It’s one thing investing in strength training but another knowing how to schedule it into your training plan. How often should you lift? How heavy? When should you back off? It’s all answered here
Having shown the four huge benefits of strength training, common myths and the seven best strength exercises for runners, triathletes and cyclists, it’s now time to explain how to weave strength workouts into your training plan.
You can begin strength training any time of year, but the off season is ideal for several reasons:
- The implication of sore muscles is less in the early season
- Aerobic training tends to be low intensity which complements the introduction of strength work
- As weather is generally worse, the gym can be a welcome escape
Why do I need a strength training schedule?
As mentioned in our common reasons why runners don’t strength train, it can be hard to commit to regular lifting. Having a plan creates accountability so you’re more likely to stick to it.
A schedule is important for weight training in the same way you plan – to whatever degree – your overall training. You don’t register for an event and then randomly complete training of varying distance and intensity hoping to magically arrive at the start line in your best shape.
You have a structure to build fitness and avoid injury. You complete a range of training sessions, gradually increasing load and taking recovery weeks to let your body adapt.
The same goes for strength training: build intelligently and reap the gains.
Frequency – how often should I strength train?
Two 45-minunte sessions per week is the sweet spot.
Get your diary out and plan your strength training
Unlike endurance training, where it’s best to add sessions gradually, I prefer the method of going ‘all-in’ with strength training. Rather than start with one 30-minute session in the hope of gradually building to two 45-minute sessions, just go all in.
So long as you’re smart, you won’t get injured. Like kicking a bad habit, going cold turkey is often easier than weaning yourself off. Same here – go all in and stick to it.
If you’re the type that needs to introduce new elements slowly, that’s fine too. I just find that athletes stick to strength training better if they commit from the off, perhaps because they see gains quicker.
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Periodisation – how to structure strength training through the season
Call the phases what you want, but I name them base, build and load.
I’ve attributed a number of weeks to each phase but this depends on how early you begin training. This example has you kicking off 14 weeks pre-race. The summary table below illustrates how sets, reps and rest changes within each phase.
1. Base phase: 4 weeks
The base phase begins when you resume training after your off-season. The aim is to create a solid foundation upon which you can lift heavier weights safely later in the cycle.
You’re aiming to engrain good technique and prepare your muscles for heavier work. Have someone check your form to confirm you’re recruiting the desired muscles.
Choose some of the six best moves, lift light weights in sets with higher repetitions. Aim to complete three or four sets of 14 – 20 reps, gradually reducing both and increasing the weight.
Good form is crucial to strength training in the base phase
These sessions shouldn’t be too taxing. Try to finish each set knowing you could squeeze out a couple more reps if you had to.
During the base phase, it’s ok to strength train on the same day as your 'ordinary' training sessions. Lift in the morning and do a low intensity session later. Gradually up the ante as you adapt to the demands of strength training.
2. Build phase: 6 weeks
You’ve got the sound technique and your muscles are accustomed to lifting twice per week.
It’s now time to get strong.
Beginning with three sets of 12 reps, you’ll then settle into the 8 – 10 range. Increase weight gradually and finish the last set unable to lift much more.
Focus on controlled movements and lift the weight at the same speed as you lower it.
As a general rule, avoid strength training on the same day as your long run / ride, and plan to end the build phase at least six weeks prior to your race.
3. Load phase: 4 weeks
The final phase will have you lifting heavier weights with lower reps. You’re lifting heavy, but form is more important than ever. Go as heavy as you can but apply discipline to ensure you’re lifting correctly. Don’t let your ego decide the weight you lift.
You now want to be lifting weights at speed in order to develop power. For example, if you’re bench pressing, press the bar away from your chest as fast as you can and then lower in a controlled manner.
Plyometric exercises are great at developing power late in the strength training phase
Plyometrics – exercises which involve explosive, repeated contractions – are ideal to incorporate in the load phase. I’d recommend doing them at least once per week.
4. Taper: 2 weeks
Assuming you follow a 2-week taper (adjust accordingly for you), err on the side of caution when it comes to weights. Tapering is all about arriving at the start line fresh and lifting heavy at this stage won’t bring any gains but could harm performance if you’re fatigued.
Two weeks out, back off the intensity and stick to light weights with higher reps. Don’t lift heavy and don’t do any plyometrics.
Periodisation – summary
This table shows how to roughly periodise each phase. For example, in Week 3 of the Build phase, you’ll complete three sets of eight reps with two minutes rest between sets.
Find your weaknesses – the bigger picture
As a seasoned athlete, the speed at which you build fitness decreases. Sure, it’ll still improve, but at a slower rate than when you started. That’s natural.
When you plateau, one way to break through is by utilising strength training to address weaknesses.
It’s difficult to objectively observe your own weakness so you might need to employ the services of a coach to identify what’s limiting your performance beyond pure fitness.
- Do you lose energy in the latter miles?
- Does your run form suffer in the second half of a marathon or the closing stages of an Ironman?
- Do you slump into your hips or does your cycling efficiency decrease?
- Does your foot strike change with increased miles?
- Maybe your ground contact time increases?
All of these issues can be addressed through strength training.
It’s all about recovery
You don’t need us to tell you how important recovery is when you’re including strength training in your marathon schedule. You need to recover fast so you’re ready to hit run sessions full-gas.
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