Strength training for endurance performance

Dr Janet Viljoen (PhD - Exercise Physiology)

The benefits of adding strength training to your preparation for endurance events has been well documented. Increased leg muscle strength produces notable muscular endurance gains - even in well-trained cyclists and runners. More recent research has focused on the nuances of quite what these gains are and how they translate into event performance.

A quick review of the research from 2015-2016 yields interesting results: runners and cyclists, male and female, elite and amateur, have been put through their paces. The bottom line? Don't expect your muscles' ability to use oxygen to change or your long-duration event times to reduce dramatically BUT you can expect significant gains in economy of movement (thus saving energy), peak power output (you can push harder gears), and you'll see your body fat percentage drop notably.

Conditioning is even more important for individuals who have had a lengthy break from their chosen sport, or who have experienced an injury. If inherent muscle imbalances aren't attended to, and if the site of the injury is not properly strengthened, it's really just a matter of time until re-injury and more frustrating time out of the saddle or the running shoes.

Thinking of some pre-season strength training? Start now! Don't expect your dedicated strength training sessions to produce results before 11 weeks in (this appears to be the minimum effective time). Combine at least two dedicated strength training sessions a week with your cycling, running or swimming - but once you're into your race calendar in-season, you might want to reduce your strength sessions to once per week. It is not advisable to stop altogether, although you would need to adjust the sessions according to your race calendar to ensure your legs are fresh going into events.

What type of strength training? Another feature of the current landscape is the explosion of different means of training our muscles: Crossfit, machines, free weights - the options appear endless. Everyone has a different approach but here is one that should suit most of us:

Engage large muscle groups in functional exercises + Use higher weights for shorter sets and reps + Use the HIIT principle A session of 30 - 40 minutes' duration is sufficient (excluding time checking your newly discovered physique in the mirror or chatting to mates!). For best results, invest in a personal trainer who will keep an eye on your form and who will take the stress out of planning workouts for you - plus the added motivation of meeting someone thus reducing chances of making excuses and missing sessions!


Use this flow chart to assess whether you should be doing strength training in addition to your sessions on the road: