Balancing Resistance Training and Endurance

When done correctly, weight training can greatly enhance endurance performance. If done incorrectly, it can be suboptimal at best and catastrophic to performance at worst! Here are some tips on how to balance endurance and weight training that benefit your health and your performance! 

First, why resistance train?

If you’re a veteran RP’er you can skip this section. You already know the answer! Resistance training is beneficial to health, aesthetics, and virtually all sports––including endurance sports. An increase in strength can improve motion economy (how fast a person can go for a given effort) and their ability to move faster and more explosively. It also decreases chances of injury by strengthening bones and supporting structures as well as muscles. It improves body composition by increasing fat loss and decreasing muscle loss on weight loss diets. It is also one of the most effective ways to improve bone density. Of course, in addition to all of these benefits, resistance training can be used on a weight gain diet to maximize muscle growth (hypertrophy) as well. 

Who should resistance train?

While size from either excess muscle or fat in extreme cases may be detrimental to performance in some sports, there are no sports that would not benefit from an increase in strength; endurance sports being no exception! Having more muscle mass as we age also keeps us moving around longer, independent later in life, and resistant to injury. It also tends to make our bodies look firmer. So, basically, anyone interested in health, longevity, sport performance, or looking good naked should probably do some resistance training! 

How often should an endurance athlete lift? 

The short answer is that it depends. Endurance athletes will probably need to lift between 1-4 days per week depending on those factors. The exact number depends on the individual’s goals and primary sport as well as their current muscle mass and previous lifting history.  

Goals/primary sport:

If endurance performance is the primary goal, then the lifting “dosage” should be enough to markedly improve strength, prevent injury, improve body composition, and increase bone density, without creating excess fatigue that will hinder future endurance training. This might be something you have to feel out by trying different frequencies––keeping in mind that the first couple weeks might feel more fatiguing than they will once lifting is not brand new. For those with an endurance focus, training 2-3x per week might be a good place to start. They might drop to 1x per week or less leading up to endurance competition. If strength/muscle size is the priority and endurance performance is second, then lifting near the upper range (4x per week) may be best.  

Lifting history and muscle mass:

An endurance athlete who has been a competitive Olympic weightlifter, powerlifter, bodybuilder, or just someone who spent the last 10 years in the gym lifting seriously, may not have the same lifting needs as someone who has been a runner for his or her entire life, but never did much lifting. Someone with plenty of lifting experience and a good deal of muscle mass might lean towards 1-2x per week for lifting, just to maintain their current muscle mass. If you’re on the lower end with regard to muscle mass as an endurance athlete and you have not lifted previously, you might most benefit from erring on the higher end of lifting frequency (4x per week), at least in the off-season.

What should lifting look like for an endurance athlete prioritizing endurance performance?

Unlike many of us may have heard, high intensity and low volume lifting is an endurance athlete’s friend if endurance performance is of upmost concern. High volume lifting (sets of 8-12 or more reps) at a moderately high intensity presents a fantastic stimulus for muscle hypertrophy but it is also extremely fatiguing and will likely take the pep out of your step during your next week of runs or rides.  

Why not do lots of reps with lighter weight? The short answer is because it’s not going to give you the strength gains that will improve your endurance performance––this type of lifting basically presents another endurance stimulus. Any muscular endurance that is needed for sport will be best gained by doing the sport itself! For the athlete hoping for muscle hypertrophy, lifting with high intensity and high reps for a period to focus on muscle growth is going to be your best bet. Just be prepared for some temporary decreases in endurance performance––and for your legs to feel like lead when heading out the door for your run! 

Sets of 1-4 reps and plyometrics are great for endurance athletes. Unlike bodybuilders who should never do a partial range of motion lift, endurance athletes actually benefit from doing some of their lifts in the ranges of motion that are common to their sport. Likewise, while strength and power athletes may spend hours upon hours in the gym for one lifting session, endurance athletes likely won’t need to spend as many hours per session to gain huge benefit.

Should lifting come before or after cardio?

Similar to above, whatever takes priority should come first!  If a person is primarily hoping to gain muscle or strength and endurance performance comes second, then getting a good lift in earlier in the day may be better option before heading out to jog a few miles in the afternoon (so long as the jog does not come right after the lift as this can hinder muscle growth). Split up the sessions by as many hours as possible, without causing sleep loss. If running a fast half marathon is the main goal, then running first and then lifting is the better option if you have to do both on the same day. 

Most endurance athletes spend a lot of time training each week and many triathletes are already doing two-a-days not including resistance training!  Because endurance sports require so much time training, efficiency is key. 

  • Minimize the transition time from one workout to the next.  
  • Prep carb bottles first thing in the morning or the night before is key in minimizing delays, optimizing fueling, and avoiding hypoglycemia (blood sugar crashes)! 
  • If moving from one workout immediately to the next, the post workout drink doubles as the following workout’s pre-workout fuel!  Plan ahead!  

To learn more about how to create the perfect carb and electrolyte solution for each of your training sessions, check out The RP Diet for Endurance.

f you want to learn more about resistance training, check out the RP Hypertrophy hub, your guide to all things growing muscle!

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