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

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CYCLING for RUNNERS – ‘Why can’t runners cycle quickly?’

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What’s the difference in terms of fitness between running and cycling? Why doesn’t running necessarily make you a great cyclist or vice versa? They are both endurance activities, both aerobic and both use your legs, but what’s the difference?

Marc Laithwaite from the Endurance Coach asks the question:

‘Why can’t runners cycle quickly?’

The answer to some extent lies in the way we test cyclists and runners. People who visit us for VO2 testing will follow a set protocol, based on whether it’s a run or bike test. The run test starts by running on a treadmill at a slow speed and every minute the speed gets faster until they either jump off or they are ‘fired off’ the back of the treadmill. As the treadmill gets quicker, they have to move their legs faster. Their ‘cadence’ is increased to allow them to stay on the treadmill, but the ‘resistance’ doesn’t really change. When you are running, the resistance is pretty constant, you have to lift the weight of your leg and push your body weight forwards, not a great deal changes as the treadmill gets faster, you just need to move more quickly.

The cyling test is different. We start by asking people to cycle at 90 revolutions per minute and they must maintain that throughout the test (unlike running the cadence / leg speed does not change, it stays the same). Each minute we increase the resistance and it gets harder to turn the pedals, so unlike the run test, the resistance is increasing throughout the test. The test ends when they are no longer able to maintain the 90 revolutions per minute. In some ways, it’s almost like doing a strength exercise such as the ‘leg press’ and as each minute passes, we add a little more weight until they can’t keep going.

What can we draw from the above?

There is an element of strength involved in cycling that isn’t required for running. You can call it strength or ‘muscular endurance’ (call it whatever you like), but the basic fact is that you have to work against high levels of resistance during cycling that don’t apply to running.

What about gears and cadence?

Ok, so at this point you might be thinking there’s a way round this. Rather than being strong, you can use an easier gear and pedal faster! Yes, to come extent you can and we see this a lot with runners who take up cycling, they prefer to spin easier gears rather than pushing big gears at lower cadences. However, there’s only so far you can take this aproach. If you increase your cadence from 90 to 100 to go faster, what happens after that? Do you increase to 110? 120? 130!!??

Here’s our basic observations about the problems often encountered by runners who take up cycling:

1. They lack the basic strength and struggle most frequently on flat courses, where the ability to push ‘big gears’ counts the most.

2. This can generally be identified by a simple 5 second maximal sprint test, which results in a poor power output.

3. Runners tend to favour spinning easier gears and may well favour a ‘compact’ or ‘triple’ chainset.

4. On longer, gradual climbs, runners tend to come into their own and can perform relatively well (long gradual hills are the best courses and flat ‘time trial’ courses are the worst in terms of race performance).

5. Shorter / steeper hills on rolling courses may also be an issue as they lack the ‘short term’ power to maintain speed.

6. When runners complete cycle testing sessions we commonly hear this: “My heart and lungs felt fine, it’s just my legs, I couldn’t turn the pedals, there was too much resistance”

7. It’s more common in females than males and it’s more common as age increases.

8. When people enter Ironman triathlon, they make a presumption that riding long and slow to build endurance is the way forwards. After all, Ironman is all about endurance right? Maybe not.

Here’s the simple truth. If you want to be an ‘UBER’ biker for non-drafting triathlon or cycle time trials, you really need to be able to generate a high power output and push big gears. Either that or you need to pick your courses very well to suit your strengths. There’s a lot of confusion and poor advice regarding the best cycling cadence, which has lead to confusion regarding the physical requirements and training for a fast bike time. People get told every day that you should ‘spin a higher cadence’ when cycling, which is misleading and leads to misunderstanding. In many cases, it makes people slower cyclists and fails to tackle their prime weakness.

On that bombshell… lets discuss cycle cadence in more detail.

There’s a lot of confusion and poor advice regarding the best cycling cadence, which has lead to confusion regarding the physical requirements and training for a fast bike time. People get told every day that you should ‘spin a higher cadence’ when cycling, which is misleading and leads to misunderstanding. In many cases, it makes people slower cyclists and fails to tackle their prime weakness. Let’s discuss a little further and clarify some of the misleading advice.

1. There are different kinds of cycle racing. In triathlon events, the cycle stage (unless you’re elite) is a time trial. It’s you against the clock and there’s no drafting allowed. Time trials require a high power output which is consistent. There’s no repeated accelerations or ‘attacks’, it’s just you, riding at a constant power output.

2. Cycle road racing, crit racing or elite triathlon is not a time trial, it’s a bunch ride. It’s much easier to ride in the draft of the bunch and riders will therefore cycle at higher cadences in easier gears, whilst still maintaining their position in the group. Bunch racing will often include changes in pace, accelerations, attacks and chasing. It’s impossible to accelerate well, if you’re pushing a ‘big gear’, for that reason, bunch racing tends to favour higher cadences and easier gears.

3. Triathletes who ride with cyclists are often told ‘it’s better and more eficient to ride at higher cadences’. That is true for cyclists who ride in bunch races, so whilst the advice is correct for their specific circumstances, it doesn’t mean it’s right for triathletes.

4. Pretty much all studies on the subject show that slower cadences use less oxygen, results in lower heart rate and require less fuel than higher cadences. Many cyclists who ride ‘time trials’ rather than road races favour big gears and slower cadences. Former British champion Nik Bowdler use a 77 tooth chain ring and rode at 65rpm. Chrissie Wellington followed the same approach, riding a much lower cadence as she found it reduced her breathing and heart rate significantly.

Cadence V Gearing

Cadence and gearing are not the same thing. If someone is told to spin at a high cadence up hills, we presume that we should choose a very easy gear. If we’re told to ride with a slower cadence, we associate that with a big gear. You will often see pro riders spinning a higher cadence up hills, don’t be fooled into thinking they are using a compact chainset or a very easy gear, they are strong enough to spin a larger gear. Simply changing into a very easy gear to allow you to spin, will result in you going slowly. The reason you are forced to use an easy gear is a basic lack of ability to produce a high force, so you are not tackling the problem at hand.

Take away tips:

1. You need to use bigger gears at some point if you want to ride faster

2. To use bigger gears you need to have the basic leg strength (often lacking in runners, moreso ladies)

3. Slower cadences are more efficient for time trials and faster cadences are better for changes of pace on technical courses and bunch races

4. As a rider, you should be capable of adapting your cadence to suit the race

5. Don’t just start pushing huge gears in an attempt to tackle the problem, be wary of injury

6. Don’t keep reaching for the gear shifter every time you hit the smallest incline, this isn’t helping

7. If strength is very poor, you may want to consider a simple strength routine in the gym as a basic start point


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