Coach Tip Tuesday: Strength Training as a Backbone
Ah, strength training. If I had to sum up what a majority of endurance athletes have said to me over the years about strength training in one sentence, it would be this:
“I know it’s important, but I don’t do it.”
The Orphaned Element
Unfortunately, very few age-group endurance athletes truly comprehend just how important strength training is to helping them reach the goals they’ve set for themselves in endurance sports. I understand this, as I was one of these athletes once. But after working with hundreds of athletes over the years, I’ve both observed and embraced the reality that strength training is not only important, but that it really needs to serve as the backbone of endurance sports training.
All too often, athletes get focused on the workouts of their sport of choice. (If they’re training for a marathon, they get fixated on the running workouts they need to be doing.) Additionally, they specifically get focused on what makes them feel good in a given moment and/or what they like best. (For instance, if a triathlete enjoys running more than cycling or swimming, they will often elect to run if there’s a choice about what to do.) So for many endurance athletes, this means that they include workouts of the disciplines that are the most fun, that feel the best, or that are the easiest for them. In the eternal words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!”
Rather than being orphaned and cast aside like this, strength training should be included in alltraining plans, regardless of which primary endurance sport an athlete is training. Additionally, it should be included all the time. Yes, year-round, not just during the off-season, during Base Phase, or when it’s more “convenient” schedule-wise to fit it in.
No matter what your sport of choice is, proper posture is essential to seeing true and compounded performance gains over time. Strength training is what helps to retain this posture. Without it, you will break down mechanically, especially as you accumulate fatigue over the course of a workout or race. Once that strength foundation is in place, then the entirety of the plan (strength training and the sport of choice) can progress to include and develop important skills such as coordination, mobility, strength, speed, and power.
Simple and Complex
Strength training is - paradoxically - both simple and complex. Lifting things up and putting them down is, at its core, a simple idea and a simple practice. But alongside this is the truth that quality strength training is more complex than it appears at face value. In order for it to be effective, it must be completed both frequently and consistently (aka done year-round). Additionally, it should be both periodized (meaning that it cycles through training phases just like training should for one’s primary sport) and progressive (meaning that it is designed to progress the athlete’s abilities over time).
However - and this is critical - progression can only happen if an athlete has been consistent with strength training. If an athlete doesn’t do the work on a regular basis, there isn’t any possible way that they can do more or better work later on.
Many athletes (incorrectly) fear that strength training dilutes or takes away from the effectiveness of the training for their primary sport. While it may seem counterintuitive, when properly incorporated, strength training actually enhances the effectiveness of the training for an athlete’s primary sport. In order for this effectiveness to be realized over time, strength training should be integrated into a training plan, and not just tacked on as an afterthought.
This - giving strength training their “what’s left” - is probably the biggest mistake most athletes make when it comes to strength training. For many reasons, athletes account for and/or plan for everything else workout-wise, and then they figure out where they can fit strength training in. For maximum effectiveness, the lowest probability of injury over time, and to see true performance gains, strength training should be a backbone of training, meaning that it should be planned for first. This means that it gets planned first, and then the other workouts - including those of your primary sport - get planned around it in a training plan.
The Nitty Gritty
When it comes to how to plan strength training workouts, there is a very popular and pervasive idea: That we should train different sections of the body on different days. It’s not uncommon to hear talk about “Upper Body Day,” “Core Day,” “Lower Body Day,” “Back Day,” and so on. While something is better than nothing, I have found that this is not the most helpful way to think about strength training for endurance athletes.
No matter what an athlete’s primary endurance sport is, the body is not moving in isolated parts when it is doing said endurance sport. Our functional ask of the body is not to just use the upper body and then to just use the lower body and then to just use the core. Rather, every endurance sport asks the athlete to integrate all parts of the body to move with speed, strength, and power TOGETHER.
As an endurance athlete, what you really need is strength in the way you are going to actually be using the joint/muscle in your primary sport. Isolated strength doesn’t necessarily mean you are functionally strong. Sure, as a runner, you may be able to squat a heavy load, but can you control the eccentric landing phase of your running gait cycle and propel yourself forward with stability and control? As a triathlete, you may be able to bench press twice your bodyweight, but can you sustain your bike fit for the duration of your event and run well off of the bike? Strength training isn’t enough on its own; it needs to be enhancing the specific movements and demands of your primary sport.
In my opinion, planning strength workouts in isolation like this is so commonly done and has become an accepted practice because it is easier for a personal trainer or strength coach to think (and plan) this way. It is harder to think about complex movements, and thus it’s harder (not to mention more time-intensive) to plan for complex movements. But to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Inputs determine outputs. Taking the time to consider and write high-quality training increases the probability that the result of that training will be high-quality as well.
Endurance athletes seeking to gain strength and see gains in their sport of choice should train functionally, not in isolation. The majority of the strength movements that they are doing should be movements that connect all parts of the body and teach the body the neuromuscular specificity of moving collaboratively with precision, coordination, and strength.
The Bottom Line
Strength training should be the backbone of every endurance athlete’s training plan. Additionally, the specifics of their strength training workouts should align with the specific demands of their primary sport. Finally, strength training should be periodized and progressed just like the workouts of the primary sport are periodized and progressed over a training plan. Taking this approach with strength training can elevate an athlete’s training and performance from below average or mediocre to great.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.