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Coaches Blog

Weight Lifting for Endurance Athletes

Real question: Do endurance athletes need to lift weights? 

Strength training has become a lot more popular among endurance athletes in recent years. This includes triathletes, distance runners, cyclists, and other athletes. 


In the past, athletes feared carrying “extra” muscle weight, so they did just enough strength training to check the box. (Not to mention the ever-present time crunch of fitting all your sport-specific training into a busy schedule.) Yet, studies have shown a positive impact of strength training on performance in endurance sports


Benefits of Lifting Weights for Endurance Athletes

Let’s first look at some of the top benefits endurance athletes should expect when they add strength training to their regular training routine. 


Injury Prevention

One of the most significant benefits of weightlifting for endurance athletes is injury prevention. While endurance training improves cardiovascular health and builds muscular endurance, it often neglects strength imbalances and weaknesses. 


Weightlifting helps address these weaknesses by strengthening muscles, tendons, and ligaments, thus reducing the risk of injuries such as stress fractures, tendonitis, and muscle strains.


Improved Efficiency

Endurance sports require repetitive movements. By incorporating weightlifting into their training routine, athletes can improve their biomechanics and movement efficiency. Strengthening key muscle groups such as the core, glutes, and quadriceps enhances running, cycling, and swimming mechanics, allowing athletes to maintain proper form and technique for longer durations. 


This improved efficiency translates to better performance over the course of a race or training session–especially for endurance athletes who may race for hours at a time. Any amount of energy saved is beneficial.


Increased Power Output

While endurance athletes primarily rely on aerobic energy systems, explosive power is still crucial, especially during sprints, climbs, or race finishes. Weightlifting helps develop fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are essential for generating power and speed. 


Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and plyometrics enhance muscular power, allowing athletes to unleash maximum force when it matters most.


You may have seen that sprint finish between Lionel Sanders and Rudy Von Berg at 70.3 Ironman Oceanside in 2022. These kinds of finishes spotlight the necessity of strength, power, and fast-twitch muscles even for endurance athletes. 


Enhanced Endurance

Contrary to popular belief, lifting weights won't make endurance athletes bulky or slow. Instead, it can actually improve endurance performance. 


Research has shown that strength training increases muscle glycogen stores and improves muscle fiber recruitment patterns, delaying the onset of fatigue during long training sessions and races. 


Additionally, stronger muscles can better withstand the repetitive stress of endurance training, leading to improved overall endurance capacity.


Injury Rehabilitation

Injuries are an unfortunate reality for many athletes. However, weightlifting can play a crucial role in the rehabilitation process. 


Under the guidance of a qualified professional, targeted strength training exercises can help athletes regain strength, mobility, and stability after an injury. By addressing muscular imbalances and weaknesses, athletes can recover faster and reduce the risk of reinjury in the future.


Mental Resilience

Endurance sports are as much mental as they are physical. The discipline and determination required to push through fatigue and adversity are traits shared by both endurance athletes and weightlifters. 


Incorporating strength training into an endurance athlete's routine can help develop mental resilience, as it requires focus, determination, and perseverance to overcome challenging lifts and progressively increase weights over time.


What Kind of Weight Lifting Is Best for Endurance Athletes?

There are loads of different strength training programs and options available. Is there a “best choice” for endurance athletes? Surprisingly, one study found the biggest benefit in athletes who incorporated heavy-weight training into their programs. They focused on high-weight, low-repetition sets and determined that is typically the most efficient and effective weight training strategy for endurance athletes. 


Focusing on heavier weights with low repetition allows you to reserve your endurance for, well, your endurance training (swimming, cycling, and/or running). Using lighter weights for more repetitions will make you feel more “pump” or “burn.” The total volume (sets x reps x weight), will be higher, potentially making recovery harder. 


Higher weights with fewer reps are more challenging as you’re overloading your muscles, but the total volume is lower. Let’s be honest: most endurance athletes aren’t lacking training volume, so shorter strength sessions with heavier weights are more effective. 


How Endurance Athletes Can Add Weight Lifting to Training Plans

Now that we understand the benefits of weight lifting for endurance athletes, let’s talk about some best practices for adding strength training to your endurance training program. 


Prioritize Compound Movements

Focus on compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and bench presses. These movements mimic the demands placed on the body during endurance activities and provide maximum bang for your buck in terms of strength gains.


Start Slowly, Progress Gradually, and Listen to Your Body

If you're new to weight lifting, start with lighter weights and focus on mastering proper form and technique. Gradually increase the weight and intensity of your workouts over time to avoid overtraining and minimize the risk of injury.


Pay attention to how your body responds to weightlifting and adjust your training plan accordingly. If you're feeling fatigued or experiencing persistent soreness, it may be a sign that you need to dial back the intensity or incorporate more rest days into your routine.


Seek Professional Guidance

Consider working with a certified strength and conditioning coach who has experience working with endurance athletes. This can be especially beneficial for athletes who have little experience lifting weights. They can ensure you are using good form, develop confidence in the gym, and ensure you get the most out of your training while minimizing the risk of injury.


The benefits of lifting weights for endurance athletes are undeniable. From injury prevention to improved efficiency, increased power output, enhanced endurance, and mental resilience, weightlifting offers a multitude of advantages that can take an athlete's performance to the next level. 


If you’d like some guidance on incorporating strength training into your endurance program, a certified coach can help you find the right balance and incorporate the right kind of weight lifting and endurance training. Contact us today to schedule a free coaching consultation!

 

Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Gregg@TeamMPI.com 

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