Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Although the idea of strength training to support recreational sports and activities is not new, there are still those who buy into several long-standing myths about training with weights.  At the top of the list are endurance athletes.  We work with many marathon runners and triathletes at AST, and have seen our athletes make tremendous improvements in performance with the right program.

Designing a Program

The first step is choosing the right program.  The biggest mistake we see made is taking a program designed for another sport or activity and trying to apply it to endurance work.  For example, taking random routines from fitness magazines that are designed for the masses and trying to apply it to a niche activity is a recipe for disaster.  A good endurance program should be designed to cover the following aspects:

  • developing muscular endurance in the primary muscles used
  • strengthening weak and neglected muscles to maintain structural balance
  • increasing mobility in tight muscles brought on by overuse
  • developing strength endurance through the core and trunk musculature
  • decreasing non-essential bodyweight to improve performance

Training Guidelines

There are, for the most part, two different types of muscles in the body – fast-twitch and slow-twitch.  In simple terms, fast-twitch muscles are very powerful but fatigue very quickly, and are slower to recover, while slow-twitch muscles have greater endurance capabilities and recover more quickly, but have less potential for power and strength.  Knowing which muscles tend to skew toward which type makes it easier to make the right adjustments to your training plan.

Common Fast-Twitch Muscles

  • Lats
  • Triceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Upper calf (gastrocnemius)
  • Surface abdominals (rectus femoris, obliques)

Common Slow-Twitch Muscles

  • Chest
  • Upper back
  • Shoulders
  • Biceps
  • Quads
  • Lower back
  • Deep abdominals (transverse abdominis)

Now, this list is by no means perfect – fiber type can vary based on the individual.  This is just what we have found to be true in the majority of individuals that we work with.

So, what does this information mean?  It gives a better indication of how to train those muscles correctly.  Look at the slow-twitch muscles – those tend to be the areas most heavily involved in most endurance sports – running, swimming, and biking.  The fast-twitch muscles tend to be neglected by endurance athletes and are vulnerable to injury if left unaddressed.

In general, here are some straightforward guidelines for strength training for fiber type:

Fast-twitch – low reps (3-8), longer rest times and a higher number of sets per exercise

Slow-twitch – higher reps (12-30), short rest intervals and a low number of sets

Flexibility, Mobility and Recovery

Another important component is maintaining mobility.  Any muscle that is heavily recruited during a given activity will tend to become short and tight, and the opposing muscles will tend to become weak and lengthened.  For example, a cyclist will develop tight pecs and lats because of the time spent slouched over the bike handles, and the upper back muscles will become weak from being left in a stretched position for long periods of time.  So you would stretch and peform self-myofascial release (or foam rolling) for the tight area before training the weak area.

Here’s a good rule – if you can see it in a mirror, it’s probably tight.  If you can’t, it’s probably weak.  Prioritize your training and mobility programs around that axiom and it’s hard to go wrong.

Training the Core

There are two types of abdominal and core muscles – surface muscles, such as the rectus femoris (abdominal wall) and the obliques, lower back and glutes; and deep muscles, speficically the transverse (deep) abdominis.  It’s appropriate to train both, but not the same way.

Surface muscles can be trained more conventionally – moderately heavy weights through a full range of motion, with the reps and loads varying depending on fiber type (see above).  The transverse abdominis, however, is more of a stabilization muscle and does the job of bracing the trunk while you’re performing other activities, such as running or swimming.  As such, you want to use movements that require you to hold the abs tight isometrically while performing other work.

Good Surface Muscle Exercises

  • Leg raises (lying or hanging from a pullup bar)
  • Crunch variations through a full range of motion (no swinging or flailing)
  • Weighted side bends
  • Back extensions and reverse hyperextensions
  • Glute bridges

All of the above lifts can be trained with a reasonable amount of resistance for lower reps, without sacrificing technique.

Good Deep Core Exercises

  • Front planks
  • Side planks
  • Inverted planks
  • Plank to pushup
  • Palloff press
  • Plank knee-in
  • Twisting plank
  • Ab wheel

All of the above exercises should be performed for high reps or held for as long as possible.  Planks are useful up to about 60 seconds, and side planks about 30 seconds.  Once you can hold that long you should choose more challenging progressions such as the other exercises listed.

Controlling Body Composition

Last, but certainly not least, a good strength training program should prioritize increasing muscle mass and decreasing bodyfat.  After all, would you be faster with 75lbs of bodyfat, or 15lbs of bodyfat?  A male athlete should strive to stay under 10%, and a female under 18%.  Anything else serves no purpose but to slow you down.  And what good will that do?

My Body Transformation Part 5: Days 25-32

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

For Part 2 of this series, click here.

For Part 3 of this series, click here.

For Part 4 of this series, click here.

