A basic strength week for the endurance athlete

Alan Couzens, M.S. (Sports Science)

Dec 14th, 2015

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a post about our annual ‘Big Steel Challenge’ – a strength focused block of training with a simple mission – lift as many pounds as you can over the course of a month. During the challenge, there are 2 things that we like to do – lift and talk about lifting :-) For each edition of Big Steel over the past 6 years we have kept track of the gory details of endurance athletes lifting heavy things, initially on our private EC member forum and this year, for the brave few, on Facebook. We’ve found big value in this dialogue over the years and with each year our collective understanding of strength training as an admittedly endurance–biased group has significantly increased.

It’s been said that Eskimo’s have 50 different words for snow. That same concept is clearly at play when we look at the typical endurance athlete's understanding of strength training....

While endurance athletes may have a broad understanding of the 'snow' that is sports and fitness training & if placed in a gym, most triathletes aren’t going to find themselves facing the wrong way on a lat pulldown machine :-), we tend to not have the depth of understanding of this particular variety of snow as our Fast-Twitch-laden brothers & sisters & frankly, it’s to our detriment!

At the risk of generalizing, when a triathlete thinks of adding strength training to the mix, their go-to plan tends to be the typical whole body program of – leg press, leg extension, leg curls bench press, rows, lat pulls maybe tricep pushdowns in 3 x 8-12 reps off moderate rest, with maybe a few core moves thrown in. The same program that the bulk of gym instructors will pull ‘off the shelf’ for a new member of the gym – whatever their eventual goals might be – whether they want to be the next Arnold, or just ‘tone up’. The reality, of course, is that endurance athletes are seeking very specialized muscular adaptations which are distinct and apart from those that the next aspiring Arnold might be looking for.

What we want from a strength plan (as endurance athetes)…

1. Mobility

Hours upon hours of riding our bikes with a closed hip position and running in one plane, with a less than full stride, lead to us being tighter than the average bear. It won’t come as a huge surprise that one of the biggest limiters that we run into is chronic ‘over-use’ injuries. In my experience, these injuries are less about over-use and more about ‘wrong use’, i.e. we become really tight in some areas and not in others, which leads us to our second big reason for adding strength work to the mix…

2. Muscle balance/’Healthy Movement’

We humans have a distinct ability of making our motor patterns ‘stupidly efficient’ over time, i.e. we will tend to do the bare minimum to get the movement done rather than doing the movement in the healthiest, most long term functional way. You’ll see runners internally rotate the hip to shorten the leg rather than actually using hip/knee flexion to bring the leg through the gait cycle etc. In the absence of a focused intervention, our movement patterns are likely to get more and more lazy over time. This is good until it isn’t. Think leaning tower o’ Pisa.

3. Muscle recruitment/Neuromuscular Power

A large part of economy in our sport comes down to how quickly we can apply force. This is especially true on the run, something that I looked at here. It isn’t surprising then that strength training with high levels of load, where the athlete is challenged to rapidly recruit muscles and apply force quickly has shown good carry over to events far beyond its expected domain e.g. 5k run economy and performance (Paavolainen et al.,1999). This pure form of neuromuscular connection is important for all athletes of all durations.

4. Sufficient muscle (of the right type) to power race specific performance.

I alluded to this in last week’s post on the ‘right’ level of mesomorphy for triathletes. Quick recap – muscle moves stuff, whether that stuff is a barbell or our own body. A given levels of output requires a given level of muscle mass. For this reason, athletes on the whole tend to fall in the mesomorphic sector of the somatotype chart.

As endurance athletes, we also need this muscle that we're building to be of a particular type or, more specifically, color. Red is good. Red means lots of blood, lots of O2 delivery to the muscle so that we can fuel that power output for a long period of time. We want more of the red muscle.

With the right training, fast twitch fibers can be pushed In one of 2 ways – IIA (red) or IIB (white). A predominance of Type IIA (oxidative) muscle fiber area is very good news for the endurance athlete! In fact, among the truly elite endurance athlete, the white type IIb fibers are as rare as the Dodo! A 1991 study on elite national class cyclists - guys with a 40k TT best of 53mins (& FTPs of ~5w/kg), less than 1% of their muscle fibers were made up of type IIb. This was despite a mid-thigh circumference of 53cm and a calf circumference of almost 37cm! So, obviously, the hypertrophy was happening elsewhere!

