Strength Training for Older Endurance Athletes

People can, and have, run marathons, race ultras, complete obstacle course races, and attempt infamous death races without lifting a single weight in the gym. But strength training— everything from pull-ups and deadlifts to focused muscular endurance work—is fundamental to becoming a well-rounded endurance athlete with a long, injury-free career.

The Strength Matters philosophy of strength training is simple. We want to build functional strength that translates to improved health and performance. A proper strength program will help you develop into a more durable, more powerful, and more efficient cyclist, runner, swimmer, skier, or obstacle course racer—an endurance athlete capable of moving well for many hours, sometimes day after day, that can perform and recover quickly.

As with any well-structured training program, an endurance-oriented strength regimen starts general and sharpens into something more specific over time. Ideally, it should be geared toward the unique physical demands of your pursuit. We can’t cover all endurance sports in this article, so we’re going to focus on general strength standards and exercises for any endurance everyday athlete.

Strength training is not something to be forgotten about during your endurance training plans but it’s not something that should dominate them either. You need to find a balance and combine both for optimal effect.

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Speed Is a Form of Strength

An athlete’s speed depends to a large extent on their power (the rate that strength is applied). To move faster, you need to be able to create higher forces (strength) in the locomotive muscles, and you need to be able to do so more quickly.

When a professional sprinter steps to the line of a 100-meter sprint, their muscles and tendons tense with incredible potential energy. When the gun goes off, their brain communicates a nearly instantaneous signal to those muscles to contract with tremendous power, propelling them off the blocks and into an elite level of performance. In this example, we can identify the sprinter’s power in two capacities: The contractile force of their muscles and the neuromuscular efficiency of their central and peripheral nervous systems as they command function from those muscles at incredible rates. That is strength.

While a sprinter’s display of power is obvious, the same principles apply to the endurance athlete.

The Components that Make Up Endurance for Older Athletes

Any endurance athlete interested in maximizing their performance should look first at what component parts make up their endurance sport. In general, we look at the following:

  • Aerobic Efficiency: This is the metabolic ability of the body to utilize fat as fuel while performing.
  • Speed: This is a form of strength and power.
  • Muscular Endurance: This is the ability of the muscles to produce a higher work output over longer durations in a predominantly aerobic state.
  • Form and Technique: This is the endurance athlete’s proficiency at moving quickly over the terrain, which supports their ability to avoid injury and maintain good form despite accumulating fatigue. Yet another form of strength.

We examine these components and decide how to train each one, first individually and then in combination, implementing increasingly complex, specific workouts as their goal or event approaches. These are the four elements I always look at whilst working with any endurance athlete. The first three I can help improve, the fourth, form and technique, is one of the hardest things to correct and should be a joint effort between each athlete and their coach(es).

Gym Strong Isn’t Endurance Strong

For many older endurance athletes, the term strength training conjures images of muscle-bound gym bros grunting out bicep curls in front of a mirror or chasing a new one-rep max for a deadlift. Erase that from your mind, because that is not what strength training should look like for an endurance athlete. A trail runner, swimmer, cyclist, or skier ultimately needs to develop sport-specific functional strength for their given activity, not bulk they’ll have to haul up a hill, mountain, or in the pool. They can’t afford to gain strength at the expense of adding appreciable muscle mass.

Endurance strength training has two primary aims. First, to unlock your full athletic performance potential in your chosen endurance sport. Second, to reduce the likelihood of injuries. The goal is not to become stronger in the gym. You will lift weights to address deficiencies in your overall general strength but, once you have accomplished that, it will benefit your performance to transition to more sport-specific strength work. In endurance sports, weightlifting should never be an end unto itself.

Programming for The Older Endurance Athlete

Because of the differences between endurance sports and the need for individuality, it is not possible to provide a one-size-fits-all training plan. The idea here is to explain how to implement basic principles that allow you to develop a workable plan, and then start the conversation about strength training for endurance athletes. Taking the four components we discussed above (aerobic efficiency, speed, muscular endurance [ME], and form and technique), we’re going to focus on just the speed and ME parts of the training load and assume solid foundations in both the other two.

