Every movement has a foundation in strength. If you can’t support your bodyweight, you can’t move. Following Einstein’s theory of relativity, if you’re super strong, your bodyweight feels lighter. Don’t take this the wrong way – we’re not recommending you become an offensive lineman (although, those guys do have some impressive endurance). We are, however, recommending you maximize your strength to weight ratio. In other words, get stronger without getting heavier. There are a number of reasons why.
I’m an Endurance Athlete… Why Do I Need to Lift Weights?
Well, as a runner, you probably want to run faster, right? Lifting weights helps with that. Skeptical? We were too… at first. The method is supported by the science! In a study featuring well trained men and women that were randomly assigned to add weight lifting to their normal running or to just continue their normal running workouts, the group that performed just 4 sets of half squats for 4 repetitions per set 3 times per week experienced HUGE improvements in their running performance. Not only did the strength training group get stronger and increase power output, the runners improved their running economy by 5% and increased their time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed by a whopping 21.3% in just 8 weeks! The group that continued their normal running program had no improvements that reached statistical significance.
Don’t worry, cyclists! Weight-training improves cycling performance as well. The results of this study are very interesting. Elite male cyclists from Denmark’s National Team participated in the 16 week study. Those in the control group performed 10-18 hours of cycling each week with no resistance exercise, and the other group did the same cycling program while also strength training with 4 lower-body exercises performed at 5-8 repetitions per set on 2-3 days per week. During a 5-minute, all-out power test, both groups performed similarly with the strength-training group improving 4.8% and the control group improving 3.1%. The participants in this study also did a 45-minute power test, and the results might surprise you! In the longer test, the strength training participants did better than the control group! Those that were performing strength training improved by 8.4%, while the control group did not improve enough to reach statistical significance (3.7%). If that’s not cool enough, check this out. The strength-training group, but not the control group, had significant changes in their muscle composition, which changed from 5.0% to 0.6% type IIX (most powerful, least endurant) and 26% to 34% type IIA (powerful, most endurant in the type II class) muscle fibers but did NOT hypertrophy (grow) while the athletes still improved their strength.
The Top Seven Exercises for Runners and Cyclists
Are you itchin’ for some liftin’ now? Here are the best exercises to improve endurance during running and/or cycling exercise. Many of the exercises overlap between sports, but there are a few exceptions to that rule. On 1-3 days per week, head to your local gym, pick out 2-5 of the following exercises, and perform each for 3-8 repetitions per set and a total of anywhere from 4-15 sets depending on your level of fitness. Strength training should NOT be performed within 24 hours of a hard endurance session (before or after), but it can be performed on the same day as an easier endurance workout, preferably before, not after, the endurance workout with a few hours between. Lifting weights before endurance training is advantageous because it will not make you so tired that your easy running or cycling day will be negatively impacted, but if you were to run or bike before lifting, your strength performance would be compromised.
Lunges are great exercises for both runners and cyclists. Lunges are performed a number of different ways. An athlete can do lunges while staying in one place or while walking, while holding weights (kettlebells, dumbbells) in their hands, on their backs (barbells), or on their torso (weight vest); they can be performed forwards or backwards and even with a twist! Lunges are awesome because they are a single leg movement, which has great translation to running and cycling. Cyclists can benefit from lunges especially well because they can easily be performed at joint angles that mimic cycling. Here is the lowdown on each different lunge execution. We recommend alternating between the right and left leg each repetition to more closely mimic the action of running and cycling.
Different Types of Lunges
Each of these can be performed with any of the loading strategies listed above (e.g., dumbbells) and either in-place (e.g., step forward then come back to the starting position) or walking.
Forward Step Lunge – The forward step is the classic lunge style. Typically, this method preferentially loads the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh and athletes keep more of their weight towards their toes rather than their heels during a moderate length step (~1.5x normal walking step length). If performed on a downward slope, quadriceps activation is increased even more. The quadriceps muscle helps with braking and the forward swing in running and both power and recovery phases of cycling. How it helps with the power phase may be obvious, but one of the four quadriceps muscles crosses the hip joint as well as the knee joint and helps move the pedal from bottom dead center to top dead center.
Backward Step Lunge – The backward step lunge is, in some ways, the opposite of the forward step lunge. It preferentially loads the hamstrings (back of thigh) and glutes (butt) over the quadriceps with a greater load placed on the heel than on the toe. The backward step lunge typically features a longer step, ~2x normal step length. Performed on an upward slope, hamstring and glute activation are increased further. The hamstrings and glutes help propel us during running, active in the preparation and contact phases. During cycling, the hamstrings and glutes are major muscles active during the power phase.
Diagonal Step Lunges – Typically performed with a forward step, the diagonal step lunge increases recruitment of stabilizer muscles and can increase recruitment of more medial muscle fibers (if the knee is kept in line with the foot) or lateral muscle fibers (if the knee is pushed “out” towards the side). Practicing movements in a diagonal plane can help simulate dodging obstacles, which will be all the other people in the race once you start lunging!
Horizontal Step Lunges – Stop doing these. Unless you are passionate about playing defense during pick-up basketball, these are unnecessary. You don’t move laterally in your sport.
