Endurance performance: the need for strength (all year round!)

Andrew Hamilton looks at research on strength training for endurance performance. Could some all-year round strength work be even better than hitting the gym in the winter-only?

Winter/off-season strength training makes a lot of sense for endurance athletes because it doesn’t interfere with in-season training or competition. Indeed, conventional wisdom says that a winter strength programme (when short days and poor weather can make outdoors training difficult) followed by endurance-only training come March is the perfect recipe for success. However, while this makes intuitive sense, some sports science experts have wondered if this on-off approach to strength training really is the best route to endurance performance, and whether a more ‘all year-round’ approach might be more productive.

Strength all year?

If you’re used to doing no strength training at all, or if you only ever strength train for two or three months in the winter, you might baulk at the thought of getting into the gym all year round! However, there’s solid evidence that all year-round strength training could be better than off-season only. That’s not only because significant amounts of those hard-earned strength gains are lost once the gym is abandoned, but also because when strength training is continued, the strength gains seem to translate directly into better endurance performance. To illustrate this a Norwegian study looked at well-trained cyclists who were split into one of two groups(1):

  • *An endurance AND strength group – this group performed cycling endurance training for 25 weeks supplemented with heavy lower-body strength training twice a week during the first 12 weeks of the 25-week period. The subjects then followed this with a strength maintenance training once a week during the first 13 weeks of a competition period in their cycling season.
  • *An endurance-ONLY group – this group performed cycling endurance training only for the whole of the 25-week period.

Following the 12-week preparatory period, the endurance and strength-training subjects increased their thigh muscle size and strength 1-rep max. At this stage however, there was no difference in cycling performance between the two groups. More intriguingly though, at 13 weeks into the competition period (ie after 25 weeks), the endurance and strength training group not only preserved their strength gains but also significantly increased their maximal aerobic power output, power output at a blood lactate concentration of 2 mmol/L (maximum power before the onset of lactate accumulation, which eventually leads to fatigue) and their mean power output in the 40-minute time-trial. These gains were NOT seen in the endurance-only group.

In short, this study demonstrated that when regular strength training is combined with cycling, the strength gains accrued seem to be carried over directly into better cycling performance. It also fits with a number of other more recent studies on cycling and strength training, showing that strength training leads to improved cycling economy (cycling muscle efficiency), which also leads to improved endurance (you can read more about cycling and running economy here).

Practical suggestions for athletes

Given that the evidence for the benefits of strength training in endurance performance has become overwhelming, if you’re training in the gym to build strength this winter, you could do worse than to put aside a little time next season too to maintain your hard-earned gains! Here are some suggestions to help you put together an all-year round strength training strategy:

  • *While you have extra time, use the off-season to build strength in the gym with two sessions a week spaced well apart.
  • *Use exercises that develop strength in the key cycling muscles (eg frontal thighs and buttocks) but also be sure to target helper/antagonist muscles for muscular balance and reduced injury risk. If you’re unsure how to achieve this, seek advice from a qualified coach/instructor.
  • *Once spring gets underway, switch to strength maintenance; one brief (but heavy) strength session a week will maintain most of your gains without cutting too much into your cycling time.
  • *For more detailed information on the principles behind the most effective and efficient strength-training programmes for endurance athletes, see this Peak Performance article by Tom Whipple).

Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons MRSC, Peak Performance editor


  1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Dec;110(6); 1269-82

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