The best training plans are always the plans that get done. A less-than-ideal training plan will give you better results than the best plan in the world that never gets done. Often training plans are presented as a black and white affair. Do this or do that to get x result. However, experience shows that the human body is far more complex and we must often operate in shades of grey. That’s why it’s more important to understand the principles of endurance training and not get into the specifics of individual exercises then formulate a plan of attack, keeping in mind your own limitations.

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Outlining the Plan

That being said, it’s important to keep your expectations in line with your commitment. Success at reaching your goals will breed enthusiasm to continue, ensuring future success. There are three things you need to do to establish a solid base plan:

  • Be Realistic – Setting goals that are in line with your past training history and your available time is important. Biting off more than you can chew will at best lead to frustration, at worse cause you serious injury.
  • Have a Goal – Any goal, just choose one. Not having a goal is like going to the airport without
    a destination in mind. This sounds so basic, but it’s surprising how few people have specific targets for their endurance events other than
    just to complete it.
  • Commit – The best plan in the world will not be worth the paper it is written on if you don’t do the work. Get prepared to spend hours and hours, probably alone, doing repetitive, unglamorous work. Embrace the process or the result will elude you.

You need to honestly evaluate where you are now and how much time you can commit to training. Life in your 30s and over often means you don’t have much spare time, and one of the most common mistakes we see people make is to overcommit their training hours. Make a tally of the average hours per week you spent over the past year at work, sleeping, traveling, and spending time with family. The remaining hours are what you have available to train. Use this as a guide and a reality check so you know the absolute upper limit of how much time you can train.

When you’re excited about starting a new training plan with new goals, there is a tendency to jump into training too aggressively. Most of us tend to overestimate our own abilities. The best rule of thumb for those starting a new plan is to start easy and gradually progress. It’s why we organize our training plans into three distinct periods: Transition, base, and race.

Strength Training During the Transition Period

The transition period is a preconditioning phase to prepare people for the specific demands of the base period leading towards their endurance event. It is extremely important for those without a strong background of training and those who are new or are returning to training following a lengthy lay off to spend time in this transition period. How much time depends on the athlete’s ability – two to four weeks for advanced individuals is enough but most everyday athletes could be looking at a far longer period (12 to 24 weeks is not unheard of).

In an ideal world, and being extremely conservative, I like to set annual training targets. For most people entering the endurance world, a total of 300 annual training hours is a good realistic goal. This is approximately six hours of training a week. How we split this time between strength and endurance work depends on the athlete’s current strength levels as determined by some general strength assessments.

I have written in-depth about our Layer 2 assessments previously. I’d highly recommend downloading our High-Performance Handbook to refresh your memory and for more context. However, in general, when it comes to strength training in the transition period for endurance athletes, I’m looking for the following general strength standards:

Movement Strength Test Standard
Locomotion Box Crawl 5 minutes
75% Bodyweight Farmer Carry 90 seconds
Push Push-Ups (one every 3 seconds) Men: 25 reps | Women: 10 reps
Dips Men: 10 reps | Women: 5 reps
Pull Pull-Ups Men: 6 reps | Women: 3 reps
Chin-Ups Men: 6 reps | Women: 3 reps
Flexed Arm Hang Men: 60 seconds | Women: 30 seconds
Hinge Men: 1.5 x Bodyweight Deadlift** 5 reps
Women: 1.25 x Bodyweight Deadlift** 5 reps
Squat 75% Bodyweight Rear Elevated Split Squat | Left 8 reps
75% Bodyweight Rear Elevated Split Squat | Right 8 reps
Barbell Back Squat x Bodyweight** 5 reps
Rotate and Anti-Rotate Turkish Get Up** Men ≤ 68kg @20kg, ≤ 100kg @24kg, > 100kg @28kg 5 reps
Turkish Get Up** Women ≤ 59kg @12kg, > 59kg @16kg 5 reps

If none of these standards can be achieved, then this is where most of our time is going to be spent developing a strong base for your endurance activities. Strength training is an essential supplement to an endurance athlete’s training because strengthening muscles and joints can improve race times and decrease injury risk. If you want to perform at your full potential, you need to take a comprehensive approach to training, which almost always starts with strength work. The reason? Strong muscles don’t need to expend as much energy to hit a certain pace.

