From the Gym to the Road

Strength training for the endurance athlete


Real Men Run, Too!

Not too many years ago, the idea of an endurance athlete like a cyclist, triathlete, or runner hitting the weights was almost unheard of. Why, everyone knows that weight training will make you big, bulky, and slow, right? Well, believe it or not, endurance athletes are lifting weights to improve performance. Want to know which ones? It's easy to tell: the ones with the medals hanging around their necks and mantles full of trophies.

Still, if you're a regular Testosterone reader, you may be wondering what an article designed for endurance athletes is doing on your hardcore bodybuilding and strength training publication. A strange as it may seem, many endurance athletes read bodybuilding magazines in an effort to get a performance edge. And yeah, they probably look at the monthly Thong-athon spreads as well, just like you do.

Unfortunately, many of the principles of bodybuilding and powerlifting aren't always appropriate for endurance athletes. Similarly, many of the strength training principles purported by endurance coaches are less than optimal for performance enhancement. The purpose of this article will be to address some of the misconceptions held by endurance athletes with regard to strength training. I'll also recommend a systematic approach to strength training that will enable the athlete to maximize performance improvements.

Now before we have an Androsol-drenched mob inundating T-mag with vicious e-mails chastising the editors and myself for posting such a bubble gum piece of detritus, understand, endurance athletes can be just as maniacal about their lifting as the typical musclehead. It should be noted that this article is written from one perspective: performance enhancement in endurance sport through strength training.

If you're a triathlete, for example, and want to look like the Oak, you're out of luck. As I've always said, strength training and endurance training aren't entirely, mutually exclusive, but neither can be trained optimally at the same time. Further, performance is separate from aesthetics. If you're really competitive, winning is more important than looking good. Looking good may last a lifetime, but glory is forever.

Alternatively, if you're a longtime bodybuilder who wants to try some endurance sports, you'll have to accept the fact that you're going to lose some mass as a result of the endurance training. So, if you adhere to the recommendations that follow, you aren't going to stun any judges at the Olympia, but you will become stronger, faster, and maybe a little more muscular. That being said, let's get on with it.

Myths, Misconceptions, and Ignorant Coaches

Strength training is an activity that has historically been ignored by endurance athletes and their coaches. In recent years though, these individuals have increasingly utilized weightlifting (or other methods of strength training) in the off season, in an effort to increase their power production and endurance in the following year.

Although many endurance athletes have resorted to some sort of strength training regimen, there's an abundance of ignorance with regard to principles and concepts that would enable these athletes to gain maximum benefit from their hard work. I'd like to start by addressing some misconceptions and dispelling some myths, which endurance coaches often bestow upon their trainees.

Myth #1: Don't use heavy weights because you'll bulk up too much.

There's a million wannabe bodybuilders out there who only wish that statement were true! Heavy weights are essential at certain times during any strength-training program. A similarly ridiculous statement would be to tell someone not to do sprints because they might become too fast! True, if your training routine was composed entirely of lifting heavy weights, you might put on some bulky muscle mass.

Let's face it, the vast majority of the time endurance athletes spend training would be considered aerobic activity, and this will offset the "bulking up" traditionally associated with weightlifting. By only doing light to moderate weights for high repetitions, you'll essentially remove the stimulus that increases strength. This isn't a recommendation that novice weightlifters run out and start lifting inordinately large weights for a single rep, but "heavy weights" are often appropriate within the context of a properly designed program.

Myth #2: Don't rest between sets because you want to get a cardio workout as well.

Optimum strength improvements are derived by doing sets that last no longer than 60 to 90 seconds with corresponding rests intervals that are two to three times as long as the set. Although strength and endurance aren't mutually exclusive, each is trained most effectively separate from the other.

This means that as long as you're doing some type of endurance exercise three or four times a week, keep the cardio training out of the weight room! You wouldn't expect a strength athlete to strap 45-pound plates to his feet when he goes for the occasional run, so why should endurance athletes try to keep their heart rates up in the gym? Similarly, if you're doing sprints on the bike or running, keep the 3:1 rest to work ratio and don't do any endurance training on sprint days.

