Words by Alana Levin of Thomas Endurance Coaching
Triathlon is an extremely physical sport. The impact of running, the power needed for cycling, and the upper body strength needed for proper swim form all require dynamic strength and specifically developed musculature. Strength training is an integral part of a properly executed triathlon training program. No matter if you’re training for a sprint or an Ironman, it’s critical that the body is properly prepared for the demands of training and racing.
Why to Strength Train
As a triathlete, it’s common knowledge that progressive training of the aerobic system is designed to increase aerobic and muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is defined as the ability of the muscles to sustain repeated productions of force at low to moderate intensities over an extended amount of time. Therefore, aerobic, sustained efforts to improve a triathlete’s endurance. While the definition may sound complex, the outcome is what most athletes expect from their training. However, what may come as a surprise is that high volume, heavy-resistance strength training also leads to enhanced endurance capacity. Studies have found strength training improved endurance athlete’s performance in time trials, anaerobic speed qualities, as well as cycling and running economy. In order to elicit increased endurance through strength training low reps to maximum efforts, and high volume for extended periods of time is necessary. Between 4-10 repetitions for 8-weeks provide benefits, but 2-6 Repetition Maximum (RM) for 12-weeks proved to be optimal. There’s a host of positive adaptations that are the direct derivative of maximal repetition training when integrated properly within a thoughtful training program. Increased power, bone density, running economy, capillary density just to name a few. All of which have a positive impact on a triathlete’s ability to carry out a more progressive and specific training program.
When to Strength Train
Strength training should be periodized throughout the year just like triathlon training: the general physical preparation phase, the specific preparation phase, the pre-competitive phase, the competitive phase, and the peak phase. The annual training cycle develops from general to specific and from form focus to power performance. The program design manipulates the frequency, intensity, and composition of training sessions to optimize benefits for the demands of the sport and goals of the individual athlete. If you’re new to strength training introduce the program in the post-competition season. This is a period where sport-specific training (ie: swimming, biking, running) volume can be reduced and strength training development can advance. Once the body adapts to the progressive overload, strength can be incorporated year-round even during the competition season. One of the best practices that triathletes can make is to begin prioritizing strength training with the same commitment and drive that they bring to their primary discipline sessions. The continual integration of properly periodized strength training will positively impact every component of training and racing.
How to Strength Train
Understanding why strength training is important, and then integrating it into your training is only the start. It’s important to know how to properly execute a strength workout so that it compliments your sport-specific training. Here’s a sample workout during a triathlete’s pre-competition period.
It does not have to be these exact exercises, but it should address a full-body, multi-planar movement group of exercises based on a high volume, high-intensity workout protocol. An intense workout like this requires a warm-up just like an interval workout on the track, or hard bike session would. The warm-up prepares the working muscles for the upcoming workout demands, gets the neuromuscular system firing, develops range of motion and proper form, addresses imbalances and optimizes mobility and flexibility for a triathlete. Without proper preparation for a workout, the expectations for adaption during any particular session are limited.
Warm-Up: 3-10 minutes of light cardio-respiratory activity (eg: spin, walk, jog, row)
Dynamic Mobility: – 3 sets x 10 reps as a circuit:
3-D Calf/ 3-D Hamstrings/ Hip Flexors
Main Strength Set: – 5 sets of 3-5 reps to RM (2 minutes rest between the same exercise)
Straight Arm Pull
Dumbbell Push Press
Single-Leg Squat Touchdowns
Back Planks/ Side Planks with Rotation/ TRX Kneeling Roll Outs
Consider adding a segment of speed, agility and plyometric work to incorporate power, facilitate neural adaptations, improve range of motion, landing mechanics, coordination, and balance.
Exercises such as jump rope, drop jumps, speed ladder, skaters, lateral box jumps, karaoke, hi knees, butt kicks are just a few of the many to choose from that can be incorporated into this strength phase.
Examples of these types of movements can be found here.
Routines like this are advanced. It’s recommended to work with a coach to best address specific needs and help develop weaknesses into strengths. Utilize a coach regularly to check form, progress, and change the program as you develop and build confidence in the gym.
Take the time to build a foundation in order to develop the necessary resilience in the body needed to apply adaptations from strength training to swim, bike, and run training. Strength training is an important part of a triathlete’s approach, but it’s also something that must be understood and individualized. Like any other component of a properly constructed and individualized training plan, strength work must be properly periodized. Build slowly and with the guidance of a coach that understands your needs, limitations, and goals and watch the positive impacts of strength training in your training and racing.
Alana Levin is a triathlon coach for TEC and has over 20 years of experience as a multi-sport coach and athlete. She’s a USA Triathlon certified coach and race director, along with a National Academy of Sports Medicine trainer. Her breadth of knowledge in the discipline of triathlon has enabled her to help athletes all over the globe reach their goals in everything from sprint to Ironman distance races. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. For more information on Alana and other coaches’ personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.thomasendurancecoaching.com/. Follow TEC at @endurance_coach.
Effects of Strength Training on Endurance Capacity in Top Level Endurance Athletes, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Sports, 2010, Aagaard P, Andersen JL.
Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle and Long Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review, Blagrove, R.C., Howatson, G. & Hayes, P.R. Sports Med (2018) 48: 1117 https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7
Strength Training Improves Performance and Pedaling Characteristics in Elite Cyclists, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 2015, B.R. Ronnestad, J. Hansen, I. Hollan, S. Ellefson https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12257
Athlete Perceptions of a Monitoring and Strength and Conditioning Program, Reed, Jacob & Palmero, Mauro & Sato, Kimitake & Hsieh, Chengtu & Stone, Michael, The Sport Journal (2017)
Addition of Strength Training to Off-Road Cyclists Training. A Pilot Study. J. Botella Ruiz, J.M. Sarabia Marin, S.Guillen, R. Sabido, Journal of Science and Cycling, 2016
The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) BASICS OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING MANUAL, Dr. William A. Sands, Jacob J. Worth, Dr. Jennifer K. Hewit, 2012 https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/116c55d64e1343d2b264e05aaf158a91/basics_of_strength_and_conditioning_manual.pdf