Powerlifting For Endurance Athletes

WRITTEN BY Rich Ryan

“Why should I do any cardio? I only need enough conditioning for five reps.”

“Lift weights? Are you freaking kidding me? I’m a runner, I’m not going to touch weights.”

“There’s no way I can go for a run. My knees would explode within the first minute.”

“Squatting and deadlifting will hurt my knees and back.”

Any of those statements sound familiar?

I think the real question is; how OFTEN have you heard each of these statements?

Powerlifters and strength athletes ripping on anyone who thinks about running. Endurance athletes saying all they need to do is run, bike or swim.

For starters, neither mindset is productive or true. Strength training and endurance sports are not absolute.

Today we’re going to look at how powerlifting can benefit endurance athletes. Not only by improving race times, but how it can prevent injuries during the race season.

Enter Powerlifting.

powerlifting for endurance athletes

You may question how powerlifting can help performance.

Powerlifting and breaking your personal record in a race is a hard line for an endurance athlete to draw. Athletes and coaches have misconceptions about strength training and powerlifting.

The facts are that as an endurance athlete you can benefit from powerlifting.

  • You maximize the number of muscle fibers that you can activate
  • You will improve your recovery
  • You increase your relative strength and power output

But, I am sure you have some concerns about powerlifting…

Concern # 1 – Powerlifting will make me “bulky”

When you begin to do squats and deadlifts, you will not immediately gain pounds of muscle.

To gain muscle, you need to have a well thought out plan to get bigger and stronger which include the frequency of lifts and how much food you eat.

Next time you see a huge powerlifter, ask them about your their diet. The sheer amount of calories eaten will leave you floored. It takes a lot of work to gain size, so as an endurance athlete you are safe to add in some heavy lifts a few times a week.

Concern # 2 – If I want to improve my endurance I should lift light weight for high reps

At the gym you use light weight and high reps in the weight room because it’s better for endurance training.

Lifting light weight for high reps will help you get better at lifting light weight for high reps and that’s pretty much it.   

That isn’t the goal.

The goal is to perform better in your sport. Your overall endurance will not improve with sets of 20-30 with lightweight.

Lifting light weight will not nearly have as much benefit to your cardio as running, biking, or swimming. Leave your endurance gains to your endurance training.

While at the gym work on strength to help you improve your longevity, resilience and athleticism.

Concern # 3 Powerlifting is for strength sports

I challenge you to switch your mindset when it comes to powerlifting. There’s a time and place for most modalities.

That includes powerlifting. The movement and control principles carry over to endurance sports.

How Powerlifting Improves Endurance Performance

Increased Power Output = Speed

Power is work divided by time.

Power is crucial for endurance athletes. If you are a cyclist, you are familiar with the term Watt, which is the power unit of work divided by time.

A power lift performed with speed and strength which translates into power. Smart progression you will increase your workout load and then your relative power output will go up.

The more you increase your power, the more you work you will complete in less time, i.e., you will reach the finish line faster.

Accessing More Muscle to Training for Your Race

When you fatigue, muscle fibers fail to fire. As you tire your body will attempt to recruit more muscle fibers. If you fail to do so, your brain will shut you down. If you have ever “bonked” or experienced muscle cramps, you know what I am talking about.

When you lift heavy things, you will create a response where your muscles will need to recruit more muscle fibers to fire.  

Training your body to recruit these muscles will open up more fibers to train for endurance. So, when you near the point of fatigue you will have reserve muscle fibers to continue to push through.

Powerlifting will help you increase your endurance by providing a larger muscle pool to condition.

Releasing Hormones to Recover faster

When you break your body down through exercise, your body will send a repair signal.

However, you will need to create a response in your body that is great enough to warrant the repair signal.

Your body will release hormones called Human Growth Hormone and testosterone which are like FEMA for your muscles.

However, running, swimming, and biking will rarely create large enough response to release HGH and testosterone.

Adding heavy lifts to your routine will increase the hormonal response and improve recovery from endurance training.

Reduce Injuries to Sustain Endurance Training

If you are like most, then the number one inhibitor of endurance progress is injury. Powerlifting will help you beat injuries. It can be your answer to long-term training by improving the following:

  • Stability
  • Bone density  
  • Mobility  
  • Flexibility

Putting Powerlifting To Practice

The following three movements and their variations offer the biggest bang for your buck. If you’re brand new to strength training, these three movements will be enough to improve performance in your endurance event. 

Squats

The squat is the daddy of the lifts. It is a great place to start because there are plenty of options to choose from depending on your particular needs. The squat will help you engage underdeveloped areas that running neglects.

powerlifting for endurance athletes

The benefits of adding squats to your training plan include:

  • Greater force production from the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
  • Increased stability in the feet, ankles, knees, hips and core. All of which are critical for the plant leg during running
  • Better body awareness. Controlling your joint positions while running becomes effortless when you can maintain control during a heavy set of squats

Deadlift

As an endurance athlete, you are also very forward dominate, meaning you mainly exercise the anterior – front of your body –  muscle groups.

To avoid compensation injuries you will need to work on your backside. The deadlift is the best exercise to build a strong posterior and eliminate imbalance to elicit the max response from your body.

Deadlifting helps you:

  • Engage your glutes and hamstrings in a fashion similar to running 
  • Develops stability in your upper and lower back
  • Build a strong core
  • Elicit a hormonal response for recovery

Overhead Press

It’s rare to see an endurance athlete in the weight room. You are more likely to see a unicorn than to see an endurance athlete work the upper body.

Just because your event doesn’t involve your upper body to a strong degree, it doesn’t mean you should be neglecting it.

powerlifting for endurance athletes

Overhead pressing helps you:

  • Improve core strength
  • Provides much needed strength to the upper body which does have carryover to endurance events
  • Develops a greater degree of mobility to the upper body. You can bet a mobility issue in the upper body can cause a ripple effect to the lower body

Weekly Setup 

Your ideal scenario is a Monday, Wednesday, Friday split of squat, press and deadlift. If you have limited time, avoid doing squats and deadlifts on the same day.

Start a strength cycle 12-16 weeks before a goal race. Give yourself time to adapt to the training without the worry of your race performance.

Sets and Reps

No need to break the bank during your first strength session. Start your program with lighter weight and higher reps.

As your form and strength improve, you can add weight to your workout. Lower the reps as you increase the reps and increase the sets. After three to four weeks take a week to lower the weight or rest completely.  

Progression examples for squats:

Week 1 –  3 x 8 #100

Week 2 – 4 x 7 #105

Week 3 – 5 x 6 #110

Week 4 – Deload or down week

How To Modify Exercises For Your Needs

Modifications will be your best friend.

As an endurance athlete, you may have mobility and compensation issues that you will need to improve over time.

Scaling the movement yields the fastest rate of improvements because you’re using the movement most appropriate for your current strength and skill level.

Squats

  • Goblet
  • Squat to box
  • TRX Squat

Deadlift

  • KB Deadlift
  • RDL
  • Sumo Deadlift

Overhead Press

  • DB Press
  • Landmine Press

The Home Stretch

As an endurance athlete, powerlifting should be an integral part of your training. Consistent improvements with your strength training will carryover to your endurance events.

More effortless runs, a reduced risk for injuries and some added muscle are what you’re missing by not adding strength training to your plan.

Give yourself every opportunity to get better as an athlete. You just need to get started.

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Author: Rich Ryan
Rich Ryan is a 16 year veteran of competitive running who puts together endurance plans through his online coaching program.
You can find Rich Ryan at http://www.reinforcedrunning.com/

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.

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