Three Crucial Movements for Endurance Athletes by Robert Brinkley

Without strength you are leaving potential performance on the table.

In my experience as a trainer endurance athletes often have a difficult time incorporating strength training into there routines.  They'll put in hours worth of mileage, but suggest a few weights and all of a sudden you are speaking blasphemy.  Many times I have found this apprehension is due to the uncertainty of how they should train.  Mass marketing pushes isolated muscle training, like bodybuilders.  However, as an endurance athlete you shouldn't train like a bodybuilder.  If you did, you'd be sore all the time and it would have a negative impact on your passion/your sport.  You don't need to build Herculean muscle, you need to build strength (power potential).  Strength/Power won't add size to your physique, it will add the ability to express your running, cycling, swimming skills better. 

The Benefits

The stronger the athlete, the better rate of force production they can generate, which will allow them to propel themselves further faster.  The stronger their mid-section, the better they will be at transferring forces from upper extremities to lower extremities (this is very important and often overlooked) and maintain trunk stability.  Think it isn't important?  Try to run without using your arms.  In addition to improving your performance, strength (done right) will help athletes prevent injuries.  

I don't want it to sound like I am saying the strongest person is the fastest; that's not what I am saying.  I don't want to take away from the skills practiced of endurance athletes.  Practicing running mechanics, building endurance, stroke, developing mental capacity to keep going – are all invaluable.  What strength does is enhance the ability to express these practiced skills.

The specific program will depend on the person and where they are in their season.  Off-season, pre-season, and during season will all get a different emphasis/different plans. 

  • Off-season we can experiment with different routines because we aren't as concerned if you get a little sore.  We will also practice strength more frequently – probably 3 times per week.  In advanced athletes we can try out some ballistic training and some plyometrics; if they respond well we can keep these in the routine.  At this stage we can also attack rehab exercises (knee, hip, shoulder, ankle, low back), if needed.    

  • Pre-season we want to have skill development/practice take a front seat (with swim or run coach) – and keep strength in the program, but we tend to scale it back a bit.  Often down to 2 days per week.  Keep the basic movements that the athlete responds to best, and cut out anything that tends to wear the athlete down (requiring higher levels of recovery).

  • During the season, preparing for an event – I like to work closely with the running/swimming coach for the specific athlete.  It is all athlete specific.  Some will do well with less, some need a bit more.  But our goal here is just to maintain acquired strength – not try to gain more.  The priority is the event.   

Athlete specific will change the program to enhance abilities and plug up any leaks of strength.  Put generically speaking I want to focus on 3 things: 



  • We want to focus on strength of the lower half to propel you 

  • Integrity of your mid-section to connect the upper and lower forces

  • Resilience, injury prevention of the upper body


Generically speaking, 3 of my favorites for endurance athletes are: the single leg deadlifts, planks, push-ups.  Simple works, keep it simple.  For most athletes all of these exercises can be done with minimal coaching.  I'd also like to leave an honorable mention to the Turkish get-up.  If never done before it will be helpful to get guidance from someone. 

The single leg deadlifts are an excellent way to build strength and stability of the leg.  It also marrys up well with running mechanics (how often do you run with both feet on the ground?).  Off-season we cango try to go heavier weight and do 5 sets of 3, or do ladder set of 5 reps for 5 rounds (with ladder sets, you do 1 rep each side, then 2, then 3, then 4, then 5 and that is one round).  Pre-season I would have 1 day performing 5 sets of 5 with a medium weight for the athlete (it shouldn't feel easy, but it should not feel like a max.  5 reps should require mental focus, but not barely achieved).  Another day with the same weight for 5 sets of 3 reps.  During season would depend on the athlete.

