Q and A: Strength Training and the Endurance Athlete

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Q: Hi Tony,

I’ve read a number of your interviews in regards to strength training for endurance athletes and my current situation seems to be very similar. They have really got me thinking and I’m glad I’ve got a bit of “fresh air” from you, after all the hot wind from the “bro’s” out there.

TG Note: click here, here, here, here, and especially here for a little sumthin, sumthin on stuff I’ve written in the past with regards to strength training and endurance athletes.

Basically, I’m a keen mountain biker by nature but I also want to be able to develop overall strength, particularly my upper body and core area, mainly to look and feel healthy. I don’t give a rats about being able to lift xxx kilograms, but I wouldn’t mind a bit of extra lean body mass on my chest, back, arms shoulders etc. I figured the cycling had my legs covered, but after reading your articles I am not sure. I also enjoy running once or twice a week (up to 15kms) and partaking in the odd Duathlon or Triathlon (though swimming is not really my thing…)

My issue is this – I’ve heard time and time again (on various forums) that I must choose one or the other. I.e. serious strength training or serious cycling. I am open ears if there’s a more suitable program to work from.

I really enjoy going to the gym and seeing improvements and I love my riding but you can see where my frustration is coming from when everyone tells me that they “just don’t mix”. This is something I’ve been hearing for over 12 months, since I initially got interested in training at the gym.

Can I not remain competitive in my running and, more importantly, my cycling (road and MTB) whilst still packing on muscle?

A: People have been lifting weights to improve performance for ages. Aesthetics aside, strength training is going to help you in a number of ways:

1. Improved strength – obviously, thanks Captain Obvious

2. Improved rate of force production

3. Injury prevention

4. Make girls want to hang out with you……….but that goes without saying.

I totally agree that you shouldn’t concern yourself with whether or not you can lift “xxxx” amount of weight and make people destroy the back of their pants – I mean, you’re not a powerlifter. I will say, however, that improving your strength is going to pay huge dividends towards your cycling AND running over the long haul.

Without getting too geeky (and long winded), it comes down to force production. The more “force” you’re able to produce – whether it’s on the bike or on the road running – the more efficiently you’ll be able to propel yourself forward. Strength, as a matter of fact, is the foundation for all other “fitness qualities.” Put another way, you can’t have power, endurance, agility, and particularly with you – strength endurance – without first having a solid base of strength to build off of.

I’ve heard this being said numerous times, but I think you’re grossly mistaken that all you need to do to train your legs is ride your bike. While I don’t doubt that you have a decent pair of tree trunks for legs, this flies in the face of the #1 rule of strength training – which is progressive overload. So, unless you’re going out of your way to ride your bike with an RV attached to it, you’re missing the boat entirely.

Sure, you’re getting a lot of time under tension (pedaling miles upon miles upon miles), which will result in a fair amount of muscle growth and definition. But even then, there’s a “cap” on how much lean muscle mass you’re going to add when there’s no progressive overload present.

Moreover, increased lean muscle mass won’t necessarily equate to improved times. This is what we in the industry like to refer to as “all show, no go” syndrome, which I think gets at the heart of the matter. Endurance athletes need to focus on RELATIVE strength. That is, strength compared to one’s bodyweight.

Above all, lets not forget that a bulk of endurance athletes are notorious for developing pattern overload injuries such as patello-femoral pain, shin splints, hip pain, lower back pain, to name a few. As noted previously, much of what we can do from the strength training (and program design) side of things is counteract all the repetitive stress they place on their bodies.

That said, riding a bike is very quad dominant and I feel you’d be remiss if you didn’t include a healthy dose of posterior chain work in your training that hammers the hamstrings and glutes such as various deadlifts, single leg work, glute ham raises, hip thrusters, supine bridges, and pull-throughs.

Furthermore, with regards to your upper body, I think you hit the nail on the head. You’re bent over in flexion ALL. THE. TIME. As such, you need to be cognizant of the fact that doing things like bench pressing, lat pulldowns, crunches, or anything else that promotes even more flexion (as well as internal rotation) is going to be counterproductive.

Instead, spending most of your time working the backside of your body (upper back, scapular retractors, etc) in the form of chin-ups, a ton of horizontal rowing, lots of scapular stabilization work, what have you, will tend to be where you’ll need to spend the bulk of your time. This isn’t to say that you can’t (or shouldn’t) include any exercises or movements that “target” the pecs and guns (lets not get carried away here), but it definitely sheds some light on what you should be emphasizing when looking to optimize your time.

Taking it a little further, we need to touch on specificity. Many endurance athletes are under the impression that the only way to get better is to swim, run, and bike, and repeat. Repeatedly. To a degree, they’re spot on. They’ll get all the specificity the need participating in their respective sport(s). Where they run into issues is when they emulate those exact same movements in the weight room and then wonder why they’re out of commission for weeks, if not months on end from many of the aforementioned injuries listed above.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but doing the OPPOSITE of what the sport requires is sometimes what’s best, and what’s “specific” to what they need to work on. This is part of (not entirely) the reason why we don’t do a lot of overhead pressing with our baseball guys.

What’s more, you can’t neglect the importance of soft tissue quality. Being hunched over all day on a bike isn’t going to do you any favors in the posture department.

Make love to your foam roller. Make sweet, sweet love to it. In addition, there’s a lot to be said about including days where you do nothing but follow a dynamic flexibility circuit, or any number of low-grade activation/mobility/stretching circuits.

All in all, I think there’s a lot to be said about endurance athletes incorporating more strength training into their training schedule, whether they’re in the professional ranks or just like to wing it on the weekends. Basically, I think anyone who tells you that strength training is a waste of time is a moron. How’s that for a professional opinion?

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