Strength Training for Endurance Sports

Strength training for endurance sports has not been spared a lot of the ‘myths and legends’ that surround gyms worldwide. All your questions answered here.

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It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.

-J. D. Salinger

This article comes so late in the Functional series for a reason. You MUST have very good functional movement/technique, full range of motion and sufficient mobility and body control otherwise you will be adding strength to dysfunction and in the end hurt yourself, not if but when – in short you are limiting your progress. Unfortunately, strength training/gym work, is where almost everybody starts when they ‘want to get serious.’  Therefore, I highly advise you to head over to Fit, Fast, but Are you Functional before continuing with the article below.

The above quote by J.D. Salinger is unfortunately quite valid when it comes to strength training for endurance sports or strength training and gym work in general. Training advice varies from anecdotal to contradictory to plain dangerous. The same questions crop up all the time, with endless repetition of ‘wisdom and personal experience.’

Should you lift heavy until exhaustion or use light weights as fast as you can with no rest? Why choose one over the other? What is strength? What is power? (I have a power meter on my bike so it must be a power sport!). “Just go to the gym and find something to do, anything is better than nothing!” Marathoners don’t need strength, just endurance, but my training partner is an Ironman triathlete and he lifts weights and beats everybody etc., etc. If you asked yourself why on any of these questions, the following article is for you. If you did not, that this article is definitely for you.

Sadly, and I have been a victim to that myself, most strength training approaches follow two paradigms:

  1. If it was good for him/her, it must be good for me. I call that the banging of square pegs in round holes.
  2. If some is good – more is better!

Combine the two and you get rocket fuel – uncontrolled explosion or in simpler terms overtraining and (debilitating) injury, most importantly dissatisfaction with (or worse quitting)  the amazing world of (competitive) sports.

The problem with the above principles is that they completely ignore what you, your body, or your sport/activity needs. A distance runner and a 100m sprinter come to mind – same activity, different demands – 10s all out vs. hours of resisting fatigue.

So what are the needs of your particular sport?

Elements of It All

Fundamental Sport Abilities

Almost all physical activities, including sports, incorporate elements of force , quickness, duration. In simple terms – strength, speed, and endurance. Any of those three that requires a higher contribution is said to be a dominant ability. A good number of sports require mastery and peak performance in two abilities.


Strength_Training_for_endurance_sports_Compound Abilities

Strength + Endurance = Muscular endurance or the ability to perform many repetitions against resistance for long periods of time (turning a big gear on the bike, overcoming water drag when swimming and resisting gravity when running.) Therefore strength is important for endurance (dominant) sports and events. I get into the why (physiology) of it in the coming paragraphs

Strength + Speed = Power or the ability to perform an explosive movement in the shortest time possible (fastball in baseball, javelin throw, etc.)

Speed + Endurance = Speed endurance or the ability to repeat a high velocity action several times per game (cutting in basketball, soccer, ice hockey etc.)

At this point is where a lot of the confusion comes in and the banging of square pegs into round holes galore begins, even in some ‘respected cycling books.’ For example, the fact that you have power meters in cycling does NOT make it a power (dominant) sport and that pure endurance (dominant) sports would not benefit from strength training. Yes you might need to sprint occasionally in a bike race, however, it does not come remotely close to Usain Bolt’s olympic 100m sprint winning effort. You are still in the extreme corner of the triangle, and trying to get to the ‘sprinter’s region’ is useful only if you plan on hanging up your bike for good and putting on a pair of running cleats.


In the graph below are some examples of where various sports fall into. ALL EVENTS lasting longer than 6min, fall into the extreme right corner.



When it comes to cycling here are some disciplines with their specific needs.
  • Track, 200 meters: Acceleration power, reactive power
  • 4,000-meter pursuit: M-E medium, acceleration power
  • Road racing/TT: M-E long

So me (the endurance athlete), do I need, to do strength training or not?

Short answer is yes. Long answer is let me explain….

How Did the Confusion Start?

When it comes to strength training, a lot of it has been (wrongly) influenced by five schools of thought

Bodybuilding: When you think the gym and/or strength training/lifting weights you imagine Arnold Scharzenegger and the like. Every poster and gym oriented magazine is more or less entirely influenced by bodybuilding. Size and appearance (NOT functionality) are the name of the game. Speed and strength are not a focus at all. The bodybuilding method employs 6-12 reps to exhaustion resulting in increase in muscle mass (hypertrophy). Besides sports like american football, increase in muscle mass is rarely beneficial. In addition as exercises are performed to fatigue the rate of muscle contractions are 4-6 times SLOWER than in any athletic ability. Slow is rarely a positive attribute in any sport.

