Strength Training for Endurance Athletes - Part II


I have a feeling Part 2 is going to be quite a bit more controversial than Part 1. After all, it's hard to argue against the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes given the scientific evidence. 

However when it comes to discussing


to include it,


to include and


, there are no clear scientific rules there. The suggestions you see below are based on my personal opinions, which are drawn from a combination of extensive research of different training programs, sport science literature, the basics of physiology (how muscles adapt and function in response to stimuli), emphasis on recovery, as well as experimentation.

Please note that I will NOT specify exercises here. What I'm outlining is the "

types of exercises to do during the various phases of your endurance training

", as

well as when to include them within your weekly schedule

and how to execute them properly. I normally assign specific exercises to athletes based on their individual needs, their experience in the weight room, and pre-existing injuries or vulnerable body parts.

My Training Philosophy

Let's start with a 30,000 feet overview of endurance training, and what it takes to become a

better performer

, but even more importantly, a

healthy performer


Side note here: as I've mentioned this before, if you're looking for top-end performance at

whatever cost,

including your long-term health and well-being

, then this whole blog is


for you. My aim is to help people getting into endurance sports to get

the best out of themselves while preserving their long-term health


So, what do you need to strike that balance? Again based on my own philosophy, you need:

3 common so-called "goals" I do NOT include here are





Body Composition

. There is a reason for that:

- For one, Stamina is not a scientific term nor can it be measured (I'm allergic to things that cannot be monitored and measured).

- Two: is Stamina anything beyond the combination of endurance, physical and mental strength?

- Three: Nutrition should never be a goal, because (i) putting it as a goal means once you reach it, you risk losing the drive that got you there, and staying at that "top" level would be difficult, (ii) trying to micro-manage nutrition takes a lot of time and energy, and (iii) nutrition is just one of

many factors

 that impact your health and performance.

- And Four: Body Composition should never be a goal in itself either. You tick all the boxes I mention above, and good body composition / body image will be a natural consequence of all that.


I hear you say: there are many "overweight" endurance athletes. Yes sure, probably more than the ones with "ideal" weight. Same goes for crossfitters and other fitness people, and don't get me started on health clubs. 

BUT, are you telling me that those "overweight" athletes are truly following a training and nutrition protocol that maximises their metabolic efficiency? strengthens their immune system? provides them with a robust muscle and skeletal system? Possibly, but I highly doubt it...


This all may sound overwhelming, and to many it is. Furthermore, not everyone has the passion or time to delve deeply into all this and manage every minute aspect of their lives to tick all these boxes.


that's what coaches are for

: not just to get you physically ready for an event, but to ensure that you get there


, in

good spirits

, and with no detrimental effects on your

physical or mental well-being

(and that includes stress management too, which does have health implications).

In my mind, a coach should "assess", "plan", "educate", "nurture" and "guide".

The day an athlete feels a coach is something they "want" and no longer "need" is the day when that coach has 


 done his/her job.

My Approach to Training Management

So, let me give you a quick overview of my approach to training, so I can feed my views on strength training into it:


Setting Goals

: I like everyone to start with a goal: a 10k, a half marathon, a sprint distance tri or an Ironman. It really doesn't matter. What a goal does is allow us to (i) have

something to work towards

, (ii) to allow me to work backwards all the way to today, and

structure a plan

that will get you there fit, healthy, and happy, and most importantly (iii) help you

manage your adherence

to that program without disrupting your life in the process - my job is NOT to force you to stick to a plan, but to

help you manage the limiting factors

stopping you from doing so (this may sound like sport psychology psychobabble but trust me, it works :))



 and Adaptation

: The human body is a superb piece of engineering. Nothing in the world can adapt and overcome like the human body can. 

But even the human body has its limits, and thanks to the countless scientific and sport science studies from the last decades, we have a pretty good idea of how the body reacts to stimuli and what needs to be done. Examples include: 

- Assessing the current


of the athlete relative to their goals, and prioritize the areas of focus

- Every

training cycle

(block of 8-12 weeks) should have no more than 2-3



- Every


within each cycle should have a

theme and a focus

- Every single

training session

should have a

specific adaptation purpose

: are we training to enhance fat burning, are we trying to get some leg speed, or making you more efficient at metabolizing lactic acid, etc.

- Every single

training session

should have

mental cues

: this helps the athlete be focused and mentally engaged in the session, a valuable tool 

- Every cycle, week or session should include

nutrition guidance

that fits the overall goals and objectives of that period - you can't expect to follow the same nutrition plan year-round...