For people who can’t achieve the standards above, assuming you have six hours a week to train during the transition period, working towards the goal of 300 total hours per year, I would split the training time up into four hours of strength work and two hours of endurance work. For people who can achieve the standards, I would adjust it accordingly to three hours of strength work and three hours of endurance work Most people will automatically fall into the transition period of training, and some may spend a lot of time here, more than they would like to. The key is planning for the long haul. The more time you spend trying to reach and maintain these standards, the more it will pay off as you’ll be able to spend more time doing the endurance sports you love.

A typical transition period strength workout would cover all fundamental human movements, irrespective of ability, which are (you can read more about the seven human movements here):

  • Locomotion
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Hinge
  • Squat
  • Rotate
  • Anti-Rotate

This period will prepare the body to train specifically for your chosen sport – we want to make it robust, almost bulletproof, to handle the work you plan to do.

Here’s a sample workout for a more advanced individual during the transition period:

  • A) Trapbar Deadlift: 5 sets, 70% max x 8 reps
  • B) Kettlebell Front Squat: 5 sets, 70% max x 8 reps
  • C1) Push Ups: 2 sets, 10-12 reps, 70% effort
  • C2) Pull Ups: 2 sets, 3-5 reps, 70% effort
  • D) Turkish Get Ups: 5/5 reps, 70% effort
  • E) Core Work

Simple, easy to execute, and not rocket science. This workout covers all human movements and develops muscular endurance. We don’t need to be taxing the body at this stage. This is a return to work type training scenario. Harder work will come later.

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Strength Training and the Base Period

Endurance training methods share a great deal in common, but how you approach the endurance aspect really depends on the sport you’re participating in. The fact of the matter is, 80% of your time needs to spent training for your endurance event. That’s one of the simplest, easiest, and fastest ways to improve.

The purpose of the base period is to increase your work capacity and improve fatigue resistance. You build this fitness base so that you can handle more work and eventually more intense work, which prepares you for the races themselves. You’ll achieve this by using a simple progression principle of adding more volume over time. It’s going to be gradual and continuous (no breaks). Endurance training requires a focused plan for months on end. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about developing your aerobic base. Without this base, you won’t recover fast enough and the race itself will leave you in a crippled mess the day after. Just look at most people who take part in the London Marathon who can barely walk for weeks or even months after!

During much of the base period, you will likely be a little too tired to feel like you’re performing at your best. That’s ok. It’s a volume thing. Expect to have slightly heavy legs some days. That’s part of the plan. So, assuming once again you have six hours a week to train during the base period, I will (usually) break the training time up into two to three hours of strength work and three to four hours of endurance work.

Ideally, you’d complete three strength training sessions per week and at least three to four hours of endurance work, but this is dictated by your life outside of training. Not everyone has seven hours of free time available to them each week. As a bare minimum, base period training needs to happen twice a week.

As a rule of thumb, base period strength work follows the pattern of:

  • Max Strength
  • Strength Endurance
  • Muscular Endurance

And in that order, all in one workout, for all seven human movements. We don’t want to overload the system with too much max strength work, as it will detract from the main endurance workouts themselves, but we still need an element of it alongside strength endurance and muscular endurance. Muscular endurance work will pay a big part as I’m looking to fatigue the muscles used primarily by the athlete somewhat ahead of the easy aerobic days. I want the athlete to move whilst under controlled fatigue and to adapt to this low-level stress.

