to vary your workout with a variety of adjustable speed and incline levels.

DON’T Skip Your Warm-up

Exercisers are often pressed for time and habitually cut their workouts short. One of the first things to go is usually the warm-up, but skipping your warm-up could both decrease your performance and lead to injury. A brief warm-up, between five and 10 minutes, increases the temperature and blood flow to muscles and connective tissue, preparing them for the demands of your workout.

DO Set Appropriate Goals

Unrealistic goals can leave you discouraged and feeling as though you’re wasting your time. Although cardiovascular exercise targets the heart and lungs, several other biological systems contribute to your overall performance. Hormone levels, illness, medications, joint injuries and even mood can all affect your workout either positively or negatively. For this reason, it’s important to set goals based on your individual capabilities. Consult with a fitness or medical professional for help in setting goals that are achievable but still challenging for you.

By avoiding some of these DON’Ts and incorporating these DOs, you’re bound to enjoy exercise more and see faster results.

Have you identified any mistakes you were making with your fitness routine? How did you remedy them? What gets you excited to work out?