Watching the incredible speed, power or endurance of Olympic athletes is awe inspiring and motivating. Whether you’re a casual “weekend warrior” exercising a few hours a week, or a dedicated Ironman triathlete training 20 or more hours per week, it’s common to wonder what is the best way to spend our training time and effort to get those Olympic-like attributes.

Should we work on our strength, or focus more on improving our ability to endure? Without a doubt, different types of athletes from the 20-something cross-fitter to the middle-aged triathlete, love to debate this question. The challenge is deciphering good information from bad and understanding what attributes are most important for our individual athletic success and health. That often starts with learning more about our sports and considering our own background and training history.

To make matters more complicated, most people will tend to do more of what they’re good at and enjoy, and less of what they might struggle with. It’s called “human nature,” and athletes are human!

So to get to the answer, let’s start by defining these two abilities, and then let’s consider some questions.

Strength is the ability to produce force and to overcome. Endurance is the ability to resist fatigue, persist, and endure stress for a long period of time.

So, quiz time…Who do YOU think will be more successful in these instances, the athlete who trains primarily for strength or the athlete who trains primarily for endurance?

  • Which triathlete will finish the swim leg of a triathlon with greater ease, and therefore have a better chance for a faster race finish?
  • Which cyclist will have an easier time climbing that really steep hill?
  • Which trail runner or mountain biker will more easily and confidently navigate those gnarly obstacles on the trail or that steep downhill?
  • Which runner will be the most successful approaching the very last stage of their race?

The answer is simple: endurance is only possible to the extent that one is stronger than the task at hand, be it the chaotic conditions in the open water or the steep hill you’re trying to climb on your bike, or the gnarly uphill or downhill you’re approaching on the trail.

Think of it this way: Carrying 150 pounds up a hill will be an easy act of endurance for the person who has the strength to carry 300 pounds, but an impossible task for a person who can only carry 75 pounds.

It’s also 100% certain that the person who has the strength to lift 300 pounds at least once will have no trouble lifting 100 pounds many times over. On the flip side, there’s no guarantee that a person who can lift 100 pounds many times over will be able to lift 300 pounds even once.

  • The stronger we are, the easier everything else becomes; weakness inhibits everything we do and makes everything harder.
  • Resisting fatigue isn’t simply about enduring, it is also about your body’s ability to handle and absorb shock from impact and contact, as well as repetitive motion.
  • We lose strength as a “natural” and unfortunate by-product of aging, which in turn leads to less endurance and stamina.
  • Strength is a skill. Better skills improve efficiency, which in turn improves endurance.
  • When we increase our strength, in the process we’ve increased all of our capacities.

Strength is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Increasing strength also increases endurance, but not the other way around. Strength prevails.