Strength to Endure

(Photo of Lea Davison, 2x Olympic Mountain Biker. Lea works with a strength coach and includes heavy hex bar deadlifts in her program. Photo taken with her GoPro.)

I am a huge advocate of strength training for endurance athletes, especially heavy lifting. Research shows that heavy strength training will make you a better, faster runner.

Outside recently ran a post by Alex Hutchinson titled “How Strength Training Makes You Faster“. I  look forward to reading his new book Endure so I was glad to read this post.

I can say from my own experience as a strength and conditioning coach that I have seen huge improvements in the variety of endurance athletes that I work with. These include national champion Division I and Division III field sport and endurance athletes, notably in this case distance track runners and Nordic skiers. Some of them were reluctant, at first, to add heavy weightlifting to their programs, but the once they saw – and felt – the results, there was full buy-in.

One of the big concerns for endurance athletes about heavy lifting is that it will add bulk. It won’t, as Alex points out. And it will prevent injury, but here there is an important point that Alex makes about volume. Injury for runners and cyclists typically comes from volume.

And here is where I take issue with the article (though not really Alex, as he in no way claims expertise in the lifting realm). There appears to be very little in the way of quality information on the web about strength training for endurance athletes, and what I have found is sorely lacking.

All of you endurance athletes (and everyone else for that matter) should lift heavy. But you should not squat or deadlift, at least not in the conventional sense. You very likely already have low back or knee problems, and if you don’t, then heavy deadlifts and 100 plyos will almost certainly give them to you.

We design programs specifically for endurance athletes and have had tremendous success, both with improving performance and with injury prevention. But here are a few basic points to get you started in the right direction.

  • Start with a bodyweight squat. Keep your back flat and knees out and go as low as you can until your low back rounds (usually with the bottom of your thighs parallel to the floor).
  • Once that is comfortable, move on to a goblet squat. Grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell, hold it tight to your chest as if you were going to drink out of it and squat from there. You can move on from this once you can squat half your bodyweight 25 times.
  • Only deadlift with a hex or trap bar. This is far easier on your back and knees and actually is a better deadlift for athletes. You can find hex bars here.
  • Do plyometrics, but only in low numbers to start. Box jumps are a great way to start as they again are easier on the knees and back. You should only do 20-25 to start, and I would say never more than 40. More than that and you are very likely going to have knee issues. Drop jumps are excellent, but advanced and something to move into over time.
  • Plyos and olympic lifts should be done in reps only up to 5. More than that and you defeat the purpose. Doing high rep plyos or olympic lifts (cleans, etc.) is conditioning, not working the systems you want. And there are much better methods of conditioning.
  • Do not go to failure. Instead, move concentrically (up, basically) fast, and down slower.
  • When you are first starting out, 3 sets of 10-20 makes sense. You are aiming to move into 3-5 sets of 5 hard reps.
  • Olympic lifts (clean, snatch and variations) can be excellent, but must be properly coached.
  • The amount of intensity, frequency and volume is greatly determined by your brain chemistry, and can be assessed with our programs.
  • Lift twice a week. You can also add a day of sled work, which is one of our favorites. More on that to come…

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