Weight Training for Endurance Sports

Weight Training

As an endurance athlete, it is likely strength training (ST) is not a part of your workout routine. Traditionally, weight training has been left out of endurance training programs at both the elite and recreational level. Common wisdom suggests that if you want to be a great runner, you should run a lot; if you want to be a great cyclist, you should ride a lot. In recent years, however, adding ST to endurance training routines has become more widely viewed as beneficial and more athletes are including ST in their programs. If you’re interested in adding ST to your routine, it is important to implement it in a way that will enhance your performance and not place you at risk for injury.

Specificity of Training

Specificity of training is the concept that every sport requires a specific set of physical skills, and as you train for that sport you develop those skills. This is true for entirely different sports, such as cycling and swimming, as well as for different events within the same sport, such as running 400 meters and running a marathon.  When you set out to include ST in your routine, it is important to consider the needs of your specific sport(s) and/or events in which you compete.

In most endurance sports, strength to weight ratio (how much you weigh vs. how much power you can generate) is the most important factor in improving performance. That being the case, it is important to get the most strength and power out of your ST while limiting the amount of muscle size gain. You want to avoid having “dumb” muscles—those that are not trained to help you improve at your chosen sport. They might make you look better naked, but they will not necessarily make you a better athlete!  The more integrated exercises you include in your program, the more your strength gain will translate into better performance. In order of complexity, from least functional to most functional, these exercises include:

  • Fixed Machines
  • Barbells
  • Dumbbells
  • Cable Machines
  • Adding stability challenge to above (Swiss ball, Bosu, Balance board, etc.)

You can mix and match your equipment and exercise choices to suite your experience level, and can always find ways to challenge yourself in future workouts. It is critical to make subtle adjustments in training stress levels to continually force your system to adapt.

Integrating ST into Your Program

Your off-season is the ideal time to implement ST into your routine. Different seasons and phases of training require different amounts and intensity of ST to supplement your sport training and get the best training effect.

No matter how much experience you have in your sport, it is very important to be conservative when adding ST to your routine. Slowly implementing ST allows your body to adapt with as little discomfort as possible and help you avoid injury. Most fit people who go to the gym for the first time end up using too much weight and do too many exercises and end up suffering with soreness or injury.

Your first two weeks of ST should start with light weights (approximately 50% of maximum) and increase gradually. The goal is to get your body used to the new stresses and prepare for more heavy lifting. Once you feel like your body is accepting the workload, you can add more weights.

Sample Routines and Periodization    

In each phase of your training program there is an optimal way to use ST to your advantage. Of course, doing any type of ST throughout the year will make you a stronger and more versatile athlete, but using periodization is the best way to improve performance.


Phases of training (with duration)

Base Building Phase (one to three months)

This is when you do higher volume of training in your primary sport(s) at low intensity to develop aerobic strength. This is the best time to add ST to your routine because it allows adaptation at a time when you are not racing or expecting to feel fresh and fast. It is good to start with a full-body routine, a variety of exercises, done twice a week. Example: one set of 20 reps of each exercise with 60-75% max weight.

Preparation Phase (one to three months)

This is when you cut your volume and increase intensity. You should reflect this in your ST by increasing weights and adding sets for power. Example: One set of 20 reps with 50-60% max weight for specific warm-up; rest 30-60 seconds; one set of 6-8 reps with 90-100% max weight (be sure to have a spotter). This explosive set will stimulate more muscle contraction and train faster, more powerful muscles without building bulk. ST should be done twice a week.

Sharpening Phase (two to eight weeks)

This is your opportunity to sharpen your fitness as you approach key races. You should cut back on volume and add more intensity with some very high-end training. Again, ST should reflect your other training and you can continue your power training as in the Preparation Phase, however you should only execute the power sets once a week so you don’t hinder your speed workouts. Allow two days recovery between your power sets and speed work.

Racing (two to eight weeks)

This is the time to feel sharp and fresh. It is important to continue some maintenance in this phase, but you should not be doing anything to gain more fitness or power. Continue twice a week with weights that are comfortable for you, doing only one set of 20 reps for each exercise.

Recovery/Transition (one to two months)

This is an important time for rejuvenation and it is important to take some time off. Taking one or two weeks off completely is advisable, then get back to ST with very low weights for a couple weeks. You want to enter your next Base Building Phase feeling refreshed and ready to build on what you gained the past year.

If you need guidance to learn specific exercises for your ST program, you might hire a personal trainer, preferably someone who has experience training endurance athletes in your sport(s).

Adding ST to your routine will help you become a stronger, more powerful athlete and increase your chances for an injury free future.


Base Phase

  • Aerobic warm-up; 5-30 minutes or one round of lifting routine with very light weights (15 reps each with 40-50% max weight)
  • Main set: One set of 20 reps each exercise with 60-75% max weight
  • Lunges (holding dumbbells or barbell)
  • Squats (barbell)
  • Hamstring curl on Swiss ball
  • Hip flexion on Swiss ball
  • Pull-ups (weight assisted)
  • Dips (weight assisted)
  • Lat pull-down (cable machine)
  • Chest press (cable machine)
  • Rowing (cable machine)
  • Push-ups with feet on Swiss Ball
  • Triceps extension (cable machine or dumbbell)
  • Bicep curls (cable machine or dumbbell)
  • Finish with gentle stretching and/or 5-15 minute aerobic cool-down

Originally published in 2015 Issue

About the Author

Tim Monaco is a Multi-Sport Coach, Licensed Massage Therapist, Corrective Exercise Specialist and CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coach from Bend, OR. He is a former Professional Triathlete who has won Vineman Ironman, Buffalo Springs Lake Half Ironman and has completed 15 International Ironman Events.