Mirinda Carfrae - Great example of what strength for a Triathlete looks like.

Strength Training & the Endurance Athlete

A question that often gets asked by endurance athletes is should I lift weights? As with nearly every question to do with training, fitness or nutrition the only correct short answer is “well it depends”. It depends on a lot of factors. The most important factor is to first try and understand what is strength training in the context of endurance training and performance. Strength training is generally thought of in terms of lifting heavy weights or pushing/pulling against resistance machines and doing classic body building or weight lifting exercises like deadlifts, squats, cleans, curls and everyone’s favourite the bench press (how much can you bench? 😊). This classical definition of strength as the ability to exert force defines strength in an isolated laboratory setting, but we need to apply strength to the sport or activity we are preparing for. That classic definition obviously has no time constraints in how long it takes to exert the force.

Increasing your 1 rep max and % of body weight lifted is often seen as important. Well it could be if your goal is to be world class at 1 rep max in the deadlift but there’s no endurance event I know of that hands medals out to the person with the highest 1 rep max. So I would question if that is strength training for endurance athletes. Strength training to have any purpose or meaning for an endurance athlete must benefit the sport that is your primary focus. Endurance athletes doing what they do can be distilled into the concept of “applying force at speed through (often complex) coordinated movements”. This is especially the case in swimming and running and so strength training if it has any meaning must enhance those movement patterns.

Recently I came across some real wisdom towards defining strength training from two masters of athletic strength and conditioning. Franz Bosch has come up with the simple but devastatingly incisive description of strength training as “coordination training with resistance” and Vern Gambetta develops that concept further by defining strength training as “coordination training with appropriate resistance”. So resistance is involved and it’s appropriateness could mean heavy weights for power athletes like rugby players that have to overcome large heavy objects (other players) but much less so for endurance athletes. Endurance athletes have to be fast and move freely and efficiently so for them the coordination part of the definition is key. So strength training for endurance athletes should focus on complex coordination puzzles for the body and mind to solve which sometimes may involve appropriate weights or resistance. This approach could include lots of single leg exercises and complex movements like lunge to single leg high knee lift, planks with cable pulls, hot salsa etc.

Does this mean there’s no place for deadlifts and overhead squats well here it comes again – “it depends”. Including a limited number of these classic lifts during the early off season phase of training may do little harm but as you approach race season you really need to focus on Strength Training as defined by those two wise master coaches:

Coordination Training with Appropriate Resistance.


Training Peaks University

Just as in other professions CPD is crucial for coaches, after all a coach that knows all and doesn’t need to learn anything is not really a coach. So I spent this weekend going back to University (no cheap booze or crazy dancing this time around I’m afraid!) or at least I went to Training Peaks University. The hosts were Joe Friel and Dave Schul and they did a great job in explaining many of the nuances of Training Peaks. In case you don’t use Training Peaks then suffice to say that it is considered to be the best web based endurance coaching platform available at the moment and is what I use for my athletes. There was a lot of great teaching about getting the best use of Training Peaks which I will definitely put to great use. Joe Friel was probably the first Triathlon Coach and has vast knowledge and experience about coaching; there were many pieces of “gold” about coaching and athletic performance to be picked up from his presentations and here are a few snippets:

  • Most athletes place too much emphasis on volume. For advanced athletes race day performance is linked more to the profile and distribution of intensity in their training plan rather than volume (BUT the key word is profile this does not mean trying to do more and more intensity)
  • Physiological measures (lactate threshold, Vo2, anaerobic threshold) have limited relevance to how you train – what is important is training for the demands of your goal event
  • A large focus of training should be aimed at helping the athlete to control pace and effort – in 99.9% of cases this means slowing the athlete down.
  • Periodisation thought of by most people as “slow to fast” is no longer the standard approach used by Joe he includes some high intensity work all year round
  • Getting fitter requires athletes to get more fatigued the two trend in the same direction, always


PS. Joe is the fit, lean  looking dude on the left in the picture above :-)


Do you ‘Recover to Train’ or ‘Train to Recover’?

This distinction may seem merely a confusing way of ordering words in a sentence but understanding the specific difference is vital in your understanding of how effectively you train.

We are all aware that if we don’t add additional stress or overload to our training then adaptation won’t occur and our fitness will most likely plateau. Training programmes should, however, aim to be optimal rather than maximal we should always be aiming for the most training we can do while adapting to that training.

Effective coaches therefore carefully plan the combination of the 4 elements of training:

  • volume of training
  • intensity of training;
  • frequency or density of training
  • recovery from, and adaptation to, training.

Of these often the most neglected is the final one – recovery. Neglecting recovery is counterproductive as it is not the active part of training that makes us fitter but the positive adaptations that occur in the recovery.

By planning your recovery time and activities you will experience a four-fold benefit. You will:

  • derive better performance from the same training
  • be able to progress your training at a faster rate because both your performance and training capacity have improved
  • actually begin to train the adaptation process as the cells respond more quickly and more profoundly to the volume, intensity and frequency of your planned training and
  • be less susceptible to injury and illness associated with over-reaching or over-training responses.

Many coaches and athletes focus disproportionately on the active part of the training as the key to improvement but as explained above it can be seen that instead of ‘recovering to train’ you should ‘train to recover’.

Those coaches and athletes who ‘recover to train’ have a focus entirely on the sessions that they do and rest is seen, at best, as a necessary evil. These individuals are still stuck in the mind-set that merely completing a session is sufficient to improve performance, which we have seen isn’t true.

When you ‘train to recover’, however, each session is seen in the context of the recovery opportunities that follow them. Training for recovery should never be confused with training less. Instead, these coaches and athletes create a better way of balancing the train/rest/recovery conundrum, making their training more efficient and more productive, with an individual’s adaptation guiding the process.

Ask yourself now a simple question, “Is it better for me to train maximally, or optimally?” If you are ‘training to recover’ and modifying the planned training to accommodate the recovery and adaptation process, you should be training optimally. It is often said, “It is better to do 90% of what an athlete can do, and adapt fully, over a season, rather than to risk doing 101+% and not adapting optimally or even worse getting injured.”

Train Smart

Coach Musty