Strength Training for Runners: Part 1 - The problem with 'circuit training'

Updated: Mar 6, 2018

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From experience, the majority of the endurance athletes that I have worked with have never applied strength training to their routine. Those that use different methods alongside their endurance training programmes, tend to use circuit style training that involves high repetition bodyweight movements emphasising muscular endurance. This might involve a large variety of exercises performed back to back with minimal rest. A typical bootcamp-like session - a group of people using minimal equipment (kettlebells, medicine balls, cones etc).

Beattie, K. et al. (2014) backs this up, by stating that elite endurance athletes are renowned for their high volume of low force endurance training, and that for unknown reasons, endurance athletes have been cautious to strength train.

Surprisingly (or to me, anyway), it appears that this is also the case for elite runners too! In 2003, Maher et al. explained that runners competing in the 2008 US Olympic Marathon trials included little strength training in their training programmes and nearly half the runners did no strength training at all!

It appears that the traditional method of physically preparing endurance athletes has been focused on improving maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and lactate threshold. This is typically achieved through conducting specific sessions involving the endurance discipline (running, cycling, rowing, swimming), or general 'fitness work'.

Fitness training or circuit training is often defined by high repetitions, low weight and little rest.

It is important to understand that doing this type of training will:

  • Compromise the weight that can be used.

  • Result in a very high aerobic demand (cardio)

  • Produce significant muscular fatigue

  • Compromise technique because of high metabolic demand (fatigue)

  • Not increase strength

Force Production:

More recently, velocity and power at VO2max, and the individual's maximal anaerobic running velocity have been seen to be more effective indicators for endurance performance (Beattie, K. et al., 2014).

Putting this in simpler terms, the speed and power you are producing whilst performing at max effort are better indicators of success than your VO2max or lactate threshold.

“Endurance in sport has been defined as the ability to maintain or repeat a given force or power output" (Caleb, et al., 2015).

These factors are largely dependant on your ability to produce force.

Force = mass x acceleration

Strength is ultimately defined as one’s ability to produce force from a single or group of muscles, typically when referring to moving heavy objects.

Force production has been identified as a useful indicator of endurance performance.

If we increase your strength we increase your force production. If we increase your force production, we increase your ability to produce more speed and power when performing at maximum effort during endurance activities.

As stated earlier, circuit training or training sessions involving very little rest will not improve strength and therefore will not increase your ability to produce force.

It doesn't matter how hard your circuit training may be, it will not develop strength and therefore force production.

Summary: Circuit training or muscular endurance work will not improve strength. Strength training, particularly that with heavy weights, will increase force production. Increased force production will increase your ability to produce more speed and power when performing endurance sessions.

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Economy is defined as the amount of energy required in order to perform a task at a given speed or power output (Foster and Lucia, 2007).

It has been deemed responsible for some of the performance differences between two athletes with a similar VO2max (Bassett and Howley, 1997). In other words, one athlete may run faster than another despite having equal VO2max due to having a better running economy.

Beattie, K. et al. (2014) stated that the more economical athlete will use less energy at various intensities, and can therefore spare vital carbohydrate stores for significant stages in competition, in comparison to their less economical opponent.

In other words, the athlete with an increased economy will have a greater ability to rapidly produce force following a period of high-intensity exercise (Paavolainen et al., 1999).

According to Johnston, et al. (1997) and Paavolainen et al. (1999), running economy is positively influenced by strength training; a means of increasing force production.

This is repeated by Beattie et al. (2014). In fact, it has been found that strength training and endurance training combined can lift endurance performances to higher levels than endurance training alone (Caleb et al., 2015).

Summary: Economy is the amount of energy required to perform a task. Economy could be the major difference between two runners who have the same VO2max. Running economy is improved with strength training. Strength training and endurance training combined can improve endurance performance than endurance training alone.

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The Dilemma:

After chatting with a number of my endurance athletes, it appears that there are a number of common concerns regarding strength training and its affects on endurance performance.

The general thought is that strength training will lead to weight gain through muscular hypertrophy, with the end result being that they perform at a slower pace during training and events because they are heavier.

This overlying concern is flawed.

Through careful, consistent and regular monitoring of body composition, I am yet to witness one of my athletes significantly increase their body mass following the introduction and application of structured strength training.

This has also been reported by Hickson et al. (1980) and Beattie et al., (2015), who stated that their participants experienced no change in body mass, percentage body fat and lean tissue mass, however did experience significant increases in maximal strength following and 10 and 40 week programme.