As I did with the last post, I'll just summarize the changes for the week.

The final week of the insulin protocol was a little challenging, mostly just because of a change in training program – using a type of advanced German Body Composition training from Charles Poliquin also known as "6-12-25," which is essentially 3 movements per bodypart circuited together, the first for 6 reps, the second for 12, and the third for 25. It's a type of lactic acid training, which is great for fat loss (assuming that you're following a paleo diet and know the difference between your mouth and a vacuum). The leg workout in particular is pretty brutal, and was the only time during the entire month that I was craving post-workout carbs of any kind.

I ended up having two cheat meals during the last week – one on Wednesday and one on Saturday. Both felt necessary and not forced, and the numbers reflect that much. I've found that I have a pretty good handle on when I'm in need of a cheat meal and don't worry about staying on a once-in-5-days limit. There are times where I could go 10 days without a cheat, and will, and there are times where I feel like I need them several days apart. For somebody who doesn't have a lot of self-control, however, I still suggest no more often than every fifth day, but more likely every 7th day (the higher the bodyfat %, the less frequently you should be cheating).

BioSignature Results

Scale weight -159.5 to 163.5 (up 4.0lbs)
Bodyfat % -12.3 to 11.8 (down 0.4%)
Lean body mass -140.0 to 144.1 (up 4.1lbs)

So most of the change in BF% the last week came not from loss of bodyfat, but from lean body mass gains. But, either way, it results in a drop in bodyfat %, so I can't complain. Plus, how often do you see guys ADD 6lbs of lean mass in a month during a fat loss program? So I'm quite pleased. And I can notice a substantial visible change in definition as well:

The plan going forward now is to address xenoestrogens (shown in BioSignature as a high hamstring skinfold) and cortisol (shown as abdominal fat). I'll tackle the estrogens first and go from there.

So, I think it's pretty clear that the insulin protocol does in fact work – I lost 4% in about a month and wasn't carrying an exceptionally high level of bodyfat to begin with. Especially for those who are 20% or higher, and have had a history of high carb intake, it can produce even better results.


For more information about BioSignature, or to schedule a consultation, click here.

Quick Tip: Avoid Oxidized Cholesterol


There are many, many misconceptions out there about dietary cholesterol (quick note: saturated fat from animal protein DOES NOT raise blood cholesterol, and has never been shown to no matter what BS drug is being pushed on you, but that’s a topic for another day).  However, there is one form of cholesterol that should be avoided at all costs, and that is oxidized cholesterol.

Think of it like this – oxidized cholesterol is taking something that should be a liquid, and making it a solid.  It’s usually done to extend shelf life, much like trans fats/hydrogenated oils (and typically they all will come together in the same package).  Here are a few examples:

  • powdered eggs (usually found at most hotel breakfasts)
  • donuts, cookies and pastries
  • soft serve ice cream
  • powdered milk (including some baby formulas)

As for the side effects?  Well, to oxidize essentially means “to rust.”  So if you get out of your body what you put in, you begin to destroy yourself from the inside out, albeit very slowly.  Odixized cholesterol raises LDL, specifically the dense type of LDL shown to increase risk for heart disease.  It can also result in impaired brain function and reduced mental clarity, along with other immune and inflammatory responses.

To avoid cholesterol, eat foods in their original form – fresh, whole eggs, raw, unpasteurized milk (unless you are lactose intolerant) and avoid eating foods that you could buy when you move into your freshman dorm and still be able to eat on your graduation day.

For more information, this is a great resource on oxidized cholesterol and other cholesterol-related issues –

Quick Tip: Clean Up Your Coffee

Coffee is a staple in many lives, and is actually quite healthy. It has been shown that the average coffee drinker will live 5 years longer than those who don’t drink it. Part of that has to do with the fact that for many people, it’s the only significant source of antioxidants they will get all day.

However, to reap the benefits, you have to do it right. Here are 3 common mistakes people make and how to fix them:

1) Not buying organic. Fixing this one is easy – buy organic. Coffee and butter are at the top of the list of foods that should always be purchased organic, because they are imported from third world countries where there are very few agricultural regulations.

2) Adding milk. Very few people are genetically adapted to consuming lactose, and that includes the milk or half and half added to coffee. A better option is using heavy cream (35% or higher), which is milkfat but no sugar, and therefore lactose-free. It also helps the caffeine digest more slowly and gives a longer source of energy.

3. Using sugar or artificial sweeteners.  Pure sugar should be avoided, especially for those who are insulin-resistant or overweight.  Artificial sweeteners are not much better, as there is scientific evidence that shows they can increase carb cravings and stimulate insulin resistance much in the same way that pure sugar can.  While I’ve read mixed reports on sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) are definite no-nos.  I prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid them all together, and instead use other sweeteners like honey, cinnamon or nutmeg.