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Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

05.21.2018 | Forge Performance

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

In this article, will dive into how most endurance athletes aren’t strength training properly to enhance their performance. In addition, we’ll also discuss what they should do instead. Strength training has become more and more popular among endurance athletes. A training protocol that was largely debated in the past has since gained popularity and impacted the performance of countless individuals.

Unfortunately, most strength training novices, as well as experienced strength training athletes, fail to utilize strength training optimally. Often, the usage of machines are implemented, along with barbell lifts (squats, cleans, etc.) in rep ranges that do not directly correlate to increased performance in their sport. These rep ranges can be used in low numbers with too heavy of a weight, or high numbers with too light of a weight.

So what do we do instead? Let’s dive into the main focal points of strength training for endurance athletes, as well as what training protocols elicit the best results. We’ll even give you a glimpse as to how you can start implementing these practices into your programming right away.

*For a more in depth discussion, check out the video here.


This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised as to how often I see endurance athletes overlooking the importance of technique as it translates to performance. When you perform an exercise, your goal is to strengthen a particular movement pattern by strengthening the muscles that support that movement pattern, as efficiently and effectively as possible. Any lag in performance in the gym means wasted energy and inefficiency out on the path, road, or water. As repetitions in competition build up, that wasted energy starts to add up, which can result in premature fatigue, and/or injury.

Hire a Professional

To make sure you’re performing exercises correctly, you may way to hire a professional. In doing so, make sure they:

  • Are a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
  • Are familiar with identifying movement compensation patterns
  • Feel comfortable administering corrective exercises when imbalances are perceived
  • Have experience working with endurance athletes

Exercise Selection

The goal of strength training for endurance athletes is to make the movements and muscles they use most often the strongest. Because of this, we strongly suggest that you choose exercises that tax specific muscles of the body, not the entire body. For instance, barbell squats, or barbell cleans have become increasingly popular in endurance sports. The problem here is that full body fatigue is experienced before muscular fatigue. Meaning, you run out of oxygen before your muscles get tired. It would be much more beneficial to choose an exercise like a sled push or lunge where the strength of the legs is the limiting factor, not the aerobic condition of the body. Check out the video above to learn more.

Upper Body Exercises

For most endurance sports, the use of the upper body is minimal. There’s little need to focus directly on improving strength in these areas. It will not greatly impact the performance of your sport. In addition, the added muscle mass may be at detriment to your performance. However, if you were to implement upper body exercises, these are the best ones. They incorporate additional muscles of the core and lower body to improve overall function and stability:

  • Push-Ups
  • Pull-Ups
  • Standing Rows
  • Tall Kneeling or Tall Seated Overhead Presses*

*Mobility restrictions may prevent these from being possible

Lower Body Exercises

Assuming you are healthy and have a solid movement foundation, most unilateral lower body exercises, and isolation posterior chain exercises are great. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Split Squats (even stance or rear foot elevated)
  • Lunges
  • Hip Bridges (single or double leg)
  • Glute-Ham Raises
  • Leg Curls
  • Reverse Hyper Extensions
  • Back Extensions

Core Exercises

In endurance sports, the core is needed for stability to prevent wasted energy and properly transfer forces from the body into the ground. Having an unstable core is like trying to shoot a cannon ball from a canoe. If the foundation isn’t there, the power can’t be expressed. Some of our favorite exercises include:

  • Birddogs
  • Dead Bugs
  • Plank Variations
  • Roll Outs
  • Leg Raises
  • Kettlebell Carry Variations

Repetitions and Rest Periods

Most strength training plans for endurance athletes have the athlete lifting too heavy or too light of weight. The proper recommendations are to lift a weight with repetitions in the range of 15 to 25. Some exercises require 25-50 repetitions for smaller muscle groups. These exercises are done to near failure. This means roughly 1 to 2 perfect technique repetitions left in the tank. For example, using our split squat exercise from before, one would perform 15 reps of the exercise with maximal weight, perfect form, with the ability to do 1-2 more perfect reps. The athlete would then rest until full recovery is reached, and then repeat for 1-3 more sets.

Sample Workout

A sample workout for an endurance athletes may look as follows:

Power Endurance

1. Box Jumps = 4 sets of 10 reps – 1 minute rest

Strength Endurance

2. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats = 3x20E – 90 seconds rest between legs

Muscle Endurance

3a. Push-Ups = 3×15 – no rest

3b. Stability Ball Leg Curl = 3×20 – 30-60 seconds rest

Muscle Endurance / Core

4a. Back Extension = 3×20 – no rest

4b. Suitcase Carry = 3×30 seconds per side – no rest

Duration and Frequency

Although strength training is becoming more popular among endurance athletes, it’s still extremely under valued. The minimum frequency for strength training of an endurance athlete is 2 intense workouts per week. The optimal frequency would be 4 intense workouts per week. The maximal frequency is 4 intense workouts per week, with 2 small, low intensity workouts for recovery and regeneration. Workouts should last no longer than 75 minutes to ensure proper adaptation to exercise intensities. Shorter workouts also aid the body in recovery. We prefer 45-60 minutes for optimal benefit and recovery.

Some things to keep in mind when performing Strength Training for Endurance are:

  1. We’re training strength, not conditioning
  2. Work when you’re working
  3. Rest when you’re resting
  4. No downtime in between
  5. Leave the gym feeling like you had a little more left

Check out the video for a visual on each focal point. While you’re there, subscribe to our YouTube Channel to see when we drop the next video. See you soon!


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