Strength Training for Endurance (Part 2) by Marc Laithwaite


Missed part 1? Read HERE first

Last week we discussed joint stability and core training, specifically how you can improve your economy by developing a stable platform. I said last week that joint stability comes forst, before you start adding resistance to the major muscles, so if you missed the blog, go back to the menu above, click ‘The Endurance Blog’ and scroll down to last week’s article (Part 1).

So this week, we’re looking at strength exercises for swimming,cycling and running. Before we start, I’d like to make it clear that the advice is my personal view, based on research I’ve read, what I’ve observed as a coach and what I’ve used as an athlete. I think it’s correct and have clear reasons for that, your opinion may vary and you may have read different advice, but I can live with that. Take from it whatever you feel beneficial and feel free to question me by reply.


I wrote a blog a few weeks ago titled ‘why runners can’t cycle’. The title sounds a bit harsh, but it very much relates to strength training for cyclists. We’ve tested hundreds of cyclists and amazingly, we seen a clear correlation between how far they can get during an 8-10 minute aerobic ramp test (increase the resistance every minute until they reach VO2 max) and how much power they can produce in a 5 second sprint. This means that is you can’t produce a high amount of power in a 5 seconds sprint, your cycling performances from 25 miles up to Ironman will also be limited. As unbelievable as that may sound, that’s what the test results show.

Distance runners tend to have poor leg strength as it’s not required to the same extent as cycling. Female runners tend to be worse than male runners. We often find that these people lack basic leg strength and find it difficult to make the transition to cycling (tend to be better on long hills, poor on the flat and short hills). For this reason, general leg strength is a key requirement for cycling and should be assessed as an indicator of performance. If it’s poor, then general strength exercises such as squats and deadlift, with low reps and high weights can have a real benefit to performance. Older athletes have greater problems with strength, they tend to be ok with long and slow, hence they prefer longer events as they feel they are more able to compete.

Aside from the leg strength exercises, a general core and upper body routine can benefit the rider for the purposes of stability (sitting still and providing a stable platform to drive from). If you want to read the runners can’t cycle blog in full GO HERE


Squats and Deadlift are very useful exercises for muscle health and performance. Long distance running is catabolic in the sense that it ‘breaks down’ tissues. Conversely strength training is anabolic and help tissues to grow and perform optimally. I’ve rarely seen a distance runner ‘bulk up’ by doing strength work, but lots of runners are needlessly scared of weight gain.

Like all forms of training, strength should be periodised. Learn the exercises, increase the load whilst holding form and then progress to more specific exercises. For running, the most effective form of strength training is ‘plyometrics’. At it’s most simple, this is jumping, hopping and bouncing exercises. These ‘bouncing’ exercises teach the muscles and tendons to store elastic energy and act as if they were springs. The reality is that ‘great runners bounce’.

Plyometric exercises have been show to improve economy (remember last week we said economy is how much oxygen you need to exercise). In simple terms, if your tendons and muscles use elastic energy, allowing you to bounce, your effort is reduced. Elastic energy is FREE energy. If you can’t bounce, you have to rely on the muscles to work more, so oxygen and heart rate go up. Tendons and tissues which bounce don’t need to use oxygen, it’s free, so it feels easy.

Key things:

1. You can’t go straight into plyometrics and skip general strength, you will get injured.

2. As you get older, stored elastic energy becomes a major issue so you bounce less. Strength is therefore of much greater importance, the older you are.

A general core and upper body routine is critical for runners. You need to have a solid chassis which will not collapse as your foot strikes the ground. Sitting down and collapsing into your stride will mean you have no chance at all of bouncing back off the road or trail, all energy will be lost. The pelvis and torso should be rock solid and hold posture at point of impact.


A strength routine for the whole body will benefit any swimmer, in terms of both performance and injury prevention. Stability and strength is important throughout the body, for example:

1. At the shoulders as the hand enters the water and catches the water, shoulder stability is critical for a firm catch, from which to pull. Overhead exercises assist with shoulder stability, e.g. single arm dumbell press.

2. General strength in the arms, chest and back will allow more pressure to be applied during the pull phase. This is more relevant for swimmers who are particularly weak.

3. Core stability is important for balance, although I’ve never seen a swimmer with ‘low legs’ resolve the issue by doing the plank in the gym. I have however see plenty of people who can ‘plank like there’s no tomorrow’ but they have low legs when they swim. The core stability and balance required to raise the legs is much more effectively resolved by kicking work in the pool, with and without fins.

Now we’ve covered the 3 sports and how they differ in terms of demands, next week we will produce a sample strength routine which you can follow throughout the winter period. You’ll need access to some kettlebells or dumbells and you’ll also need access to a free weights bar for exercises such as squats. You’ll find these in any gym. As we discussed last week, winter is the perfect opportunity to start a strength programme. You should commit to it, even if it means dropping or reducing your swim, cycle and run. You can phase those sessions back into your routine from February onwards and feel faster and stronger for it!!

*This article was originally posted on here

About Marc:

Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.

2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.

In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.

In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.

In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.

Check out the endurance store HERE

Endurance Store Logo

5 thoughts on “Strength Training for Endurance (Part 2) by Marc Laithwaite

  1. Great read.
    ” I’ve rarely seen a distance runner ‘bulk up’ by doing strength work, but lots of runners are needlessly scared of weight gain.” So true.

    I have been doing lots of strength work on top of lots of running volume and have never had to watch out for weight gain. But, the strength gains have been super valuable to avoid energy and just feel stronger as an athlete and ultrarunner.

  2. Pingback: Strength Training for Endurance (Part 3) by Marc Laithwaite | – Photography, Writing, Talk Ultra Podcast

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