Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Wattie Ink triathlete Rachel McBride shares her thoughts on weight training, and how it can improve results for an endurance athlete:

Strength training

The question of strength training in endurance sports has always been a big one – why should I do it? how much should I do? when is the best time to do it?, what are the most efficient exercises I can do? should I be lifting high rep, low weight or low rep, high weight? Is it even worth doing at all?!

I will not claim to be an expert in strength training for endurance athletes or have all of these answers. I think there are many ways to approach the strength question, but the bottom line is I do believe there is a huge benefit to doing sport-specific strength work, both in season and off.

In the past to be honest, I have done very little strength training, aside from some half-hearted, off-season attempts. I have never considered it a priority for me. In recent years though, I saw the success of some cyclists on a heavy weight, low rep deadlift/squat program. I began to understand how beneficial strength training could really be.

It just seems common sense to be building strength in sport-specific movements. The athlete will go into the subsequent race season stronger than ever. It’s unavoidable that long course athletes will lose some of this muscle when training volume ramps up into and through race season. So the more muscle you start with, the better off you will be to stay strong and healthy. I think this is one of the key arguments for the importance of strength training for endurance athletes.

Squats and deadlifts are perfect for targeting major muscle groups – quads, glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings – muscles pretty important in cycling and running! Lifting 5 or less reps per set with 85% or more of max weight is very efficient to build strength as well as force core stabilization. You can’t lift heavy if you don’t have a solid core.

Strength training

One thing that is important to keep in mind though is technique, particularly in deadlift. Any more than 5 reps or increasing weight too much too soon, and there is a high risk of form suffering significantly and causing injury. I have learned this the hard way! Last winter I became overly zealous (imagine that! Ha ha), increased my weights too quickly and ended up with a pretty severe QL strain that took me out of training and into my physio for several weeks. Oops.

Doing these exercises without some idea of proper technique or designing your own program without significant knowledge or guidance is not recommended. You can also work in some complementary upper body work with pull-ups and chin-ups during squat days and bench press and shoulder press with dumbbells on deadlift days. Fitting in as little as 2 solid strength workouts per week for 8-10 weeks can be sufficient to improve strength. It’s important to treat these sessions as high intensity workouts that require similar recovery to say a big track or interval workout and refrain from doing much more than a short recovery workout on the same day.

I recognize the high weight, low rep approach does go against the grain of historical strength training for endurance athletes, but there has been some recent evidence that this can be beneficial. I’m not going to get all science-geek on y’all, so if you’re really interested – some of this research is reviewed on Alex Hutchinson’s Sweat Science blog.

However for athletes who are injury prone or deal with chronic injury, a more personalized approach might be a better recommendation. This fall/winter has been very new for me, recognizing I have some special issues with my body that might need some really personalized attention. With 3 metatarsal stress fractures in the 5 years I have been a full time long course athlete, I’m determined to nip this issue in the bud!

In the past few months, I have thrown everything I can think of towards figuring out how to make my body the most stable, healthy and strong to be the best athlete I can. My first step was to get a whole whack-load of perspectives on what might be happening within my body. My injury nemesis seems to be running, so I included 4 different expert-driven run gait analyses:

Strength training

  1. Optogait analysis with pedorthist Adam Janke (Paris Orthotics, Vancouver, BC)
  2. 3D run analysis with Christopher MacLean (Fortius Sport and Health, Burnaby, BC)
  3. Analysis with gait specialist Jay Dicharry (Rebound Physio, Bend, OR)
  4. Video analysis with physiotherapist Julian Cooper (Allan McGavin Sport Medicine, Vancouver, BC)

With each assessment, I was able to get a multifaceted picture of how my body was moving and what improvements could be made to get faster and stronger and most importantly decrease the risk of foot fracture. Each analysis reinforced the other and also provided additional unique insight.

So I took all this data to University of British Columbia Varsity Strength and Conditioning head coach Joe McCullum who graciously agreed to take me on and build me back from the ground up, as he has done with countless other athletes of all levels.

My program has been incredibly personalized, working one-on-one with Joe to make sure I am performing movements with proper form. The first step was a few weeks of performing simple movements with little to no weight. That means proper firing, timing and tracking through the entire body chain from the ground up. It’s a pretty humbling moment to think you are this big strong tiger and then to see a video of yourself wobbling all over the place just trying to do really basic movements.

The next phase was starting to add some weight into these movements and building into more lightly weighted stability actions. A lot of the work I’m doing involves stabilizing lateral shifting while performing asymmetrically weighted movements, such as a split-stance land mine squat stand and press - making sure that foot, knee, hip and torso track straight and stable.

Strength training

The ultimate goal is to get back to a more traditional deadlift/squat lifting regime, but in the context of not adding strength to dysfunction. Makes sense, right? Right.

Strength training

Is strength training beneficial in season? Absolutely. Is it going to be possible for every triathlete to fit it into their already busy swim/bike/run/work/family/etc. schedule? Maybe not. As a full time athlete, I have the luxury being able to incorporate strength work into my weekly training schedule. In recent years we’ve seen several success stories of pro endurance athletes training in the gym even days before Kona (e.g. the work of Jay Dicharry with Linsey Corbin). Joe and I plan to incorporate regular strength training sessions into the race season. What that is actually going to look like, I’ll find out when we get there! The bottom line is that I feel incredibly confident I am doing the very best to fine tune myself as an athlete and return to competition stronger than ever.

Strength is just one piece of the training program. There are tonnes of strength training plans out there for endurance athletes and ultimately it is up to you to decide what best works with your body, goals and fitness levels. We all lead busy lives - get the biggest bang for your buck. It’s no use spending hours in the gym doing inefficient workouts or exercises. I encourage you to do your homework, ask the experts and get lifting!