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Strength Training Guidelines for Endurance Athletes
by: Matt Russ
You can make great strides in your sport performance in the weight room. Because strength training can break down a lot of muscle tissue I recommend weight work be done in the foundation or base period. This does not mean you will not continue to build strength throughout the season. Hill running, slow cadence cycling work outs, and resisted swim work outs are all forms of strength training that are specific to disciplines. Weight training should smoothly transition into strength training in your disciplines.

As your season progresses, and your intensity increases, weight work can be detrimental to your more specific work outs and events. Your legs may need up to 72 hours to fully recover from a weight work out. This is a big block of the week to give up performance in other areas. Just like your training plan your strength plan will go through specific phases. Endurance athletes should not use body building plans that are focused on muscle mass gains. This can actually be counter productive for a distance athlete. Each phase will have a specific purpose such as acclimation, hypertrophy, muscular endurance and power. If you are weak on sprints and jumps, you may want to emphasize more power training. If you are weak on climbs, muscular endurance is a good focus. If you are generally weak, or new to strength training, I recommend a slightly longer period with the weights. Shorter distance athletes may want to emphasize more strength work for speed, while longer distance athletes, that are more slow twitch, will not need as much weight work.

Listen to your body and avoid overreaching yourself with the weights. This is especially important in the very beginning of your plan. You may feel the need to push yourself, but you may also not be walking well the next day. This is due to micro trauma in the muscles or small muscle tears. These tears have to heal up before you get stronger, so take it easy. You may also find yourself more tired, and you may need more sleep during the initial acclimation period. Make sure you refuel after a strength work out just like you would any other.

Core strength is crucial to protecting your back during lifting. I recommend using a variety of exercises to strengthen all core muscles every other day. Core strength also will help with your running, biking, and swimming ability. If your muscles are very sore, do not overstretch them. This may re-injure the micro trauma that occurred during training and slow the healing process. Light stretching and recovery work is recommended. I do not use a weight belt. These belts are for power lifter who wants to increase inter-abdominal pressure for max lifts. They may actually make your back weaker. Do not use a belt to exceed your limits. In fact you should be no where near this type of lifting. I like to perform my core strength at the end of my work out. Performing core exercises first may leave them too fatigued to properly support you.

Choosing when to strength train is very important because it affects your other work outs. I usually try to strength train after a rest day early in the week. I make sure I do not have a critical or high stress work out in the next few days following my leg work out. Again, this is why weight work is best performed in the base or foundation period when there are not a lot of break through work outs.

I generally only strength train my legs heavy one time per week. I may do a lighter session at the end of the week. Strength training and endurance training are like oil and water for the most part. They work well when separated, but do not mix. With a heavy foundation load I do not recommend strength training more than twice per week. You may negatively affect your other training, or more likely over reach yourself.

These are general guidelines. I will not recommend specific work outs. I do recommend the core of your routine be compound or multi-joint exercises such as the squat, lunge, dead lift, step up, and leg press. The number one rule of strength training is switch up your routine. Your body will acclimate quickly to the same routine week after week, and growth will be retarded. Switch up your exercises each week. You may want to get with a certified strength trainer to learn advanced training techniques such as drop sets, compound sets, super sets, and other methods. Try to use a pedal width stance on your exercises and mimic the range of motion of running and cycling.

One exercise I will caution you on is the leg extension. Most people use way to much weight on this exercise, which can put a lot of pressure under the knee cap. This may lead to cartilage damage. Leg extensions are a good exercise to warm up with. Use light to moderate weight and lots of reps. You may want to perform this exercise in the top 20 degrees range of motion. This helps strengthen your VMO or innermost quad which plays a key role in patella tracking.

Finally, if you are unfamiliar with weight training and proper form I highly recommend you get with a certified athletic trainer. Exercises such as the squat, dead lift, and even leg press can easily injure you if performed incorrectly. I could write an entire book on how to perform these exercises, but if I am not standing next to you and watching your form, you could still be performing them incorrectly. I see and correct bad form from even experienced clients on a daily basis.

Phase I- Acclimation 4-8 weeks
Purpose: To gradually adjust your body to the stresses of strength training. During this phase you will use light weight and high reps. You may want to start of your first few weeks with very light weight or body weight. Make sure you perform your exercises slowly and controlled.
Reps: 15-25
Weight: Light to Moderate
Exercises: 3-5
Sets: 2-3
Rest between sets: 1-3 minutes generally allows full recovery

Phase II Hypertrophy: 4-6 weeks
Purpose: To recruit maximum amount of fibers and promote muscle growth and absolute strength. Make sure your first set is a light warm up set. You will want to "pyramid" or increase the weight on each set while lowering the reps. A typical rep scheme may look like this 12-10-8-6, or 12-10-8. This phase has a good potential for injury, so be careful and listen to your body. You can take your lifts to muscular failure during this period. I recommend a spotter. Don't be surprised if the first few weeks leave you very sore.
Reps: 6-12
Weight: Moderate to Heavy
Exercises: 3-6
Sets: 3-4
Rest between sets: 1-3 minutes generally allows full recovery

Phase III Strength Endurance: 6-8 Weeks
Purpose: To train the ability to sustain repeated hard efforts, similar to a steep climb. This phase will raise your lactate threshold and time to exhaustion. You want to use moderate weight and slow controlled motion. You can bring yourself to muscular failure but at a higher rep range. I recommend that you raise your rep range slightly as you progress.
Reps: 15-30
Weight: Moderate
Exercises: 3-5
Sets: 2-4
Rest between sets: 1-3 minutes generally allows full recovery

Phase IV Power: 3-6 weeks
Purpose: Power is force over time, or the ability to move the most resistance in the shortest time period. This is necessary for jumps and short sprints. Again, I recommend a trainer during this period because of the potential for injury, and the creative knowledge needed for power training. You will take each strength exercise and explode upwards. Be careful on the eccentric phase (lowering). Try to picture a spring that is slowly coiled until it is tensioned, then explodes. Go light, especially in the beginning. This does not mean you will not fatigue the muscles. I use a body weight for the first few weeks.
Reps: 8-20
Weight: Light to Moderate
Exercises: 4-6
Sets: 2-3
Rest between sets: 1-3 minutes generally allows full recovery

You have to view strength training as a tool box. You have to decide which tools are right for you based on your body, and your event. I personally am a smaller person, slow twitch, and my goals are usually short events. This means more time in the weight room for me. If you are a marathoner, you will need less strength work and less weight. If you are a large muscled person, who has good short distance speed, yet you are training for an IM event, I would focus less on hypertrophy and more on strength endurance for climbing.

About the Author

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes around the country and internationally. He currently holds licenses by USAT, USATF, and is an Expert level USAC coach. Matt has coached athletes for CTS (Carmichael Training Systems), is an Ultrafit Associate. Visit for more information.


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