When it comes to strength training, these red (or IIa) fibers are recruited & trained at a different absolute load than white (IIb fibers). While IIa fibers have a greater absolute potential for hypertrophy (getting bigger), they are functionally useless to us as they don’t have a lot of that red 'good stuff' that will fuel power output over a long period of time. Hence we want to focus our training on developing those more functionally useful red muscle fibers. This demands a different load (& different work/rest ratios) to the traditional (max hypertrophy) approach.

As the chart from Fry (2004) above shows at loads of ~50% of 1 RM hypertrophy of type IIa (oxidative) fibers is favored over hypertrophy of IIb fibers but once we enter that traditional training range of 70-80% RM most of the hypertrophy is occurring in non-oxidative fibers that aren’t terribly useful to endurance athletes. In practice, this just results in more mass to ‘lug around’. Bottom line, as endurance athletes, we want to keep a large portion of our strength work below 60%RM or, what I term, ‘aerobic strength’ sessions.

So, now we have our objectives - mobility, healthy/functional movement, neuromuscular recruitment & event specific muscle development, how do we put them all together into a program?


While there is some overlap between these mobility/movement/muscle objectives, a smart (& fun!) way to approach placement of the strength workouts within a microcycle or week is to give each workout a focus in line with one of the above objectives.

For example….

MobilityAerobic StrengthMobility'Easy Strength'
'Movement Training'
Max Strength/
MobilityAerobic Strength

This hits all of our key strength objectives as endurance athletes, with sufficient ‘space’ between the hard stuff, while, just as importantly, giving you some full range of motion work every day of the week. It is deliberately 'polarized' to focus on light and heavy loads, while avoiding those moderately heavy loads that make up more traditional strength work.

In terms of how this 'fits in' to your SBR training, I would suggest generally placing your hard endurance main sets on the 'easy strength'(/mobility) days and vice versa. So on key strength days (in bold above), the strength workout becomes the 'main set' of the day.

The above ‘basic week’ only represents one possible variation. If you’re in a block of training where you’re trying to make in-roads in your run economy, you may do 2 or even 3 max strength/power sessions and less 'aerobic strength' work. If you’re in the early season and you’re looking to get back some of the mobility you lost with a lot of race specific training you may do more frequent mobility work & movement training. The permutations are endless but the overall theme of never straying too far from mobility, basic strength and plain old work capacity is ever-present.

I know what you’re thinking – “how am I possibly going to fit in an additional workout every day?’ The answer: A little goes a long way. Quality of movement is paramount. This goes against our endurance biases but regular 20 minute ‘sessions’ of focused quality movements are far superior to 90 minute ‘marathon sessions’ where we exhaust our anabolic response and our form goes to…you know what.

In practice, these short daily movement ‘chunks’ are a lot easier to incorporate if you have ready access to a small home gym. It doesn’t take much – a swiss ball, a set of bands, a pull up bar, a kettlebell, a medicine ball, a barbell and a set of dumbells and you’re in action.

You can plug in your weight and FTP below for a recommendation on starting barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell weights

Weight (kg)
Dumbell (Easy Strength/Warm Up/Int. Stability)
Dumbell (Aerobic Strength)
Kettlebell (Aerobic Strength)
Barbell (Aerobic Strength)
Barbell (Max Strength - U/ Power)
Barbell (Max Strength - L)

*Note: It's generally best to reserve max strength sessions for a well equipped gym as they require benches and racks to hold the weight (and you!) as you get in position

A simple home gym set up, as described above, can be put together for less than $200 & pay you back one hundred fold, in…

  • Consistency (no excuses for missing a workout on snowy days!)

  • Performance gain or at least maintenance over time (no age-related atrophy for you)and most importantly...

  • Keeping you functionally strong and moving well over the years!

Next time I’ll dive in a little deeper to give some real world examples of specific sessions I use with my athletes for each of the above objectives.

Until then...

Train smart,



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