Strength Training for Triathletes
Strength training is one of those things triathletes know they “should” do but many never quite get around to doing it.
To complete a triathlon, athletes must swim, bike and run. So that tends to be the only training 85% of athletes do!
However by adding strength training twice a week to your programme – you will save time, race faster, prevent injuries, delay the ageing process, get sick less often and be more fatigue resistant.
Let’s face it:
* Life gets extremely busy
* Its much more fun going for another 2 hour ride in the mountains than lifting weights in a sweaty gym
* Historically many triathletes focus solely on endurance training.
Why Should Triathletes Do Strength Training?
The evidence is undeniable. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that triathletes get far better results in less time with a specific triathlon strength- training program.
In fact- so much so, you would be foolish not to!
If you want to do well at any sport-just look at what the best in the industry are doing- then do that!
When we look at the programmes of the elite triathletes- they are ALL strength training- bar none!
The benefits of strength training are so numerous.
Here are the most important ones:
• Strength training makes you go faster
• Strength training prevents injury
• Strength training increase resilience to lactic acid build up
• Strength training help develop explosive power
• Strength training increases muscle mass and burns more fat
• Strength training prevents age related changes
• Strength training boosts the immune system, whereas a LOT of cardio can decrease the immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and flu.
What Strength Training Should I Be Doing Exactly?
Many athletes new to the triathlon struggle to fit all three sports in and learn all the other things like: transitions, the gear, the lingo and the subculture.
Once the basics have been mastered, they are left in some confusion as to how, what and when to strength train?
These are some of the questions you may have been wrestling with too:
1) Do I strength train as well as my normal session or instead of my normal session?
2) What exercises exactly will make the biggest difference to my race performance?
3) Will I get too bulky and end up slowing down?
4) What about in season vs off season strength training
5) When should I start strength training?
If there is some confusion about “doing it right- you can end up doing nothing.
I believe this is the reason the power of strength training in endurance sports is under rated. So let’s answer these one by one:
When To Start Strength Training
The true answer is – it depends.
If you are new to triathlon and are already feeling overwhelmed by learning the three sports, getting to grips with all your gear and doing you first race- leave it for the first season.
If however you are already fit, you have everything under control, there is no reason not to start right away.
The quicker you start, the quicker you will get great results.
If you are an intermediate-advanced triathlete, you absolutely should be doing strength training. If you have not started yet, start immediately.
The only reason not to start immediately is if you are in the middle of your racing season. Never change your training program, your equipment or your diet just before a race.
If you have not done strength training before, it is likely you may have sore muscles the first few times as your muscles get used to new movements.
You will be stimulating some muscles that may have been under utilised for a while and it may take some trial and error to work out the right weight for you initially.
Most people do start strength training in the off-season to avoid a few initial sore days being a major problem.
In fact some coaches only get their athletes to do strength work in the off season then go back to just swim, bike and run during the season.
I do not subscribe to this view and believe you will lose the strength training gains you have made in the off-season.
The body requires the continued input from strength training during the season to maintain the gains.
So a good way to structure it is do heavy weights and make a lot of strength gains in the off-season. Then during the season- do lighter, more explosive power work and maintain what you have worked for.
Also incorporate more functional strength training whilst you are on the bike, or running or in the pool(more about this later).
Always schedule in a taper a week or two before the event.
What Strength Exercises Are Best for Triathlon?
There are two places you can incorporate strength training:
• In the gym and
• During normal functional training
These are my top 5 specific triathlon exercises:
(I will discuss these as gym based exercises but you can do these at home too. If you don’t have weights, just do body weight exercises or be creative and carry a small child on your back as you do your squats, press ups or climb the stairs!)
For both time efficiency and sport specific reasons, whole body exercises are what works best.
There is no point looking to isolate muscle groups and stand in the spot doing hundreds of bicep curls or hundreds of crunches.
These are not functional and they not time efficient!
Squats are the most basic human exercise.
EVERYONE should be able to do a full squat- especially athletes. I am amazed when I have athletes who cannot do a simple full body weight squat.
It is such an important exercise. My rule is you should not be running AT ALL until you can do a good form, full body weight squat.
Running is a technical sport and you do need a certain about of movement and strength at your hips, knees and ankles or you are likely to get injured.
It is important for flexibility and basic strength.
But increasing your strength here in the squat will dramatically improve your running endurance and your running speed. You will also notice massive improvements in your cycling ability.
You can do a body weight squat, a front squat, a back squat, a goblet squat, a dumbbell squat. It does not matter- just do your squats!
This is the second most important exercise. Many people find this exercise hard and don’t ever do it. However as athletes we must train our weaknesses- not our strengths-right?
Pull-ups are an amazing exercise for core strength, shoulder strength, back strength. It will help your swim stroke, and your back posture on the bike and run.
