Strength Training to Improve Endurance Performance

Here’s a summary of the lecture presented by Adam St. Pierre, MS, exercise physiologist, biomechanist and coach at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.

My bottom line: Mix it up. Get strong. Have fun!

I attended this lecture a month ago and have been wanting to write an informative article about it. But time has eluded me. Let’s bust something out real quick, while The Twins are sleeping.

Adam’s presentation was, I’d say, academic in nature. He wasn’t coming out and making pronouncements like James Wilson would; he was presenting evidence and trying to lead the audience to a gentle conclusion.

The audience was primarily older endurance athletes: runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, XC skiers. The sort of people who tend to shy away from strength training.

Here’s a summary of Adam’s presentation:

Types of training

Core: From your knees to your shoulders. Any muscle that acts on your pelvis or spine (which is a lot of them). The key to good posture, efficient energy transfer.

Circuit: Variety of exercises, low weight and high reps. Untrained athletes derive strength and aerobic benefits. Trained athletes only get strength benefits. (I must be pretty untrained, because my James Wilson circuits kick my ass, both muscularly and aerobically.)

Maximal/explosive: aka “max” training. High weight, low reps or quick, explosive movements (plyometrics). Both types of training teach muscles to move fast. Teach more of our muscle fibers to contract, increase the force per contraction.

Factors that determine endurance performance

V02 max: Your capacity for aerobic work. Genetically determined and hard to improve through training. Only 3-5 percent increase per year in trained athletes — with lots of base and intervals. A high V02 max gets you into the game, but it by itself won’t make you great.

Lactate threshold: Highest output you can sustain for a long period. Can be improved through training. Good predictor for shorter endurance events (5k run, sprint triathlons).

Economy of movement: How much does it cost you to perform a movement? Accounts for 65 percent of the performance difference on an elite endurance podium. Economy is very high in elite athletes. Little is known about trainability, but it appears that strength training improves economy.

Psychological factors: Highly important but hard to measure. (Adam said these can’t be trained, but I disagree.)

Benefits of strength training

Core and circuit: Stability, injury prevention. Keep you training all season.

Max: More economy of motion! That’s the point of this talk.

One study of elite Norwegian XC skiers

– Eight weeks of strength training 3X per week. Four sets of four max squats, three minutes rest between sets.

– Did not increase body weight, V02 or LT.

– One-rep max went up 33%.

– Running economy at 70% of V02 max improved by 5 percent. They used 5 percent less oxygen at the same pace.

– Heart rate at LT pace dropped 3 percent.

– Maintained 5K pace 20% longer.

– Dropped 5K time from 18:30 to 18:00. (That’s a huge improvement!)

A Finnish study of endurance athletes

– Three 60-minute plyo/sprint/weight sessions per week, nine weeks.

***These sessions replaced endurance sessions. 25-30 percent of total training time was strength.***

– 8 percent increase in running economy at 5K pace. Adam says this means you can run a 5K 8 percent faster.

– Average 5K times dropped from 18:30 to 17:50. (Wow.)

(The thing to note here: These athletes replaced some of their endurance training with strength training, and their endurance performance improved. This is very encouraging to busy people like me.)

How this applies to cycling

– There is little research on this, and the existing studies are imperfectly designed.

– Studies tend to show little to no economy improvement with strength training. But most studies add strength sessions to already brutal endurance programs. Overtraining!

– But, Adam said, strength training might work. There just are no good lab protocols yet.

– In one study of untrained cyclists, an eight-week strength program improved performance. But that’s a duh; any activity would make them fitter.

How to design a max strength program

Do your max training during your base or buildup phase. For most cyclists, that means winter.

Build up with a core/circuit program that works your whole body and prepares you for max training.

Two or three max sessions per week. Two sessions to maintain, three to improve. During your race season, do one session per week so you don’t lose it all.

No more than 6-7 weeks of max training in a row. After you complete a block, go back to core/circuit training for a while, then start another max block.

There are no known drawbacks to strength training. You can do strength training concurrently with endurance training. (But you have to focus on what’s most important to you, at least at that time. It’s best to mix it up.)

How a workout might look

Here’s Adam’s program:

– 10 minute warmup
– 10 minutes of core and sport-specific plyometrics (jumping onto a box)
– Four sets of four max squats with about three minutes between them.
– During the rest periods between squat sets, do some core/upper body exercises. (This sounds like circuit training!)
– The whole workout takes 45 minutes.

Squat to failure. Ideally, you’ll be able to do three reps and part of the fourth rep. If you can do five reps, increase the weight. (Of course, this requires a squat cage and spotters.)

Forget the machines. Do real-deal squats without a weight belt. If you need a weight belt to support the weight, go back and do more core training.

This maximal squat action requires some combination of great equipment and multiple spotters.

Like I said, Adam wasn’t making any big claims. But I will:

– It’s pretty clear that stronger muscles are better than weak ones. Stronger is better.

– Some of the strongest riders I know — Brian Lopes, Curtis Keene, Steve Peat, Jon Watt — all do serious strength training, especially during the winter. Jon, a longtime pro 4X/DS racer, switched to XC a few seasons ago. Heavy squats are a key part of his program.

– Coach Greg Romero and his elite BMX athletes are all about the heavy squats. This is a “duh” for gate starts, but Coach G has evidence that the more powerful you are at the beginning, the more powerful you are at the end. That’s key for endurance.

– My riding time is way down, but I’m consistent with the strength program, and it seems to be helping. As a matter of fact, every time I have a strength or form breakthrough in the gym (garage), I immediately feel it transfer to the bike.

– I’d like to see the comparative performance benefits of an overall strength/circuit program (a la James Wilson ) vs. a max program like Adam prescribed. My gut tells me the overall program will get you 99 percent of the benefit of the more dangerous, equipment-intensive max program.

– Actually, I’d like to see sound science that compares random riding vs. targeted on-bike training vs. general strength plus riding vs. max power plus riding. Not to mention the role of technique!

Lots of areas to explore, lots of science to do. I think it’s time to get that PhD.

My bottom line:

– Do what fits your body and schedule.

– Mix up your training, both on and off the bike. Build a pump track. Shovel snow. Lift heavy things. Run for your life.

– Get as strong as you can — without hurting yourself or compromising your other activities. James Wilson’s programs work very well.

– Become a master. Work to perfect every movement. Pushing, pulling, pedaling, cornering, pumping, everything.

– Have fun and say braaap!

— Lee

Plug: James Wilson’s training programs

There are a lot of ways to gain mobility, increase strength and improve fitness. Carry rocks, swing an ax, lift weights, do whatever works for you.


There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation out there, and many programs don’t have the mountain biker in mind.

If you want a program that works very well — and is designed by a mountain biker to make you more badass off and on the bike — I strongly recommend James Wilson’s workouts.

James offers two programs:

Basic – MTB DB Combo Workout Program. $17.

Ultimate – Ultimate MTB Workout Program. $147 (Lee Likes Bikes bro price $97)

If you’re just starting out, the basic program will take you far. If you want ultimate badassness, well, go for the ultimate program. Either way, James takes you through a safe, well-thought-out progression.

Learn more about the MTB Strength Training System

Know more. Have more fun!

Join the leelikesbikes mailing list:

4 replies

Comments are closed.