Despite some athlete’s argument that strength training may reduce their pace, it has been found that greater running speeds are achieved with greater ground reaction forces. In other words, the more force an athlete can apply into the ground during running, the pace their pace will be (Weyand, et al, 2000).

As stated, strength is defined as one’s ability to produce force from a single or group of muscles, typically, when referring to moving heavy objects. The greater the mass that is lifted, the greater the force produced.

“strength is the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce force against an external resistance” (Siff, 2003)

The external resistance in this case, may be the ground, a pedal of a bicycle, or water when swimming.

As mentioned, the greater the force one can produce, the greater the athlete’s speed will be.

Increasing your absolute strength will mean that you will be working at a lower percentage of your maximum effort while performing your chosen endurance sport, and therefore

  • reduce metabolic demand (effort)

  • reduce the need for greater motor unit recruitment (involvement of muscles)

  • result in an improved economy

It is common for endurance athletes, particularly at elite level, to spend a very large part of their week carrying out specific training for their sport. Personally, I have had runners and cyclists performing endurance sessions for up to fifteen hours per week. In some cases, these athletes have come to me having spent no time at all on strength training.

This has also been found by Tønnessen et al. (2014) who found that Olympic level skiers and biathletes performed between 622 and 942 hours of training, distributed across 375-585 sessions in the year leading up to a specific event. Approximately 94% of these hours were spent performing specific endurance sessions, whereas, only 5% involved strength training.

That’s over eighteen hours per week of endurance exercise, in some cases, involving more than one training session per day! With little to no strength training.

Zapico et al. (2007) claims that rowers, swimmers, cyclists and triathletes may train in excess of 1,000 hours per year.

A large concern, is how you will be able to find the time to include strength training into your programme when having to perform endurance sessions to this frequency and volume. Particularly when you probably need to hold up a job outside of your sport!

The majority of the endurance athletes that approach me, even at national level, have jobs outside of their sport and find it very difficult to complete training to this frequency and duration, without the consideration of added strength training.

The frequency and duration typically experienced during endurance training has been shown to have a slight negative correlation with strength and power development (Kraemar and Szivek, 2012; Wilson et al., 2012; Jones et al., 2013), particularly if performed more than three times per week. In other words, excessive endurance training volume may negatively affect strength and therefore economy.

If strength training is not maintained during high volume endurance training, strength will drop considerably, thus highlighting the need for an emphasis on strength development in order to maintain or improve the athlete’s economy and performance.

To avoid overtraining, unnecessary fatigue and potential injury, endurance training volume must be reduced and replaced with strength training instead of simply adding it to the programme (Caleb et al., 2015).

In their studies, Bastiaans et al. (2001), and Paavolainen et al. (1999) reduced training volume by 37% and replaced it with strength training, resulting in improvements of aerobic power output. This combined strength and endurance training, otherwise known as concurrent training, can lift endurance performances to higher levels than endurance training alone (Blagrove, 2013; Caleb et al., 2015).

Summary: Most endurance athletes are afraid of using strength training as they believe that they will gain weight, become bulky and as a result lose speed and perform events at a slower pace. This is not true. Strength training performed correctly will not cause muscular hypertrophy and increases in weight.

Summary: A large number of experienced endurance athletes may think it is impossible to fit strength training into their schedule on top of the 15-30 hours of endurance training they are already committed to each week. Combining strength and endurance training (concurrent training) is better than performing endurance training alone. Reducing endurance volume by up to 40% to make room for strength training may significantly help you improve endurance performance whilst reducing the risk of overtraining.


Being blunt and to the point, stop wasting your time with circuit training and bootcamps. It might be fun. You may choose to do it because your friends do. It might be cheap, accessible and convenient, but you're wasting your time, energy and money.

Circuit training and bootcamps will not improve your strength and therefore will not increase your force production when running, swimming, cycling or rowing.

In fact, all it will do is add to your fatigue and therefore increase your chances of injury or illness.

If you are wanting to take your endurance training more seriously, begin to see results and ensure you achieve a PB at your next event, reduce the amount of endurance training you do and add a little strength training into your schedule.

Strength training will not make you slow, rather, it will help improve your economy by increasing your ability to produce force, speed and power during endurance activities.

In part 2, I discuss how and why strength training will benefit your endurance performance.

If you'd like help with your training and nutrition, take a look at our services. You can work with us in-person or online. Regardless of your goals or experience, we can certainly help you improve your endurance performance.

#circuittraining #endurance #running #cycling #swimming #rowing #triathlon #weightlifting #strength #strengthtraining


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