If you have ever watched the end of a running race or a triathlon, 70% of the field are starting to slump as their back muscles fatigue. As soon as you lose this form, you will start to slow down and place excessive stress on other joints in your body.
Pull ups: Start with assisted pull ups if you need to then progress to full pull ups
The deadlift is one of the best exercises ANY athlete can do. It works nearly every muscle in the body, burns fat effectively, will give you a six-pack, get your gluteal muscle group firing correctly. It trains especially the back, gluteals and core muscle groups.
Anyone who knows strength training chooses the deadlift if they have to pick just one exercise to do for the rest of their lives.
Strong back, gluteals and core muscles will improve your speed in all three disciplines. Deadlifts improve the kick in running, improve hip extension, improve leg velocity, stride length and sprinting power.
Deadlifts also improve shoulder strength and rotator cuff power for the swim.
Deadlifts also help develop cardiovascular fitness as they utilise nearly every muscle in the body.
Deadlifts develop a stronger core than crunches ever will (and crunches are bad for your back!)
Of course- technique is key. If you have not done them before get a PT to watch you the first few times. Keep your back arched, not rounded. Stick your bum out and weight on your heels.
Again- you can start at home with small weights if you want to. The heavier you lift, the more benefit you will get.
A simple but effective exercise you can do anywhere with no equipment. Press-ups are a better all body workout that isolating plank exercises. They work the stability muscles in the back and core and develop great arm and shoulder strength.
You can make them harder by putting your feet up on a bench – or try explosive push ups with a hand clap in between each one.
If they are too hard, you can make them easier by starting on your knees.
5)KETTLE BELL SWINGS
Kettle bell swings create dramatic improvement in the posterior chain. We all need to fire up our gluteals, hamstrings and lower back muscles due to too much sitting and forward bending over our cars, our desks and our bikes.
You will observe great improvement in fat burning and running and cycling with kettle bell swigs. You will also notice your posture is better in both sitting and standing.
Common Objections to Strength Training
Of course triathletes come up with many objections to strength training: These are the common ones:
1)I don’t have time
Strength training actually saves you time. You can switch some of your longer runs and cycles for short intense strength training sessions and get better results plus more time back in your week.
Read here how to train for Ironman in just 10-12 hours a week by strength training
2)I will get too bulky and slow down
This is rubbish- all your swim, bike and run training will ensure you do not get too bulky. Also you will be doing reps of 8-12, instead of the 3-5 reps that body builders do to pack on size.
How To Do Strength Training for Triathlon
Make sure your strength training is high quality. You must use good technique.
Warm up first on the treadmill or the bike for 5-10 minutes.
Do 2-3 sessions a week of 30-40 minutes.
Aim to do 8-12 reps of each exercise.
Perform 3-5 sets.
Pick 5 exercises and do a circuit with 3 minutes rest in between each one.
Focus on explosive power.
Not the heaviest weight you can lift.
Aim for 60—70% of MAX weight. Go for speed of movement without compromising form.
Simply lifting heavier and heavier does not translate into faster speeds.
You must train for power to generate explosive strength for triathlon.
Keep adding more sets to build endurance.
(Though remember this is not another aerobic workout- so the weight should be heavy-but not maximal).
Functional Strength Training
You can add strength training in to your swim, bike and run also.
In the pool: Add resistance by using hand paddles.
Or do one arm only swimming
Or kick board only.
(These are tough sessions).
On the bike: Add strength training by either shifting to a big gear and maintain it as long as possible.
Or find some hills and do hill repeats.
In the run: Do strength training by running hill repeats.
Or dragging a tire behind you.
In all types of strength training good form is imperative.
If your form slips- slow down or reduce the resistance.
When To Strength Train
Ideally do your strength training BEFORE you swim, bike or run.
Aim to stimulate similar muscle groups in the strength session, as you will train in the functional session.
So if you intend to swim afterwards, strength train pull ups, kettle bell swings and press-ups.
Maintain good form when swimming in the pool and if you can, add some hand paddle work as long as your form is good.
Before you cycle, you might choose to do deadlifts, squats and step ups…. Then go cycle.
Depending on how you feel you might add in some hill repeats or big gear training.
Overall strength training is essential to progress and develop as a triathlete.
It will help you sprint up a hill, pull away from the pack and stay strong in the last 1/3 of the race when others are fading.
It will save you loads of time, prevent injuries and improve your performance dramatically. Unless you are racing this weekend-start today!
About the other
Sam Samuel is the founder of Triathlon Hacks. He is a lover of all things health, fitness and triathlon. Sam has competed in triathlon 2000-2007 in UK, Australia and Spain and now writes, coaches and shares his passion.
He aims to deconstruct triathlon into what actually works to get better performances fast and destroy the training myths that have many athletes wasting valuable time doing inefficient time wasting sessions.
We only have one life- get results fast!