Getting Started Strength Training Workout for Endurance Athletes

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In the past few blog posts I’ve talked about why endurance athletes – especially aging endurance athletes – need to incorporate strength training, and discussed some of the principles endurance athletes should keep in mind. Finally, it’s time to talk about how to get started! Based on the comments sections, some of you are already strength training, but I hear from a lot more athletes who say things like, “I haven’t lifted weight in 20 years, I don’t even know where to start anymore.” Well, here’s how.

Start with movements only

It is tempting to go into the gym and just go heavy on the first day. Some people even think, “Well, I’m going to be sore anyway, so I might as well go heavy and get all the pain out of the way now.” Don’t do that, please. The truth is, you might get through one workout by jumping into the deep end, but you’re likely to be so sore that the rest of your training – and even activities of daily life – will be dramatically and negatively affected. There will be plenty of time to go heavy, but at the beginning you want to be conservative with the resistance and focus on getting the techniques and movements down.

CTS Coach and National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Mike Durner had the following recommendations:

  • Focus on form and quality of movement.
  • Start with resistance that is significantly lower than you think you can work with. You’re going to need some resistance to even get the movements correct, but keep the weight deliberately light.
  • Try to commit to 2-3 strength workouts per week for the first four weeks. Once you are lifting heavier you might go down to two workouts per week, but during this transition period, a third workout can help accelerate the adaptation to getting the movement patterns down.
  • Focus on breathing out during the hardest portion of the movement. This is not that important when the resistance is light, but will be important when the resistance increases.
  • Pull you navel in toward your spine to stabilize your core during exercises, especially during rows and standing exercises.
  • Add weight in small increments but in a steady progression. It is important to continue challenging yourself, especially during a period of the year when you are placing a higher level of focus on strength training.

Likewise, Coach Durner had a list of things you shouldn’t do in the gym:

  • Don’t skimp on recovery periods. Think about your interval training for cycling, triathlon, or running. When you’re performing sprint efforts you take longer recovery periods so you have more complete recovery and can perform the next interval well rested. The same is true for strength training. The rest periods, as you’ll see in the workout included below, are not necessarily very long, but they are long enough to well recovered before your next set. Some athletes try to combine aerobic conditioning with strength training by working through exercises quickly. We don’t recommend that when you are focused on being in the gym to gain strength. Your aerobic conditioning will be taken care of by your endurance training; the gym is the time to focus on strength training.
  • Don’t worry if you’re not sore after the first time in the gym. It is better to be too conservative as you start out.
  • Don’t worry if you are sore after the first time in the gym. If you haven’t been in a gym for 20 years it is very difficult to determine exactly how prepared you are for resistance training. You may be well prepared for lower body exercises and woefully unprepared for upper body movements. Pushups or bench press could be easy, but rows and lunges could be really hard. You won’t know until you get in there and give it a try. Just prepare to be surprised by what you can and can’t handle.
  • Don’t add weight or increase reps if your form starts to deteriorate. As an endurance athlete you are often encouraged to push through the pain even if you are slowing down. The risk of injury is low when you do this during cycling and running, but is much higher when you are strength training. Especially as you are starting out, it is better to be conservative and stop short of absolute failure. When you adapt to the movements and have progressed to heavier weight, pushing yourself to failure (while maintaining good form) is effective. In the beginning, though, focus on form first.

For many driven, goal-oriented, Type-A athletes, the following workout is going to seem too easy to be effective. Your ego is likely to write a check your body can’t cash. You’re going to need to keep that in check. Remember, if you haven’t done resistance training in several years – or longer – being overly conservative is the wisest strategy. Your primary sport is still cycling, triathlon, or running. What we’re trying to accomplish is a transition to incorporating strength training in a way that will minimally diminish your ability to continue with productive endurance training.

Your Getting Started Strength Workout:

Because I realize I am an old-school coach who used to throw athletes into the deep end with strength training, I asked Coach Durner to provide a workout in keeping with the NSCA’s recommendations on getting started with strength training. Here’s what he designed for you.

Warm up:

Start with 10 min of low intensity aerobic exercise, stationary cycling, rowing, or easy running. You can also ride or run to the gym if it is close by. Depending on what equipment you have at home, you may not even need to go to a gym in the beginning.

Main Workout:

Pushups: 2 AMRAP sets of 15 seconds (AMRAP stands for As Many Reps As Possible). Assume a plank position with your hands slightly more than shoulder width apart, fingers facing forward (not out to the sides). Keeping your body in a straight line from heels to head, lower your chest to the floor while keeping your elbows close to your sides. To return to the starting position, push against the floor and focus on keeping your body in a straight line. If you need to start with your knees on the floor, that’s fine. You will quickly progress to pushups from your toes.