Walking vs. In-Place – Doing lunges in one space is certainly understandable. However, walking lunges increase core recruitment and are better for strengthening stabilizer muscles. They’re also better for recruiting hamstrings and gluteal muscles because you’re not going to recruit the quadriceps when pushing yourself back to a starting position, as you would with a normal forward step lunge. In general, the hamstrings and glutes are most important for both running and cycling.
Weight Selection – Deciding how you want to weigh yourself down should be varied time-to-time. Using a weight vest frees the hands and centers the weight, which will make it easier to balance, potentially increasing the maximum amount of weight you can handle. Dumbbells and kettlebells require some grip strength and lower the center of gravity. Using a barbell across the shoulders or upper back raises the center of gravity, increasing recruitment of core muscles.
Add a Twist! – For the advanced. Working in some slight spinal rotation increases abdominal and lower back activation and is actually quite similar to the movements of your sport. It’s not very noticeable, but the core is actively engaged in opposing rotation of the hips and shoulders while running and cycling.
Squats are similar to lunges, but they are performed using both legs at once. While this is dissimilar from running and cycling, squats are advantageous because you will be able to lift more weight than you will during any single-leg exercise. Contrary to intuition, it is low-rep, high-weight resistance exercise that is best for endurance athletes. During the squat movement, most people think they are moving up and down, but that is not the case. They’re moving backwards and forwards. Or, at least, they should be! Think about it. The hips go backwards. The knees go forwards. And now you are a master of squatting. The more the knees go forward, the more stress is placed on the quadriceps (too much increases risk of injury), and the further backwards the hips go, the more the hamstrings and glutes are activated. Keep a strong arch in the lumbar spine and your chest up, and you are good to go!
Different Types of Squats
Back Squat – Touted as the king of all exercises, the back squat is a foundation in all sports conditioning programs. The back squat can be performed either high bar (weight across the shoulders) or low bar (weight across the upper back on the spine of the scapula). High bar increases lower back activation, but more weight can usually be lifted with a low bar position. Most often, stand with your feet just slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Occasionally, use a wide stance of 1.5-2.0x shoulder width to maximize total leg musculature recruitment, as the wide stance squat will recruit more adductors and external rotators.
Front Squat – The front squat places an even greater demand on the spinal erectors because the weight has shifted to the other side of the body and is harder for them to control. The front squat will still develop total leg musculature, but more preferentially hits the quadriceps, as it is more difficult to push the hips backwards without dropping the weight, which is arguably the most difficult part! In the front squat, the weight will sit close to the throat at the top of the sternum while the arms are raised forward and elbows are kept high.
Top Half Squat – While many are diametrically opposed to recommending half squats, they’re actually good for runners who spend very little time with significant hip and knee flexion, as one would during a full squat. Do full squat at least some of the time, though. Half squats are performed simply using the top half of the range of motion of a normal, full squat. As a result, more weight can be handled and in a more specific muscle recruitment pattern to running.
Bottom Half Squat – The opposite of the top half squat, the bottom half squat is better for cyclists, who do spend much time with significant hip and knee flexion. Go all the way down to full squat depth, come up half way, repeat. The downside to the bottom half squat is that you can’t handle as much weight, but it is more specific to cycling.
Step Ups are similar to lunges, but they change the pattern of muscle contractions. Instead of lowering then raising weight, like in a lunge, the step up starts with raising weight. This may seem trivial, but it actually eliminates something called eccentric loading as long as you are alternating between the left and right leg each rep. During the lowering phase of weight training, the muscle stores force as the weight is lowered, which can then be flipped around and used during the weight raising phase, making it easier. Step ups can also manipulate distance, which is not the case with lunges (unless you can get taller or shorter on command). Bigger boxes to step up onto increase range of motion, and smaller boxes can be used with greater loads to maximize force output. Taller boxes will be more similar for cycling while shorter boxes more similar for running. Loading strategies are the same as for the lunge.
Plyometrics and Olympic Lifts
If the name of the game is power, you’re not going to win just by moving a lot of weight. Although weight is a critical factor, power is maximized when great force is exerted in a brief period of time. When training, power is greatest at low to moderate loads performed for low repetitions at high speeds. Here are a few exercises to try out to improve power output.
Box Jumps – I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. Get a good height box for you, one that is near as high as you can jump onto without hurting yourself trying, and jump on it! Box jumps can be performed with or without a step preceding the jump.
Clean – The clean comes in a few variations such as power clean and hang clean. One (power) is performed from the floor and the hang is performed beginning with the weight already off the ground. The clean is a technical exercise that should be saved until the athlete is experienced in lifting. Begin with the first pull (basically, a deadlift), which transitions to a scoop (get torso vertical with soft knee) and jump shrug, then the catch (catch the bar in a front squat position at quarter to half squat depth) and stand. The movement is explosive and not forgiving if mistakes are made, so start light. The clean can be performed with a barbell (typical) or dumbbell/kettlebell to increase core activation and balance.
