Why Strength Training Should be in an Endurance Athlete’s Program

Strength training is essential for runners and endurance athletes, however the contrary is not true. Endurance athletes benefit greatly from strength training, as we will discuss in this blog, however strength athletes do not benefit from endurance training– on the contrary, the addition of endurance training to a strength athlete’s program will cause interference and result in sub-optimal strength gains and hindrance. This is why you will rarely see a powerlifter include running in his/her training program. 

There are three major benefits of including strength training to an endurance training program:

  • Increase the ability to lift heavier (absolute strength)

  • Increase the ability to produce force quickly (power)

  • Increase injury prevention

    • There is research that shows stronger hip abductors, and greater external rotation strength result in a lower overall injury rate (1)

Endurance runners base their performance on several factors to include maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max), exercise economy, and lactate threshold. Although strength training hasn’t shown any significant improvements in VO2max, there have been proven changes in the other two factors. The significant adaptations seen as a result of strength training are:

  • Neuromuscular adaptations: increase  in rate of force development (RFD), motor unit synchronization, and reduced antagonist inhibition (2).

    • Increase in RFD plays a role in the exercise economy by allowing for a shorter propulsion phase with the same force. 

  • Skeletal muscle adaptations: larger size of individual muscle fibers, muscle fiber type transitioning, and structural alterations

    • Strength training leads to increased muscle-tendon stiffness, which helps with running economy by optimizing the efficiency of the contracting muscle. 

  • Metabolic improvements: increase in muscle glycogen stores, increase enzymes used in the adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine (ATP-PC) and glycolytic systems (3).

    • Metabolic improvements also help exercise economy by minimizing fatigue and improving efficiency, since the production of lactate is reduced.

In summary, strength training leads to: improved exercise efficiency → decreased energy expenditure→ higher glycogen stores→ less fatigue→ better performance.

If you’re a runner and/or endurance athlete, here are a few ways of adding in strength training to your current program:

  • Create a periodized program. Add about 2 sessions per week of strength training. 

    • Reduce it to 1 session per week during competition season or the weeks where you have a race scheduled.

  • Choose exercises that benefit your sport. 

    • For example, as a runner you primarily focus on the lower body– you strike the ground with one leg, while the other goes through a swing phase. Due to the biomechanics of running, you will want to select exercises that build strength in the lower body, core, and hips. 

    • Common exercises for runners: squats, sled drags, box step ups, split squats, kettlebell swings

    • Focus on a mix of high-intensity strength training paired with explosive, high-velocity movements (3).

Remember that if your sport is endurance focused, you must prioritize your endurance training first. Strength is supplemental and you should use it wisely by applying the appropriate volume and intensity.  The goal is to optimize performance while avoiding overtraining. Do not make it a priority and spend hours at the gym training like a strength athlete, unless you want to change sports. 

  1. Leetun, DT, Ireland, ML, Willson, JD, Ballantyne, BT, and Davis, IM. Core stability measures as risk factors for lower extremity injury in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 36(6): 926-934, 2004.

  2. Ratamess, NA. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. (3rd ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 94-119, 2008.

  3. Lewis, Marc Theron. “Strength Training and Endurance Athletes.” National Strength and Conditioning Association, https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/ptq/strength-training-and-endurance-athletes/.