Does every athlete need that much structure and focus in their approach? No, not really: if you have 20 hours to spare training for an Ironman, then by all means, do that, and chances are you'll be hitting the benefits of the above (along with a lot of "junk" miles). The process I describe above is designed to help you make the best use of your time, leaving more time for family, friends, and life in general.


Managing Limiting Factors

: once again, if you're one of those athletes with a single goal in mind to maximize performance at whatever cost, then this would not apply to you. Most of us have busy lives, a range of commitments, and do not want to lead a hermit's life. Yes professional athletes train 20-30 hours a week, but they have no day job and therefore leave a lot of time for family, social life, etc. 

For many new entrants into the world of endurance sports, the biggest challenge is not the training itself, but rather

how to fit all that training into

what seems like an already full "life schedule" to begin with! Many just get their training program online or from a coach and then try to squeeze sessions in, or worse, they go to an extreme and start "shoving life out of the way" to make room for training. The result? Sure, short-term physical performance, but also marital problems, social life problems, a loss of drive and interest in sport, constant frustration and a "not enough hours in the day" feeling.

Once again, it's not your job to figure all this out. It's all new to you anyway! It's your coach's job to help you manage the limiting factors standing in the way of training. And the key word here is "



not "removing"




: I said it before and I'll say it again: a successful coach is one who is "


" by his athletes but "

no longer needed

". What do I mean? My goal is to help you have control over your life, all of it, including your nutrition and sport performance. Can it be done overnight?  I don't think so, you can't just dump a ton of knowledge on someone and expect them to change their life overnight. 

I strive to gradually educate by explaining the theory and purpose behind every advice or instructions that I give. Gradually, over time, you will grasp that knowledge and start applying it on your own. The result?

Superior confidence and adaptability

. A perfect example is someone who goes from "needing detailed instructions for every workout and meal" to "adapting and creating their own plans when traveling for example".


Communicate Communicate Communicate

: it's simple, your communication as a coach encourages the

athlete to communicate back

, and that's what you want. Your athlete had a very stressful day at work and has a high intensity 400m intervals session in the evening? You want to know about it and scale it back or move it. Your athlete is feeling fatigued and seems to be constantly fighting off a cold? You want to know that too and correlate that with her training so you can identify her "overtraining threshold". It's simple, often overlooked, and crucial in my opinion. You can't expect the athlete to make the first step all the time, you have to establish those communication lines and nurture them for weeks and months.

Incorporating the Strength Training Component

I can hear you saying: come on already! I thought this was about strength training!

So let's use a practical example to illustrate how I would incorporate strength training into the endurance training program for an athlete. 

Meet Jane Bravo (see what I did there? See it??). Jane is a newbie triathlete, and it's Jane, not Janey, because Janey is a friend and elite amateur triathlete who embarasses anyone who tries racing her.

So Jane doesn't have a background in endurance sports, or any sport for that matter, realistically... She was excited about the challenge of getting into running and triathlon as a way to lose some weight, get fit, and meet great people.

So just like most people, she just went, bought herself a pair of running shoes from a salesperson who made her stand on a mat that took a print of her foot, and then set off running. 

Pretty soon, she starts feeling some pains in her shins, her back was hurting, and she wasn't losing weight! But Jane is a stubborn one, so she doesn't give up. She goes online, and gets a training program for a half marathon race, and sets herself a challenge!

Things go well for a few weeks, but then she gets injured again! Her neck is hurting, her back is hurting, she's still not losing much weight, and her knees and ankles hurt every time she runs. Now she's getting frustrated! But once again, she's stubborn, so goes out and finds herself a good coach. The coach then tells her this:

- Jane, before you start building your run volume, you need to

make sure that your body can handle it

- Jane, before you start building your run volume, you need to make sure that your

running biomechanics

(the way you run) are adequate and won't get you injured the longer you run

- Jane, in order to lose weight, you have to do some faster /

higher intensity running

, but in order to be safe when doing so, you also need to make sure that your muscles and skeletal system are

strong enough to handle

all that.

You see Jane, I'm going to incorporate a progressive strength training program into your endurance training program. I'm going to explain to you

what types of strength exercises

 you should do,

when you should be focusing on what type

, and how you should

incorporate them into your program

to make sure they make you stronger, faster, fitter without compromising your endurance training, and

without having to spend hours

in the gym every week. 

Types of Strength Training Exercises

I prefer to categorize strength training exercises into 3 categories:

There are literally

hundreds of exercises

which would fit each of the 3 categories mentioned above. Listing them here would be pointless, because I would be seriously concerned about people's

ability to correctly perform these exercises

. Performing them incorrectly would not just be an inefficient use of your time, but more importantly could put you in

serious jeopardy with injuries

, especially when using weights or plyometrics.

