The Benefits of Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete

Wednesday, Coach Mike posted on the SAPT blog discussing the downfalls of early sport specialization (Read it here).  He made a lot of great points.  This insistence on specialization can thrash your body and the coaches at SAPT see the effects on our athletes every day.

As much as we’d like to encourage participation in a broad range of sports and activities, sometimes that just isn’t possible.  This is often the case with the college athlete, or the adult looking to maintain their health.  Time constraints make the transition to endurance sport seem natural for the latter.  The adult knows the # killer of both men and women in the US is heart disease, and they know that cardiovascular activity is the best medicine there is.  They wind up running 5Ks with their families, and maaaybe the occasional 10k.  They end up joining a cycling club, or a masters swim team.  In these instances, it’s important for the athlete to maintain a proper strength-training program and not forget about the multitude of benefits that accompany frequenting the weight room.

Endurance athletes (distance swimmers, runners, triathletes, cyclists) are a group who tend to over-specialize.  The common misconception in the endurance world is that strength training will be completely detrimental to performance, but consider the effects of hours and hours of repetitive cardiovascular activity week in and week out? For example, let’s look at someone who runs 5x/week, with an average between 20-50 miles a week.  That’s a lot of running.  That’s a

lot of sagittal plane (think straight forward) movement. That’s a lot of time spent utilizing a partial range of motion at the hips, knees, and ankles; demanding repeated high velocity eccentric braking of the quads and calves and maintaining a slight forward lean. In addition, modern society has evolved so that many of us are stuck working desk jobs huddled in front of computers, and books, and television, driving this shoulders-forward kyphotic caveman-like posture further. On top of that, think about what happens when you throw in a couple hours a week cycling.  We wind up with incredibly tight quads and hip flexors, weak hamstrings and glutes, a nasty anterior pelvic tilt and an upper body stuck in kyphosis.  These imbalances need to be accounted for, and this is what makes the weight room such an asset for the endurance athlete.

By programming a walking Single Leg RDL, we select an exercise that targets the weak posterior chain (glutes & hammys) of our endurance athlete.  We’re training the muscles through a large range of motion and preparing them to adequately handle the stress of their training.  Progress the exercise by using a load (ex: dumbbells in both hands) and it becomes much more difficult to keep a neutral spine throughout the motion.  We can take it a step further and offset the load.  Use the Single Leg Single Arm RDL variation and the athlete is being pulled into rotation and they must resist.  Not only will these exercises target muscles groups that may be neglected during our athlete’s sport training, but also the fact that they’re performed on one leg at a time adds another dimension of sport-specificity.  Check out videos of the exercises below.


It’s clear that strength training can provide major benefits when it comes to decreasing our risk of injury, but are those the only benefits available to the endurance athlete?  Absolutely not.  What about power production?  Running is essentially a ballistic sport, where you launch yourself from foot to foot. It’s imperative for marathoners to master the ability to decelerate their body weight during the initial phase of the foot-strike and then quickly accelerate and propel themselves forward.  To do so requires the ability to properly absorb force and redirect it.  We can teach and develop these skills in the weight room, first by teaching jumping and landing mechanics (single and double leg), then layering on a variety of reactive hops, and finally depth jumps for more advanced athletes.  This is obviously a simplistic approach, but the point is clear.  Not only will this method help our athletes increase their power production and decrease the energy needed to perform their activity, but their bodies will be better equipped to handle the stresses of endurance training and will hold up much stronger in the long run.

Hopefully by now it’s evident to you how important it is to maintain a proper concurrent strength-training program, especially if you're an endurance athlete. The benefits are vast and the carryover to your performance and longevity as an athlete will be evident.  These advantages are not reserved for the youth, or for athletes who play team sports.  They can be tremendously effective for endurance athletes as well, and frankly, you’re not reaching your full potential as an athlete without a comprehensive strength and conditioning program.