New Research is Absolutely Clear: Lift More Less

Effective Strength Training for Endurance Athletes Means Fewer Reps, Heavier Weights

Even though my gym has re-opened, I’m still a bit reluctant to spend a lot of time there. 

But as an endurance athlete, I understand how critical strength training is for me. 

And as an older athlete, I’m doing less volume on the bike or on the trail and more days of strength training

I’m finding that it’s getting me stronger on the bike and faster on the trails. 

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes Guidelines

1. Mix up the exercises in your workout. That keeps you engaged and your muscles “guessing what’s coming next” so they adapt and grow.

2. To get strong, go heavy and go until muscle fatigue, or close to failure. There’s little difference between a set of three to five reps and lifting up to 15 reps. Fatigue and failure are the keys. 

3. Do one or two sets. Do between five and 12 reps to failure/fatigue

4.  The research on strength training for endurance athletes is pretty clear: We need to do strength training at least twice a week. 

5. Do two to three sessions a week (up to five sets of a given exercise), then taper to once per week during the race season to maintain gains.

The research also suggests strength training two to three times a week for at least 10 weeks, then tapering to once a week during the race season.

Doing the strength training three hours after an endurance workout seems to be a good option.

It Works

Even limited days of strength training can provide a giant improvement for endurance athletes, both in terms of overall strength and your body’s ability to recruit more muscle fiber to improve endurance and economy of movement.

“Trained distance runners have shown improvements of up to 8% in running economy following a period of resistance training. Even a small improvement in running economy could have a large impact on distance running performance, particularly in longer events, such as marathons or ultra-marathons. The improvement in running economy has been theorised to be a result of improvements in neuromuscular characteristics, including motor unit recruitment and reduced ground contact time.”

Outside Magazine

Effective strength training for endurance athletes means fewer reps, heavier weights, and fewer sets to build fatigue and muscle growth.

This chart suggests twice a week strength training that combines training with external loads (dumbbell squats, dumbbell chest presses) with ballistic movements like plyometrics. 

Progression should include increasing the weight lifted with less than eight repetitions per set. 

It takes you less time than you think

The how and what of strength training for endurance athletes is still a little unclear, and some recent research suggests less is more as long as we go heavy and to nearly failure. 

Many power lifters and weight lifters use a 5×5 approach to building strength: five sets of five reps of heavy weight. 

Yet the recent research suggests that programs like 5×5 is overkill and a time-waster. 

And since I want to spend as little time in the gym as possible, I want to maximize my time there and get out. 

The research suggests that doing one set of exercises to near-failure is all you need to do. 

The research suggests there are no to very little strength gains from doing many sets, like the 5×5 program. 

Effective strength training for endurance athletes means fewer reps, heavier weights, and fewer sets to build fatigue and muscle growth.

One Set to Check, Second to Fatigue

I’ve been trying this and doing two sets: one to figure out my lifting capacity for the day, and the second to build the fatigue. 

I use the first to see how I’m feeling for the day, still going heavy. If I get to 10 reps, I know I need to increase the weight.

My second set is as heavy as I can make it. I want to be able to struggle to get six to eight reps.

“The evidence-based recommendations call for doing eight to 12 repetitions to achieve “momentary muscular failure” — the point at which you can’t do another rep without a break. As long as your set of exercises produces this kind of fatigue, it should be enough to evoke adaptations that improve strength.”

Elemental Magazine

What matters is that you build fatigue to near failure.

It doesn’t matter that you do 10 reps or 15 reps; you want to doing enough reps to build fatigue.

Effective strength training for endurance athletes means fewer reps, heavier weights, and fewer sets to build fatigue and muscle growth.

This chart shows graphically how doing fewer sets of a given exercise leads to greater gains for both strength and hypertrophy (size, if that’s what you’re interested in). 

Create a Plan for the Best Strength Training Gains

While this research clearly seems to show that less is more when it comes to strength training, it also shows that what you do and how you do the work is critical to get right.

Let’s talk! I’m happy to answer questions and give you some guidelines on how to approach strength training.

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