Strength Training For Endurance Athletes: An Argument For Low Reps

Based on traditional strength training prescriptions, programs for endurance athletes should be based on high rep and low load training. This is supposed to be more sports specific, creating greater strength in the “muscular endurance” range. There may be room for the traditional muscular endurance range in some endurance programming, you can probably do better with something a little heavier.

The truth is that you can’t ever really be sports specific in the gym. Stop for a minute and consider the number of repetitions that go into endurance events. If you are a runner, even a quick 5km run could net you anywhere from 6250 to 7500 steps. On a bike at a cruisey 50 rpm, 45 minutes of cycling will net you 2250 pedal strokes. In order to be truly sport specific in the gym, you would have to replicate this under very low external load – i.e. your bodyweight and maybe a kg or two extra at most.

2000 reps in the gym isn’t going to happen. It’s hours in the gym, and it’s probably fair to say that most endurance athletes would rather be running, riding, or swimming if they are going to spend that kind of time training. A higher intensity strength training program based on lower reps and higher load can benefit your performance, recovery, and injury status, all while spending less time in the gym.

Lift Heavy To Get Fast

Lifting heavier weight for lower reps will increase muscular strength; increased strength will lead to increased power. Most people think of power as fast and strong, for a very short period of time. However, increased muscular power can have a big impact on endurance events as well. For the purposes of endurance training, power might be thought of as increasing the force you can produce against the ground, the pedal, or the water. The ground or water will essentially “rebound” that force back to your body, creating the propulsion that moves you forward (in the case of the bike, the force will be transferred into the cranks).

Therefore, the more force you can create, the more distance you will get from every step/stroke.

Going back to traditional strength training prescriptions, sets of 8-12 stimulate muscle growth and size gains, while sets of 1-3 create greater muscular strength. It might be best to focus your efforts somewhere between these two ranges, which will help avoid any unnecessary muscle and weight gain, and avoid any undue fatigue from continuous maximal efforts. If lifting heavier is new to you, you might want to ease into it. Go from 20 reps per set to 15 for a few weeks, then 10, then as low as 6-8. By gradually decreasing your rep ranges (and gradually increasing the weight used) , you’re less likely to be sore.

Injury Prevention and Recovery

There is still a lot of controversy about strength training for endurance sports. Many coaches disagree with it completely, and not without reason. Adding several strength training sessions per week to “get big” will negatively impact endurance training and performance.

The overall amount of physical stress from all types of training will either lead to adaptation and improved performance, or will lead to fatigue and/or injury. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, decreasing the volume and increasing the load used in your strength training can actually help you keep your overall stress levels low. The muscle spends less time under tension, which means less fatigue. In sports where you can spend hours training, anywhere you can cut time without cutting benefits is a good thing. Decreased physical stress means less fatigue and faster recovery times, so you’re fresh for each session (fresher, anyway).

Bear in mind though, that increased intensity in strength training can leave you sore, particularly when you’ve just made the increase. Keep this in mind when planning your training week – don’t substantially increase your weights the day before you have your biggest run planned. Your body will not thank you. As mentioned above, easing into it will help. Just don’t do the old “I’ll just do 5 more reps’ trick that’s so common with endurance athletes. If you can do five more reps, you need more weight!

Training at a higher intensity will also keep you more metabolically active (great for those that are endurance training to help with weight loss) and greater load will activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres. It will also create a greater need for the stabilizing and neutralizing muscles to activate. Keeping these guys switched on helps ensure the integrity of joints and prime movers during training, particularly important with high-volume repetitive training. This will go a long way towards injury prevention. Greater core stability will also be required under greater strength training loads (particularly depending on exercise selection). This is key, as your “core” – meaning abdominals, hips, and even your lats – must be tight and stable in order to transfer that force through the whole body and into the road, bike, or water.

As with anything, the correct amount of strength training volume and intensity depends on the individual and a number of other factors including other training, current injury status, nutritional habits, soft tissue quality, and many others. I’m working on the assumption that you’ll still want to run the next day, so when trying out an increased intensity, take it easy!

How do you strength train for endurance?

2 responses to “Strength Training For Endurance Athletes: An Argument For Low Reps

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