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The New Rules of Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Every sport has its outliers, but if you run, cycle, or participate in any other endurance activity, odds are you have an aversion to strength training. Perhaps it’s because you don’t want to “bulk up” and have to carry around the extra weight. Or maybe you think that time spent lifting is time wasted in pursuit of your ultimate goal: Developing greater speed and endurance. “As a runner or cyclist, it’s smart to question what will give you the best return on your training investment,” says Luke Carlson, an exercise physiologist and CEO of Discover Strength, in Minnesota, who specializes in helping endurance athletes boost performance by overcoming their dislike of iron. “And the answer will always be running or cycling, but that doesn’t mean you should exclude strength training.”

Quite the contrary: If you want to realize your full endurance potential, you need to lift weights.

For many runners — indeed, for many endurance athletes in general — that dogma persists, which is unfortunate considering all of the potential benefits of strength training. For starters, it can increase not only running speed, running economy, and power output, but also time to exhaustion, according to a review in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. That resistance to fatigue is greatest in the last leg of a race, coming in particularly handy in the final sprint, report scientists in a recent study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Some studies even suggest modest improvements in VO2 Max — a measurement of the body’s capacity to perform aerobic work. But perhaps the most powerful benefit of strength training for endurance athletes is its injury prevention potential. According to a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, strength training can reduce sports injuries by a third, and cut overuse injuries in half.

“The injury prevention benefit is massive for runners, who have an especially high injury rate compared to other athletes — even at the elite level,” says Carlson. As evidence, he points to the last Olympic marathon, in which only half of the United States team (three out of six athletes) crossed the finish line. “And on this point the research is unequivocal: If you’re an endurance athlete, and you strength train, you will suffer fewer injuries,” he says, explaining that it not only builds muscle, but also reinforces bones and connective tissues. “And if you suffer fewer injuries, you will train more consistently, which will improve performance.”

It’s a win-win proposition any way you look at it, especially when you consider the comparatively little strength training endurance athletes need to realize its benefits.

You don’t need to lift super heavy. You don’t need to do three or four (or even two) sets of each exercise. And you shouldn’t max out at 10 reps per set. “But neither should you lift like a typical runner,” says Carlson, referring to the tendency of endurance athletes to focus exclusively on their legs and glutes. “Strengthening your core, chest, shoulders, arms, and back is essential, because so much of the mechanics of running involves the upper body.”

My recommendation: Twice a week, replace one of your runs or rides with a strength workout, doing one set of 16 reps of each of 10 exercises that together hit your entire body. Include four or five moves for your lower body, three or four moves for your upper body, and one or two moves for your core. Intensity is key here — really push yourself on every single exercise.

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