High-intensity training (HIT): All year (season) long with 20-30min per session until positive failure (you can’t lift the weight without the help of a spotter).  Adherents to that school of thought stand firmly behind “harder and faster every session,” with disregard to the competition schedule and the need for peak performance. This is extremely stressful and relies predominantly on burning glucose (why you crave sweets afterwards…), rather than fat, so it is overall detrimental to health and endurance performance (more details in my carbohydrate article). HIT is very taxing for your body, add to that a job, family, not sleeping correctly and it can contribute to overtarining significantly. In addition, if you have any technical deficiencies aka dysfunctions this is the absolutely best way to hurt yourself…badly. Rates of injuries in Crossfit are in the 75% figures – absolutely insane and that must stop!

Olympic weight lifting: Clean and jerk, power clean and snatch are the moves that encompass olympic weight lifting. In my opinion the technique (learned with a broomstick or light barbell) to do those type of lifts is extremely important since it teaches you to use your bodyweight against resistance, organize your spine, generate torque, etc. HOWEVER, unless you are training for a competition that involves those specific movements, they are of NO USE to you, zero, none, zilch. Why? Olympic lifts rarely, if at all work the muscles the way they are used in (most sport) activities. Unfortunately this method is a direct victim to the “if some is good, more is better” and coaches keep putting them in schedules left, right and center.

Olympic Weightlifting

Power training throughout the year: While this does not apply to endurance sports, it deserves a mention. A lot of track and field coaches train power year long using plyometrics (medicine balls, etc; remember fast+strong=power). Athletes will improve, however, as discussed above strength is a component of power and as such spending a period to improve maximum strength will have a very positive improvement on power. And that brings me to…

Periodization of Strength: Strength training for your particular sport must meet the physiological demands (10s all out vs 4+h steady pace) and should ultimately result into the development of either power OR muscular endurance (look at the triangle). Sounds logical though as you have seen above, it is rarely the preferred method. This is an extremely successful approach develped by [amazon text=Tudor Bompa&asin=1450469434].

So how heavy and how often should I be lifting?

Muscle Contractions and You

As mentioned in the muscle imbalance article, it all starts with your brain or your central nervous system (CNS). Each muscle is innervated by two types of neurons – motor (responsible for movement) and sensory (relaying signals of pain and position).

Muscle fibers vary in length (couple of inches to 3ft/1m). Fibers grouped together form a fascicule that are held together by the perimysium. In tern, each fiber is made of myofibrils that contain the moving units – sarcomeres. Each sarcomere contains thick filaments (myosin – purple) and thin ones (actin – green) that form crosslink and slide towards each other when a contraction occurs. Please see the pictures below.

Three factors determine how strong a muscle can contract – fiber count, fiber length and fiber thickness. There is not much you can do about your fiber count – you are born with it. Through training you can increase the fiber thickness. Fiber length – the most optimum contraction occurs when the most number of cross bridges can happen in the sarcomere. Coincidentally that is at the resting length of the muscle. HOWEVER, as discussed in the muscle imbalance article, if a muscle is partly contracted or ‘tight,’ it is more readily activated and the contractile force is reduced. Same goes when a muscle is stretched – actin filaments (green) are too far from the myosin (purple) for a significant number of cross bridges to occur. This is yet another strike against static stretching!

Motor units

Muscle fibers and motor neurons form to combine a motor unit. One neuron can connect to one or more fibers. When an impulse comes either ALL fibers contract or none – all or none law. Low load/light weight results in the recruitment of some motor units.  As the weight increase more motor units are recruited. Therefore the first takeaway point is:

To exercise the whole muscle heavy or maximal weight must be used when every motor unit is engaged.

As you probably know muscle fibers are grouped into slow twitch (ST/endurance fibers – weaker but fatigue resistant) and fast twitch (FT/sprint fibers – strong and fatiguing). Anatomically the difference between the two is in the innervation. A slow twitch fiber has 10-180 fibers that are connected to a single motor neuron while a FT one has 300-500+ fibers. You see now why it is through heavy/maximal load NOT to fatigue you train your FT fibers. As soon as the FT fibers are tired, you will switch to using the small motor units of the ST fibers.

Maximum strength = the highest force that can be performed by the neuromuscular system during a maximal contraction.

If you ever observed how good (track cycling) sprinters train; warmup and couple of max efforts and than they go home – 10-20min total, you wonder how can they call themselves athletes!? Now you see why.