Myth #3: Train with weights every other day to maintain the training stimulus.

The only reason for an endurance athlete to do strength work more than two times each week is if he's splitting body parts, i.e. working upper body and legs on separate days. You're not a bodybuilder, and it's therefore not necessary to do very specific body-part workouts. It is necessary to do strenuous no, severe workouts. Recovery from severe strength training takes at least two days. Further, heavy endurance training will cut into your recovery. It's therefore undesirable to strength train more than two times per week if your primary focus is on endurance sports.

Myth #4: You should lift more weight every time you train.

In strength training, as in endurance sports, the principle of periodization applies. A similar concept in cycling or running terms would be analogous to increasing mileage every time you worked out. By the time July rolled around most of us would be riding 500 miles per day and 1000 miles a day in October. Programmed increases and decreases in weight at appropriate intervals are the hallmark of a well-designed, periodized strength training program. This approach will minimize the plateau effect and maximize performance improvements within the limited time frame that's emphasized.

Myth #5: Once you find aprogram that works for you stick with it.

Actually, once you find a program that works for you, it's probably time to get another program! Rather, I should say, once you've adapted to a particular approach, change your approach. Once again, I'm talking about periodization. You can probably recall when you first started lifting (or came back from a prolonged layoff) and you made rapid strength gains for a couple of weeks. After a short time, the gains likely slowed or plateaued. This is a result of adaptation. The human body adapts rapidly to stimulus, and after adaptation has occurred further progress is slow. For this reason strength programs should be periodized and include variety in order to maximize strength gains.

I've mentioned periodization several times in this discussion. If you're not familiar with the concepts you really need to pick up one of the references I list at the end of this article. It's beyond the scope of this article for me to elaborate on the principles, but an optimal strength-training program needs to be incorporated into a larger plan.

The sample strength-training regimen outlined below is based on a periodized plan with phases that are analogous to the overall plan. Strength training won't be a primary focus during the competitive season, but it should be in the off season. This is optimally achieved by synchronizing the strength plan with the overall plan. Okay, enough about that; let's get to the program.

The Program

The following program outlines the various phases associated with the off season strength training program. The dates given are based on a competitive season beginning in the spring, peaking in June or July and ending in August or September. If your season doesn't correspond to this timeline, simply adjust the dates accordingly. For example, if you're a cross country skier with a season beginning in late fall, peaking in January or February and ending in March, you'd simply shift the dates approximately six months.

The first period in the program will be the Base Phase. This phase is analogous to the base phase in endurance sport. You're building a fitness/strength foundation while your body becomes accustomed to weight training exercises. The emphasis during this phase isn't on high intensity workouts. The body needs to become accustomed to the new demands being placed on it. In all honesty, during this phase you'll become stronger no matter what you do. There'll be a tendency to want to progress too fast as your strength will grow quickly, but remember, patience is a virtue.

An important note: In the first weeks of a weightlifting program, it's extremely important to be cautious and not use too much weight. Because certain muscles may be very well trained (e.g. the quadriceps in cycling), other support muscles may not be as strong. It's very easy to strain or pull a muscle in the first few lifting sessions; therefore, make an effort to use weights that may seem light. This will allow the less trained muscles to adjust and prepare for the more strenuous workouts to come. After two weeks of allowing your muscles to become accustomed to the new workload, you can let the Testosterone rip.

Base Phase — September 1 to October 1
Begin 1 set 10 reps low weight
End 3 sets 10 reps moderate weight

The first two times you go to the gym, you should do one set per exercise and go home. The weight should feel ridiculously light, almost embarrassingly so. If 70-year old women laugh at you, you're doing it right. This is to ensure the less well-trained accessory muscles aren't injured and are allowed to adapt. Also, if you haven't been lifting over the season, even this small amount of work will make your muscles sore. By lifting light weights for one set, you reduce the amount of initial injury and associated recovery time.