Here is another broad category that focuses on developing the hamstrings and glutes for increasing stride and pedal power. The goal of each of these is to primarily train the posterior chain from the lower back to the calves!
Deadlift – Lift the weight from the ground. Similar to squatting in that some portion of the movement involves a hips forward phase. Keep the bar in tight to the body, drive the hips forward, and keep your chest up after you get the bar moving. A conventional (versus sumo) stance should be used most often, as it is the most specific to running and cycling. However, a sumo (wide) stance can be used occasionally to preferentially shift the load to the glutes.
Unbalanced Deadlifts - Unbalanced deadlifts are performed with uneven loads between the left and right side of the body. This practice increases core engagement, and it should be performed for an equal number of reps on the left and right sides to prevent developing imbalances. You can do these with one side completely unloaded or partially loaded. For example, a dumbbell deadlift can be performed with a single dumbbell in one hand for 4 reps before switching to the other hand for 4 more reps. A partial unloading example would be holding two dumbbells simultaneously, but one hand holds 50 lbs while the other holds 75 lbs. Alternatively, deadlifts can be performed on one leg. Runners and cyclists will benefit more from unbalanced deadlifts than traditional deadlifts.
Straight-Leg Deadlift – Performed just like the other descriptions of the exercise, but without very much knee flexion or extension to keep nearly all of the joint movement in the hips! Let the hips go back while keeping your weight on your heels and back straight until the hamstrings are stretched, then drive the hips forward by thinking of dragging your feet backwards along the ground until you are back in standing position.
Kettlebell Swings – Kettlebell swings are kind of a hybrid between a plyometric exercise and the hip hinge portion of a deadlift. The Kettlebell Swing is a great exercise for the posterior hips and thighs. However, most people end up doing this one wrong. You’re not supposed to lift the weight with your arms, they are just there to hold the weight. To perform the exercise correctly, grab each end of the kettlebell’s handle, keep it out in front of you but between your legs, squat down, then explode up while pushing your hips forward, let the momentum generated from your legs transfer into the kettlebell and send it upwards.
Hip Thrusters – This exercise is performed with a weight loaded directly on to the hips while the back rests on an elevated surface like a workout bench and the legs support the body. Again, this movement maximizes hip movement and minimizes knee movement to develop the hamstrings and glutes. To get the most bang for your buck, try dragging your heel into the back of your shoe. Your feet won’t actually move, but you will fire up your hamstrings for sure!
We’re including the leg press here for the cyclists. The leg press exercise is an open chain exercise, which in this case means the legs are not exerting force against the ground. The leg press is a good exercise for cyclists because it nearly mimics a pedal stroke in terms of joint angles and force is exerted against a moving target (the sled), more similar to pedals than a stationary ground. The leg press was also the only multi-joint exercise performed by the Danish national team! For runners, this exercise is not as good for all of the reasons it is good for cyclists and it lacks core engagement.
Abdominals and Spinal Erectors
If you are choosing to do direct core work, incorporate more dynamic (moving) than static (holding) exercises and more rotational than linear exercises. As stated with lunges, runners’ and cyclists’ hips and shoulders are constantly in opposing rotation, and that is all stabilized by the core muscles. Therefore, they should be trained accordingly. Abdominal exercises can be performed with lighter loads for more repetitions than lower body exercises. There are a number of great exercises, and here are just a few.
Russian Twist – This is one of our favorite rotational abdominal exercises. Sit down on the ground with a medicine ball or weight plate. Hold the weight in your hands directly in front of your chest. KEEP the weight in front of your chest! If you just move the weight side-to-side, this becomes a static, instead of dynamic, exercise! With the weight in front of your chest, twist to one side, tap the weight straight down, pick it back up to in front of your chest, rotate to the other side, and repeat!
Bird Dog – The bird dog exercise is great for mimicking opposing shoulder and hip movements. Starting from a table position (hands and knees) with a flat or slightly rounded lower back, lift up the left arm and the right leg while arching the low back, hold for 1-3 seconds, return to the starting position, lift the right arm and the left leg while arching the low back, hold, return to the starting position, and repeat! The exercise can be loaded by holding dumbbells in the hands and/or behind the knee or by attaching cables to the wrists or ankles. The degree of difficulty is increased by just loading the legs or arms because it further unbalances each side!
Faster, Stronger, Not Bigger
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is true for the muscle groups as well as how and when you select the exercises. Be sure not to pick your “favorites” each week and to keep changing it up. Keep in mind that if you hate doing any of the exercises on this list, it is probably because you aren’t as good at those exercises and should be doing them more! Performing the exercises at lower volumes (e.g., 4 sets of 4 reps) than a bodybuilding type weight training program (e.g., 20 sets of 12 reps) makes sure that you gain strength without gaining unwanted bulk, so work in some resistance exercises to your training and get faster today!
STØREN, Ø., Helgerud, J. A. N., Støa, E. M., & Hoff, J. A. N. (2008). Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(6), 1087-1092.
Aagaard, P., Andersen, J. L., Bennekou, M., Larsson, B., Olesen, J. L., Crameri, R., ... & Kjaer, M. (2011). Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top‐level cyclists. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 21(6).