Ideally, you would

ask your coach to demonstrate the exercises

for you, or find a properly certified

strength and conditioning coach

, explain exactly what you're looking for based on the above, and let him/her put you on the right path.

If you're looking to do some more reading yourself and get some guidance on specific strength training exercises for endurance athletes, then I would highly recommend the Training Bible series by legendary coach Joe Friel, which you can find



Scheduling Timing and Frequency

Whenever I'm looking at incorporating strength training into an endurance program, I have to do so while keeping in mind the phase of endurance training the athlete is currently undertaking. To do so, I look towards certain guidelines, which include:

1. Ensure that the strength training prescribed does

not detract from the quality of endurance training

. For example: avoiding a Muscle Strength session the day before hill repeats

2. Ensure that the strength training prescribed

works seamlessly with the specific overall objectives of that week

. For example: objectives for the week is to improve swim technique, so Muscle Strength for the upper body works well to preserve power since the actual swim sessions involve mostly drills and technique work

3. Ensure that the strength training prescribed

does not interfere with racing performance

4. Ensure that the strength training prescribed

does not utilize the same energy systems

being used in endurance training during the same period. For example: avoid circuit training/plyometrics during a period which includes frequent high intensity bike and run sessions

5. Ensure that the strength training prescribed

does not overstress the skeletal system

. For example: avoid Crossfit-type exercises during a week of heavy ankle band and paddles swimming or downhill running

So, to put in practice, a typical endurance training program follows a certain sequence: Base Period, Build Period, Peak Period/Racing, Off-Season. I like to structure the strength training component as follows:

A few words of warning:

The above program assumes the athletes are familiar with the

proper way to execute

the requisite strength training movements. Slight modifications to the way an exercise is executed could severely increase

risk of injury

and / or render the exercise


in terms of specificity and adaptation. 

So if in doubt, spend the first few weeks during the Off-Season with a strength and conditioning coach to

learn how to properly execute exercises


In addition, I've  noticed a number of athletes not capable of properly executing certain compound exercises with the correct form. Remedying this may require

"isolation exercises"

, where you focus your strength training on one specific muscle (the weakest chain in the link), to strengthen that muscle enough to support the compound movement.

This is the only time I would advocate isolation exercises


General Thoughts on Nutrition

Do you need to alter your nutrition if you incorporate strength training into your endurance training program? Well that depends. If you're already on an adequate nutrition program (I will write a separate blog on my thoughts on that), then I don't believe you would need much more. 

However what you need to be conscious of is the fact that

post-workout nutrition for muscle recovery becomes even more critical following strength training

. Most strength training exercises rely primarily on glycogen for fuel and protein for building muscle fibres, so consuming

adequate amounts of good quality carbohydrates and protein

immediately after strength sessions is paramount.

Other FAQs

Will I bulk up if I include strength training in my program?

Unlikely. Yes you will gain a little muscle mass, but you will gain a lot more power. In the grand scheme of things, your "

power to weight

" ratio should increase.

It would be quite hard for you to put on large amounts of muscle mass when also training for endurance. In my opinion, the only way that would happen is if you cut back dramatically on your endurance training and combine that with a very high amount of protein intake (essentially what bodybuilders do)

If I'm short on time, what goes out first, strength training or endurance?

It depends on which cycle of your training you're in. In my opinion, strength training is paramount during the Off-Season cycle. I would aim to get at least 1 session in per week during the Base Phase and Build Phase, and I would ensure that I always maintain mobility, muscle activation and core strength. 

What comes first, cardio or strength training?

Well that depends. If by cardio you mean high intensity quality sessions (e.g. hill repeats or bike interval efforts), then these sessions go before strength, and ideally not on the same day. The reverse would run the risk that muscle fatigue and glycogen depletion from strength training detract from the quality of the interval session.

If on the other hand, your cardio session is a low-intensity endurance workout, then do your strength training first (utilizing glycogen and building up lactic acid) and use the low intensity workout to utilize fat as fuel and enhance blood flow to accelerate your muscles' recovery from the strength training session. The reverse would run the risk that your muscles glycogen stores would be too depleted to allow you to really hit your targets during the strength training session.


A few words of thanks to the people whose opinions on this subject I value and drew upon for inspiration (in no particular order):

Darren Stanborough - Head of Sports Medicine & Exercise Science at UpandRunning Dubai

- Toby Jones - Bike fitter and owner BikeFit Asia

- Purplepatch Fitness

- Ben Greenfield

- Joe Friel

- Mark Allen

- Dave Scott

Thanks for reading and happy training!