If you do a full three-set workout with heavy weights to failure, you could be sore for up to a week, which would substantially reduce your ability to train and progress. After the first week you can increase to two sets of 10. By the third week, progress to three sets of 10. By the end of the second week you should have a feel for the weight you can lift 10 times. I don't like my athletes doing one rep maxes, especially if they aren't accustomed to lifting. Once you've established your 10-rep max, use that as the starting point for the rest of your lifting.

Build Phase — October 1 to December 1
Begin 3 sets 10 reps moderate weight
End 3 sets 8 reps moderate to heavy weight

The Build Phase continues progress from the Base Phase while beginning to provide "severe" stimulus to adapted muscles. During this phase you should really strive to push the sets to failure. If you're doing the recommended sets and reps without failing, increase the weight. Although the heading above states moderate weight, this is relative to the entire program. So, for 10 reps you'll lift a moderately heavy weight compared to the heavy weight you'll lift for six reps at the end of the program.

By the end of the Build Phase you should be accustomed to the weights and confident with your strength. In order to continue to build strength, increase weight while decreasing the number of reps performed. This means that at the end of the second week of the phase, you were able to complete three sets of 9 reps at a given weight. You still increase the weight for the third week and do 8 reps.

Overload Phase — December 1 to January 15
Begin 3 sets 8 reps moderate to heavy weight
End 5 sets 6 reps heavy weight

By the time you've reached the Overload Phase, you'll have incrementally built your strength to the point where you can lift relatively heavy weight for relatively low reps. When I say relative, I'm mean relative to most endurance programs. You'll have effectively removed the neuromuscular governor that prevents many individuals from lifting heavy weights.

By producing these forces for approximately 30 to 40 seconds, you'll be developing maximal explosive anaerobic capacity. This capacity will also be of use during the competitive season by increasing your work capacity both at the anaerobic threshold (AT) and above it.

Start the phase with two weeks of 3 x 8, then two weeks of 4 x 6, and finally two weeks of 5 x 6. Although you're increasing the number of sets, the amount of time per exercise is kept relatively constant due to the reduced reps. For example, for a 3 x 8 block, the muscles are under tension for approximately 150 seconds. At 4 x 6 the time under tension is 144 seconds and for 5 x 6 it's 180 seconds. You don't need to drop below six reps because, remember, you're not a powerlifter.

Intensity Phase — January 15 to February 15
Begin 5 sets 6 reps heavy weight
End 3 sets 6 reps heavy weight

The objective of the Intensity Phase of the program is to continue to derive strength benefits from the Overload Phase by reducing volume and keeping the weights heavy and reps low. Also, you're preparing to make the transition to more sport specific workouts.

Transition Phase — February 15 to March or April
Begin 2 sets 8 reps moderate weight
End 1 set 8 reps moderate weight

The final phase is the Transition Phase. At this point in the year you should begin to do more endurance workouts and simultaneously reduce the strength work to a minimum. This will enable you to continue to make strength gains, albeit at a noticeably reduced rate (due to the increasing energy demands of the endurance work), while still having energy for your main priority, endurance.

As the competitive season draws near it's time to reduce the emphasis on strength training and focus more on higher intensity endurance work. Even if you plan to do a maintenance program during the season, workouts should be short and high intensity. During the transition phase the athlete needs to make the switch to discipline-specific strength work. If you're a cyclist or triathlete, that means sprints on the bike. For runners, it means uphill sprints, etc.

Another topic, which is beyond the scope of this article, is the use of plyometrics. For athletes who train at volumes greater than 12 hours per week during the season, I recommend short plyometric and manual resistance sessions. They're very effective at maintaining the strength gained in the off season without depleting glycogen stores and increasing the recovery load.

When analyzing the overall program, the astute reader may have noticed that, for the most part, no set/rep approach is maintained longer than two weeks. This ensures that an adaptation plateau is never reached. The athlete continues to progress throughout the program, provided diet and rest are maintained.