In the context of endurance events, when you have ‘activated all motor units’, the body has ‘reserves’ to call upon as noted above strength+endurance = muscular endurance. Even for non athletes, having that “neuromuscular awareness,” is very important. Another point I want to make here is that untrained subjects have 56% (!!!) of fast twitch fibers. A lot of research has been done and conversion between ST and FT fibers can occur, though the mechanisms are still unclear. Therefore genetics is no excuse or a legitimate reason to pick one activity over another.

Now before you go and load up the weights at the gym there are some additional important points that need addressing.

Creating a Strength Training Plan

Strength is at the top of the abilities triangle for a reason. It is a crucial component in muscular endurance and power. It is by developing strength that you can supplement and improve your endurance (ability to not fatigue under load). In the words of the father of strength training periodization – [amazon text=Tudor Bompa&asin=1450469434] strength training should follow the specific needs for the sport or in technical terms – anatomical adaptation (learning correct movement, etc), followed by maximum strength phase, conversion to muscular endurance phase and off season (transition). Or in simple terms:

How to periodize?

Cycling and other endurance dominant events as the name suggest rely on the ability to resists fatigue over long periods of time (>4min), therefore this is the absolutely most significant ability – or the capacity to burn body fat for energy rather than glucose (glycogen). Therefore developing a healthy fat burning ability (your ST fibers) should be always at the top; also known as building an aerobic base.


Unlike their much stronger FT brethren, ST fibers are endowed with better circulation, etc., and as such are indispensable for removing metabolic waste etc, that the FT have trouble getting rid off on their own. In addition ST muscles are the ones that stabilise the spine and joints in order for a powerful movemnt to occur.

Equally as important, you need to learn (what it is) to be functional. There is a reason this article appears so late in the Functional series. I highly advise you to read part 1 and part 2. Otherwise you will be adding strength to dysfunction which is never good; nobody wants to be in pain and injured.

Respect your bodyweight. You don’t need a highly sophisticated and fully equipped gym to maximally challenge your muscles. You can do that by doing bodyweight exercises and/or using couple of dumbbells/kettlebells. If you can’t squat with good form, butt to ankles, with just your body weight, you are not ready to do a barbell squat – period. Body weight strength exercises and progressions are coming in the end of this series in the following weeks.

It takes time. Strength training is not just for your muscles; the structure that supports you – bones, joints, tendons, etc. needs to adapt as well. You must start with correct movements.

As mentioned above and I cannot stress this enough – to gain strength you must be doing (close to) maximal efforts NOT to fatigue. That quite often means very short sessions.

As you develop a solid aerobic (fat burning base) you will progress towards anaerobic activities/racing which would take care of the conversion of your trained strength – to power and/or muscular endurance. For those of you who don’t race doing some short all out efforts when fresh/rested would do the trick.


Strength training or gym work is an area of sports that is filled with the greatest amount of controversial and quite often harmful ‘conventional wisdom.’ For one reason or another bodybuilding has become synonymous with strength, unfortunately that major influence has done most athletes greater harm than good. Most importantly it has added a lot of confusion on what it takes to optimise general fitness and athletic performance.  Confusion further fuels more confusion. You can’t just take a succesful program, “tweak” it a bit and hope that it will work just as well, if at all. Tweak is not the same as understand and it happens quite often. With this article I hope to have helped you head on your way to understanding what and why and how to do strength training. As a closing comment, a quote by [amazon text=Michael Boyle&asin=1931046018] has stuck with me:

When you train those who make their living from sport, you assume a responsibility. You must now improve another while not hurting his or her earning potential. When you train someone’s children you assume an even greater responsibility. You hope to make better athletes and better people.

-Michael Boyle

I can only add here that when you are training yourself, you should be aiming towards the functional goal that will make you fit for the needs of your activity/sport – even if that activity is life.

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This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.

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Find Out More

A lot of the information in this article is based on the great work of the the father of periodization – Tudor Bompa, grab yourself a copy

[amazon text=Periodization Training for Sports&asin=1450469434] – Tudor Bompa

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1450469434]

[amazon text=Serious Strength Training&asin=1450422446] – Tudor Bompa

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1450422446]

[amazon text=Advances in Functional Training&asin=1931046018] – Michael Boyle

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1931046018]


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  • All images are copyright to their respective owners; unless otherwise noted I do not own any of them.
  • Olympic weightlifting: Wikimedia commons
  • Muscle fiber images: Source
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