B Strong. B Fast. Just Fit.

Strength Training for Endurance: Part 2

Published March 27th, 2009 in BAMFing, Endurance, Strength Training

Ok, so just because it took me this long to hopefully prove something that you probably already knew, doesn’t mean you can just start pumping iron and reap the benefits of better performances. Not all strength training programs are created equal, but there are a couple of training principles that are the same regardless.

#1 is the overload principle. Overload states that for any training adaptation (increase in strength, endurance, etc.) to occur, you must train at a level beyond what you are already accustomed. The one story always used to reflect this principle is the story of Milo of Croton from Greek mythology. Everyday, Milo lifted a pet calf. As the calf grew, Milo was challenged beyond what he was the day before until ultimately he was strong enough to lift a full grown ox. I’d be pretty impressed if any of our real strong men today could lift an ox, but you get the point. In any form of training, in order to improve, you need to challenge your body to do more, or go beyond what you currently can do. That can mean increases in resistance, speed, volume, frequency, or duration.

#2 is the principle of specificity. It is also called the SAID principle; Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This means that results from training are limited to the physiological systems used and overloaded during training. If you want to improve at something, you need to do that something. This is probably the most important principle. You can’t train for a marathon, and expect to be fast sprinter, or vice versa.

The principle of specificity is where the term “Functional training” originates. As I said (no pun intended), not all programs are created equal, but they may all be equally beneficial for their specific purpose. All the term functional training truly means is training in a manner that mimics or resembles the activity you are going to perform. If an endurance athlete goes to the gym and starts training like they do at Venice Beach, they will not maximize the benefits of strength training for their endurance sport. A bodybuilding program is not functionally appropriate for endurance.

What exactly is functional training for endurance? In order to answer that question, you need to examine the endurance sport you are training for and answer a few more questions. Where does the sport take place; on land, in the water, on a piece of equipment? What physical actions does the sport require, and what are the muscles/joints involved in those actions? The big thing with functional training is training “movements, not muscles”, but there can be instances where training a specific muscle or joint is necessary before progressing to a more complex movement, as in the case of rehabilitating an injury. The majority of the time however, you need to train for how you move.

Let’s take a look at 3 main endurance sports; running, cycling, and swimming.


For most people, running is the quickest and easiest way to start endurance training. It is also one of the most injury producing sports we do. Of the estimated 24 million runners in the USA, 65% will have a running related injury each year, that’s about 15 million people! Looking at the basic movements required to run, will give you the clues you need to design your functional strength program to hopefully prevent some of these injuries.

  1. The first obvious point is that running takes place 1 leg at a time. Right away you have to be able to stabilize on a single leg during the support phase of each stride.
  2. Running involves contra-lateral (opposite, or opposing) movement between upper and lower extremities. When the right foot moves forward, the left arm moves forward to counter balance the movement. This counter movement involves rotational forces through the core (from bottom of rib cage to the knees) of the body.
  3. Forward motion is caused primarily by hip extension. Once the foot contacts the ground, the hamstrings and gluteals contract to pull the torso forward. Think of it like trying to scrape something off the bottom of your shoe.
  4. The drive phase, or “push off” requires simultaneous hip extension, knee extension, and plantar flexion. So running involves multi-joint movements working simultaneously to move the body along.
  5. In the recovery phase, the hip extends rapidly, and the knee extends eccentrically to pull the leg through to the next stride.

Right away, you can see that single leg stability is a must. If you can’t balance on one leg, there is no way you will be an efficient runner. In order to get the most power per stride, you must stabilize the hip joints; of which the hamstrings and glutes are the primary movers.

The contra-lateral movement between the upper and lower body requires rotation of the torso, and thus demands a strong and stable core (ribs to knees, lumbar spine and hips). A weak core reduces the amount of power transmitted between the upper and lower body and limits performance.

Let us not forget that every step you take transmits anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds of force directly through your foot and ankle into the rest of your body. Good ankle stabilization and joint mobility is a must. Running takes place in a standing position, so it makes sense for the majority of the exercises chosen for a strength program to occur standing. It does not mean however, that exercises that don’t have you upright are not appropriate; it just depends on how closely they mimic the actual running movements.

Finally, running requires multi-joint movements in a highly coordinated fashion. Performing single joint exercises such as those in a bodybuilding program just don’t translate effectively. Running is also an explosive sport, so incorporating plyometric exercises is essential for improving performance.
All of these movements happen fairly rapidly and extremely repetitively. Amazingly, unless you’re a coach or therapist, you never think about it because as soon as you can walk, you can run.


Cycling presents us with an interesting dynamic. It is a ground based movement just like running however, instead of contacting the ground with our feet; we are connected through a bicycle. Our means of propulsion are still movements of joints and muscles, but they are translated through pedals, cranks, chains, frames, and wheels. Obviously, the main focus is on the pedal stroke and the coordinated movement of the hips, knees, and ankles.

The chart below gives you a breakdown of what muscles are used during the pedal stroke.