Further, no sequence of exercises is followed in successive days. Below I have included three whole-body sample workouts labeled A, B, and C. This is an example of a rotation for an elite cyclist. For example, the athlete completes A on Tuesday, B on Friday and C on the following Tuesday and repeats the rotation. This also helps to ensure the body never becomes adapted.

Workout A Workout B Workout C
Warm-Up 5 min Warm-Up 5 min Warm-Up 5 min
Tricep Extensions
Leg Press Squats
Bicep Curls
Leg Curls Bicep Curls
Squats Leg Extensions Leg Extensions
Leg Extensions Calf Raises Leg Curls
Leg Curls Shoulder Press
Calf Raises Tricep Extension
Upright Rows
Back Extensions Seated Rows Lat Raises
Abs Abs Abs
Cool-Down 5 min Cool-Down 5 min Cool-Down 5 min

You may also notice that compared to many strength programs designed for endurance athletes, the recommend rep ranges are relatively low. There's an old adage, "Moderation in all things." Well, I have my own version of that saying:

"Moderation in no things."

With regard to performance, moderation is the truest path to mediocrity. By doing high rep workouts, you're, in effect, doing a variation of endurance exercise or moderate intensity strength work. Once again, pure strength is most effectively trained in time frames of less than 60 seconds. So, if you're doing sets of 10 good reps using a two-second concentric (the lifting part of a rep) and a four-second eccentric (the lowering part of a rep), this will take approximately 60 seconds. Past 60 seconds you're not training strength, but building lactate tolerance and you'll get plenty of that during the competitive season.

By reducing the time frame and increasing weight in the later stages of the program, you'll be specifically training strength. So, if you want to do endurance strength workouts, go do hill-repeats. Don't waste your time in the gym.

My "moderation in no things" motto applies to rest as well. As workouts become more intense, so does the requirement for rest. If you're doing namby-pamby 10 rep sets without failure, you can get away with minimal rest. This approach won't maximize the strength building potential of the off-season, though. With the absence of competition, take the opportunity to push yourself in the weight room. Also take the opportunity to recover from workouts. That means working on base fitness during the most intense periods of strength training. No Testosterone oozing hammer sessions on the training run or ride. As you begin to crank up the intensity of endurance workouts, back off on the strength training.

Another thing to consider as you design your own personalized program is the use of exercises that are relevant to your discipline. For the cyclist's program there's less emphasis on upper body, with a large emphasis on lower body, core exercises. Again the purpose is to improve performance. A certain amount of balance is good to prevent injury and add some explosive strength, but for a cyclist, upper body development won't improve power to weight ratio. On the other hand, a swimmer, triathlete, or cross-country skier would want to emphasize upper body exercises to a certain extent. This could be done by adding a split workout day or incorporating more upper body into the rotation.


Here are a few more things to keep in mind during your strength program:

1: Always use goodform. The "previous issues" section of T-mag contains much information with regard to the proper way to perform exercises. Remember that you're not in competition with other lifters in the gym, most of which won't be endurance athletes. Don't try to impress anyone with the amount of weight you're lifting if it results in poor form. Use the knowledge that intense sets performed with good form will result in better performance in the upcoming season. Visualize a rival and use that as a motivational tool.

2: Slow is good. This goes along with good form. Properly executed exercises should be performed at approximately a two-second count concentrically and at least a two to four-second count eccentrically.

3: Plan each workout, but be flexible. Approach each workout according to the plan you've designed. You should know how much weight, how many reps and how many sets you're going to perform based on your previous workout and the particular phase you're in. Everyone has bad days, but if progress completely stops, evaluate your sleep and diet habits.

In life, nothing is guaranteed, but if you follow the guidelines in this article, I'm confident you'll be pleased with the results next season. With the increased strength, you should have more snap in your sprint, more power output at threshold, and the ability to push people out of your way if things get crowded. Have fun and good luck.

Suggested Reading

Burke, E. (1995). Serious Cycling. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Evans, M. (1997). Endurance Athletes Edge. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Sleamaker, R. and R. Browning (1996). Serious Training for Endurance Athletes. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.