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.


Running vs. Cycling, Does One Offer Greater Benefits?

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: Does riding my stationary bike for one hour at a medium level have the same cardio benefits as jogging for four miles at 12-minute miles?  ~ Natalie

 A: Yes and no.  Cycling offers the same benefits as running in that it improves your cardiovascular system. More specifically, your heart strengthens and is able to pump more blood at a lower heart rate as it gets stronger with exercise.

Along with that, as your fitness improves, your body is able to deliver larger quantities of oxygen to the muscles. This is the case for all forms of cardiovascular exercise, which is great because you can mix up your modes and keep things fresh and motivating. If you were looking at the standpoint of overall cardiovascular fitness, both are excellent choices.

Where they differ is in the movement. Cycling is a great form of exercise because it is low impact and isolates your lower body, which makes it an effective activity for those that are starting an exercise routine or suffer from muscle or joint pain. On the other hand, running uses every muscle in your body, making it a total body exercise, which can mean burning more calories per session.

It gets a little tricky when you start comparing paces on both activities. For instance, a 12-minute pace on a “feel good” day could be in the easy to moderate zone of effort, while another day it could be at a hard effort. Pace isn’t the best way to compare the two activities, but your effort level is.

When comparing the two, it’s easier to do so by the effort level versus comparing your running pace (12 minute miles) against your cycling effort (moderate). Instead, compare a moderate running effort to a moderate cycling effort.

The general rule of thumb is there is a 1:3 run-to-bike ratio, meaning one mile of running at a moderate effort equals three miles of cycling at that same effort level.  Cycling 12 miles is the equivalent of running four miles, with both effort levels being the same in a very general sense for cardiovascular fitness.

In the end, cycling miles are cycling miles and running miles are running miles.  They both offer great benefits and each offers unique benefits for fitness and well being.

Do you have a question for Coach Jenny? Submit your question here.

Exercise Recommendations for Cancer Survivors

Getting back to exercise may be the last thing on your mind after cancer treatment — but it may be the best thing for you.

Once, the common view was that patients in recovery should rest and avoid activity. Not anymore. The American Cancer Society recently released new guidelines that recommend both good nutrition and exercise for survivors to reduce the chance of recurrence and increase the chance for disease-free survival.

While this certainly sounds like a good idea, it can be a scary prospect for those who suffer from fatigue, depression or a loss of confidence from cancer surgery or treatment.

I know that after my breast cancer surgery, even walking on crowded streets or into a busy store was frightening, as I worried about getting bumped or jostled where my stitches were. But I did miss my fitness routine.

As soon as my doctor gave me permission to exercise, I headed to a “Renewal” water exercise class for breast cancer patients at the JCC in Manhattan as a way to ease back into moving again. The welcoming warm water and calming exercises left me feeling more comfortable in my body, and helped me heal physically, mentally and emotionally. Soon I was back to my old exercise habits— but five years later, I still attend these weekly classes.

The women there serve as a nurturing support group for me. We all chat about our medications, the occasional health scare and just life in general as survivors. It’s also a time of the week when I get to just “slow down to the speed of life,” as my teacher Teri says. I relax and let the water embrace me, while getting a workout, too.

For some people, cancer can actually kickstart some new habits, especially if they never exercised or focused on diet much before. As always, talk with your doctor about any changes you plan to make in your eating and exercising habits to keep excess weight off. Studies of several different cancers have found that being overweight after completing treatment was associated with shorter survival times and higher risk of cancer recurrence.

The best way for those not used to working out to start a healthy fitness program is to check out the gentle yoga or stretching classes many hospitals or cancer centers offer their patients. This is a good way to ensure that you are active safely and effectively, and get exercises specifically tailored to any new limitations you might have. For example, breast cancer patients may want to do certain exercises to strengthen their arms and reduce their chances of getting lymphedema.

If you don’t feel like leaving home just yet, check out the recommended exercises on the American Cancer Society website. There are numerous free specialty videos on YouTube, and there are also DVDs for sale, like those at or

If your energy levels are not up to what they once were, do not fear. Start slow and hopefully with time you will be able to do more and more. Set small, realistic goals so you will feel positive about your accomplishments. Every short walk you take and weight you lift will help improve muscle strength and balance, improve your general well being and help you thrive as a survivor.

The bottom line: get up and go!

What did you do to get back into a healthy routine after cancer surgery or treatment? What keeps you motivated? Let us know in the comments.