30 sec of rest between sets

Forward Lunges: 2 sets of 10. Start in a standing position. Take a slow step forward, sinking into the lunge by focusing on lowering your hips. Keep your knee on front leg behind your toes. To return to the starting position, focus on driving straight up through your heel, as opposed to only pushing back. If you decide to add weight from the beginning, use a dumbbell in each hand.

30 sec rest between sets

Bent Over Dumbell Rows: 2 sets of 10. This is not a supported row using a bench and one arm at a time. Start by standing with a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees slightly, hinge at the hip, keeping your back straight and nearly parallel to the floor. Keeping your torso still and stable, lift the dumbells to the sides of your chest, keeping your elbows close to your sides. Lower the dumbells back to the starting position and repeat.

30 sec rest between sets

Lateral Lunges: 2 sets of 10. Start in a standing position. Take a slow step to the side while focusing on pushing your hips back (keep your hands in front of you for balance). Sink into the lunge until your thigh is nearly parallel to the floor, keeping your head up and chest high for posture. To return to the starting position, drive down through your heel. Think about driving your body up, not sideways. To add weight, hold a single dumbbell with both hands at chest level.

30 sec rest between sets

Windshield Wipers: 2 sets of 5 Windshield Wipers. Lay on your back with your arms extended straight out to your sides and legs straight up (perpendicular to your body). In a controlled movement, lower your legs to one side until they reach the floor. Engaging your core, bring your legs back up to the starting position and down to the floor on the other side. Touch your feet to the floor five times on each side. To make this exercise easier, bend your knees.

30 sec rest between sets

Forearm Plank: 2 sets of 15 seconds. Similar to the starting position of a pushup, only with your forearms flat against the floor and hands palm down in front of you. Keep your body in a straight line from your heels to your head as you hold this position for 15 seconds.

15 sec rest between sets

Workout Progression

In the first few weeks of strength training you will make rapid progress. This is because your progress is based on getting accustomed to the movements and optimizing neural recruitment. Once you have completed the workout above workout 2 – 3 times, add another set and slowly but steadily begin adding add resistance. As you add weight and 1 – 2 sets, make sure to maintain your form. Next, begin to switch up the exercises to similar movements.

  • Push ups can be swapped with Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • Forward Lunges can be changed to Dumbbell Squats or Step Ups
  • Lat Pulldown or Pull Ups can be substituted Bent Over Rows
  • Lateral Lunges could become Curtsy Lunges
  • Russian Twists can take the place of Windshield Wipers
  • As for Plank, keep plank in there but make it harder but lifting one leg, lifting one arm, moving small items back and forth with one arm at a time, this is the easiest exercise to get creative with

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
Special thanks to Coach Mike Durner for his contribution to this post.


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Comments 10

  1. Pingback: 5 Reasons Cyclists Need Strength Training - CTS

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    1. Hey George,

      I’ve found that a hard gym session will help your sprints/max power similar to a 30/30 workout (sprints). In addition to that, it protects you from further injury by building up some muscle. I would definitely avoid doing both a gym workout and interval training on the same day. That’s a lot of stress for your body and it will take you a long time to recover. Just do an easy 60-90minute ride on the same day (if you feel good, if not, just spin). I would incorporate intervals on your longer rides (maybe in the middle of it do an interval session). Hope this helps!

  3. I am almost 60 and want to learn to ride and learn this strength training. I live in Orlando do you have coaches that work long distance? Thank you

  4. I am 52 & started weight training 2 sessions a week. It has helped my bike riding a bit, especially on long rides where my back & shoulder do not get fatigued and sore after a few hours. Where I find the most difference is bot getting sore after doing any heavy work around the house or helping someone move house. The advice to go slow is good – your tendons and supporting muscles need to adapt to the loads, its not just the main muscles that need to get stronger. Take very good care of your shoulders and knees, make sure you are doing the exercises correctly.

    1. True. I’m 71. Though I can do up to 50x rep push up but I always do mostly up to 40x rep for several sets n do never less than 100x in total. A year ago I did push up up to 600x in total in 60 mnts including warming up n cooling down every day. Now I add sit up, sqatt, pull up, n punching for some 10 mnts for warming up… all at home as we don’t need any instrument to do all those.

  5. Thank you for your weekly articles! They always seem timely and answer a ‘burning’ question I have, or review a topic which needs refreshing!!

    Thank you again and Merry Christmas??

  6. I do Body pump class for 1 hr 2-3 times a week? Light wgts for 5 minute sets. Still feel I need more strength. Switch to one resistance session? Don’t really want to “bulk up” in the winter!

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