Core strength will also play an integral role during the base period. Your core plays a critical role in endurance sports – everything starts from the core. It stabilizes the pelvis, spine, and shoulders so that the arms and legs can perform their propulsive functions most effectively. If the core is not able to transfer energy effectively from upper to lower body, you will lose power, meaning you use more energy and ultimately being less efficient – a recipe for disaster for endurance activities.

Here’s what a workout would look like for an endurance trail runner in the base period:

  • A) Trapbar Deadlift: 3 sets, 5 reps
  • B) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS): 3 sets, 8/8 reps
  • C1) Dumbell Bench: 2 sets, 12-15 reps
  • C2) TRX Rows: 2 sets, 12-15 reps, 70% effort
  • C3) Russian Box Step Ups (Weighted): 2 sets, 12/12 reps
  • D) Turkish Get Ups: 15 minutes, AMRAP
  • E) Core Work: 5 minutes, hard

Core and legs are a big feature of this workout. With the RFESS and Russian Step Ups, we are looking to fatigue the legs ahead of some of their long runs. That’s the plan, controlled fatigue and structure. Remember this is the base period, not the race period. Slight fatigue is to be expected and desired.

Strength Training and the Race Period

Endurance events differ for many people. Some work towards a singular event, others work towards a series of events or even a season of weekly events. Either way, the golden rule here is to treat your strength work as active recovery. You need to do some but the intensity should be significantly reduced. You need to walk out of the gym feeling as fresh as a daisy, not sore as a beast. This will be paired with easier, recovery-based endurance workouts. The workouts themselves will follow a similar format of adhering to the seven fundamental human movements and working in the strength endurance and muscular endurance ranges. Max power is NOT what we’re looking for right now. If anything, an even bigger emphasis should be placed on stretching, rolling, massage, and even swimming (not discussed previously, but still very important in all phases). Be proactive with this, even doing it every day. More is better with this type of work, but less with the strength work.

This is a sample workout for someone who’s in the Race Period:

Mixed Modal Aerobic: 30 Min AMRAP (70% Effort)

  • A1) Deadlift: 5 reps.
  • A2) Military Press: 5 reps
  • A3) Turkish Get Up: 1/1 reps
  • A4) Assault Bike: 20 calories.
    Repeat. No Rest.

Final Thoughts

While endurance training is unique to the events and sports you’re taking part in, it’s important to follow the general guidelines outlined above. Having a solid base of strength is fundamental for long-term, injury-free training and improved performance; however, when you transition into the base period of training, 80% of your work needs to be doing your sport. Progression of overload and volume is one of the most important elements to consider here, and not to go too hard or too fast. No one can tell you what an appropriate amount of time is to spend in the transitional or base periods but, from experience, most older endurance athletes need to spend more time than they think. I love strength work. I also love endurance work. Combine the two and, in my opinion, you have a healthy recipe for health, wellness, and happiness.

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Why Should Older Endurance Athletes do Strength Training?

Endurance strength training has two primary aims. First, to unlock your full athletic performance potential in your chosen endurance sport. Second, to reduce the likelihood of injuries. The goal is not to become stronger in the gym. You will lift weights to address deficiencies in your overall general strength but, once you have accomplished that, it will benefit your performance to transition to more sport-specific strength work. In endurance sports, weightlifting should never be an end unto itself.

What are the Benefits of Strength Training for Older Endurance Athletes?

A proper strength program will help you develop into a more durable, more powerful, and more efficient cyclist, runner, swimmer, skier, or obstacle course racer—an endurance athlete capable of moving well for many hours, sometimes day after day, that can perform and recover quickly.

 

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Strength Training for Older Endurance Athletes
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Strength Training for Older Endurance Athletes
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Strength training is not something to be forgotten about during your endurance training plans but it’s not something that should dominate them either. You need to find a balance and combine both for optimal effect. In this article we explain how to get stronger for older endurance athletes.
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Strength Matters
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