CyclingMusclesCrankDiagram copy


Don’t be fooled however, into thinking that it’s solely the legs that are responsible for propelling the bike forward. Remember that when one side of the lower body moves, it is counter balanced by movement of the opposite upper body. The human body naturally moves in a contra-lateral fashion between upper and lower extremities using rotational forces to provide locomotion.

This rotation and involvement of the core and upper body becomes more evident in cycling when you are sprinting or climbing, but it is present at all times. Notice when you’re pedaling out of the saddle how the bike moves from side to side away from the downward pedal stroke.

Is cycling a leg dominated sport? Briefly, yes, but without a strong core, you will not be able to generate maximum power. With power meters all the rage in serious cycling, it makes sense to incorporate training the core and upper body into your cycling strength program.


Swimming transports us from a land based activity into the relatively anti-gravity environment of the water. It also changes our perspective from a vertical position to a horizontal position. Add to that the fact that water is more dense than air, and we have a completely different environment than what we are used to.
How do we move our body through this strange medium? The first thing we have to consider is drag. Drag is the resistance encountered when moving through water. Have you ever tried running in water? It’s not so easy, is it? This is due to the large surface area of your body pushing against the water. Hence, in water, we use a horizontal position to create a smaller surface area for the water to resist against. This streamlined position helps us “cut through” the water and move more easily.

Now we have to consider buoyancy. Some people are more buoyant than others, but there is still an element of gravity for everyone to deal with. There must be downward force applied to the water to keep us buoyant, as well as backward force applied to propel us forward.

The more efficient we are at maintaining a streamlined position in the water, and the more power we can generate with each stroke, the more likely we will be able to swim faster. So how do we maintain good positioning and generate power, or thrust?

As you may have guessed, swimming is an upper body dominated activity. There is extensive use of the shoulder and arms in particular. The lower body also provides thrust through the kick; however, in endurance swimming, and triathlons, the kick is usually minimal and used to help stabilize the body in the water. What else happens during the swim stroke? From one stroke to the next, the body rotates through the water. This rotation is initiated by, you guessed it, the core (ribs to knees, lumbar spine and hips). Without a strong core for swimming, you could not generate enough power, or maintain proper body positioning to “cut through” the water. If your lower body sags down in the water, you create a greater surface area and thus more drag, creating the swimming equivalent of running uphill.

Putting it all together:

  1. All three disciplines require different movements for locomotion, but all use rotational forces to facilitate those movements. It makes sense then to incorporate exercises in your program that strengthen your core with particular attention focused on rotation.
  2. All three sports require multi-joint movements working together in an integrated/coordinated fashion. Therefore, it’s important to train with movements that require more than one joint at a time. Exercises such as leg extensions and dumbbell curls are not an appropriate choice for the endurance athlete.
  3. Two of the three involve ground reaction forces, so it makes sense to train in a standing position with your feet in contact with the ground.
  4. They all require power in order to move faster, so incorporating power training such as plyometrics is essential to improve performance.
  5. They all require movements in multiple planes of motion (sagittal-forward, frontal- side to side, transverse-rotation), and require multiple planes of stabilization, so training must mimic those movements such as training on a single leg, or using reciprocal and unilateral movements.

It’s important to understand that not all exercises will fit into these descriptions, but that does not mean that they are ineffective for endurance athletes. Remember that you had to crawl before you could walk, and walk before you could run, so it’s important to follow an appropriate progression.

There are a number of protocols you can use in your training. These include: body weight training, medicine balls, cables and tubing, free weights, stability balls, plyometrics, etc. There are also a multitude of exercises that each protocol lends itself to.

The following is a brief list of great exercises for each protocol:

Body Weight:
Squats Lunges (all planes) Single leg squats Step ups Single leg reach Push ups variations Pull up variations Crunches (all varieties) Single leg balance

Medicine balls:
MB squats MB lunges MB chops MB rotations MB push up variations MB toss variations

Cables and Tubing:
Push variations Pull variations Hip flexion/extension Hip ad/abduction Torso rotation variations Resisted running Resisted jumping

Free weights:
Squats Lunges Reaches Overhead presses Dead lifts Row variations Rotations Push up variations

Stability balls:
Squats Lunges Single leg squats Bridge variations Push up variations Back extensions Knee tucks Rotations

Squat jumps Split squat jumps Depth push ups Jump rope Box jumps Bounding Long jumps Double leg hops Single leg push off

These are only a few of the endless list of exercises that can be incorporated into an effective strength training program for endurance athletes. Remember that in order for an exercise to be “functional” for endurance it needs to resemble actual movements used in the chosen sport. That is the principle of Specificity. In order for any improvements to occur, the endurance athlete must challenge and go beyond what they are already capable of doing. That is the principle of Overload. You now know that Strength training is indeed good, and in fact essential for the endurance athlete to improve performance. You also know the basics of how to go about designing a program for three specific endurance sports. The most important thing for you to do is to keep examining your sport to understand exactly how to train for it. Don’t just randomly go into the gym and pump iron. If you go in with a plan and a purpose you’ll be successful.