Planks connect the upper and the lower.  Your power is in your midsection.  A great thing about planks is that they are greatly scalable.  For beginners and some novices holding a passive plank can be tough.  For more advanced athletes adding tension to the plank is key.  Off-season I like to perform tension planks (squeezing the glutes and adding tension the the abs) as tight as you can for 20 seconds on 10 seconds off for 5-20 rounds (depends on the athlete).  If you “get the move” it is tough.  If you try it and think it is easy, try harder.  Pre-season I like to have 1 day with 5 sets of 20 second tension; 1 day with 3 sets of 20 seconds of tension.  During season would depend on the athlete. *If just holding a passive plank is hard for you than just practice on building the time you hold it:  10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds.  However once you can hold a passive plank for 60 seconds, I prefer to switch to the tension planks – even if only 5-10 seconds in the beginning.

Push-ups.  We all remember these from gym class.  These can help keep the upper body resilient, stable, and continue to connect upper and lower body.  These are also scalable.  Our basic push-ups would be done from the ground.  If push-ups are tough for you, I would prefer you to do them with your upper body elevated (on a bench, railing, wall) because this will help you develop the strength & form for when you are ready to take it to the ground.  If you are a stud or stud-et you can always do one arm push-ups.  Off-season we can do 5 sets of 3 or 5 with a 2 to 5 second hold at the bottom of each rep, or do ladder set of 5 reps for 5 rounds (with ladder sets, you do 1 rep each side, then 2, then 3, then 4, then 5 and that is one round).  Pre-season I would have 1 day performing 5 sets of 5 with control at the bottom, but no pause.  Another day for 5 sets of 3 reps.  During season would depend on the athlete.

For the turkish get-up work with a qualified professional, I prefer StrongFirst instructors: (search by zip code).

As with any competitor don't change anything dramatically close to your competition.  Wait and experiment Off-season.


Start:  Alignment is essential.  I like to keep my foot close to the kettlebell or dumbbell (of course safety is key, control the movement and don't set the weight down on your toes).  Back is straight, NEVER rounded.  

Movement:  Lift one leg and push hips back.  Grip the weight drive through your foot and stand up crisp.  Hold position briefly squeeze/flex (emphasis on glutes, abs, and legs).

Finish:  Controlled (smoothly) return to starting position.  Watch the toes!  Set the weight back down, with minimal impact (no bouncing). Repeat for desired reps.  Be sure to do both sides.

Tip:  If you have a difficult time keeping your back in the correct positioning (you round), elevate the weight on a box or a few plates.  The “correct” height is the height that allows you to keep your back and hips in proper alignment.  Resist the rotation of the hips.  Finding something you can fixate your eyes on will help with the balance.  Also tensing up the mid-section will help.


Start:  Lie face down.  Position elbows under shoulders.  Feet are shoulder width apart.

Movement:  Press body off the ground.  Create a straight line with the shoulders-&-the hips (do not allow hips to hike up in the air; do not allow low back to sag).  Eyes stare between fists.  Hold position for desired time.

Finish: Lower slowly back to floor.

Tip:  If you feel this in your low back focus on your back-glute alignment.  Often when people feel this in their low back their low back is dipping and/or hips are high.  Try squeezing/flexing glutes and pushing hips down while maintaining a horizontal back.  If that does not help – then that is your max time for that set.  To make harder focus on flexing/tensing up abs, glutes, back and legs.


Start:  Face down.  Feet are shoulder width from each other.  Hands are just outside chest.  Slightly rotate right hand clockwise; slightly rotate left hand counter clockwise (it is a minimal movement; more torque generation tactic).        

Movement:  Push up through the flooruntil the arms are fully straight (back and hips rise up evenly together and maintain a horizontal alignment for the entire movement).  

Finish:  Pause briefly at the top.   Under control, lower back to the floor.  Repeat for desired repetitions.

Tip:  If it is too difficult to perform push ups in the above manner; then perform with hands elevated on a bench, railing, or wall.

Rob has been a student of strength and fitness programs for 20+ years, has been a personal trainer for 5 years.


Rob lives in North Las Vegas and is available for 1-on-1 personal training.

Whitney PowellComment