Endurance athletes can be notorious for placing too large a focus on increasing their hours of swimming, biking, and running, in the “more is better” belief. Perhaps they are missing a key element in this way of thinking, which is strength training! For a while, there was push-back from endurance athletes in regard to strength training because they are generally very focused on being lean and weight conscious, and they did not know that you can strength train without getting bigger (hypertrophy). There are many benefits to strength work: reduced injury risk, increased endurance, improved movement efficiency, and delayed time to fatigue are just a few.
Why Should You Strength Train?
Strong bodies can handle more significant loads than those without higher levels of strength. Increasing the strength of an athlete increases the range for mitigating injury. Resistance training is not only good for picking things up and putting them down. Loading and strengthening our connective tissues (muscle, fascia, tendons, and ligaments) allows our bodies to absorb the forces that training demands from it.
Strength training can also increase your mobility allowing joints to move freely and with fewer limitations that can place additional stress on tissues. Working on stability increases your control of movement; without stability, you are essentially trying to balance a pencil on its pointy edge. Stability is essential, as we can have all of the force necessary for our sport, but force requires control, and control comes from within the system.
What to use?
Strength training does not have to be static. You can incorporate a wide variety of strength moves in order to build a stronger you. This can include free weights, weight machines, and bodyweight exercises. What you choose will depend upon what you have available to you. Incorporating a mix of strength equipment can help build specific strength in areas depending on what you need as an individual.
How to Build a Strength Program?
If you’re not working with an endurance strength coach, be sure to understand how to properly build a program for yourself. Knowing strength exercises and doing them is good, but understanding how to properly perform them (technique) as well as how often and when to perform them is critical. As a triathlete, you want to build your body to become robust, but you also are not trying to take away from your sport-specific endurance training. Below is an outline of how to build/view a strength program.
Strength Training Phases
Transition/Adaptation: 2-6 Weeks; 1-2 sets with 12-15 repetitions
Whether you are entering into a new season or starting a strength program for the first time, there will be an adaptation phase for every athlete. The length of this phase will differ depending upon the starting point for each athlete. Since triathletes already load their musculoskeletal system thanks in part to the repetitive motion of running, this has already helped you become exposed and capable of handling load better than athletes who participate in non-weight bearing sports. This phase involves higher training volumes with lower intensity. Think of this as a high rep low weight portion of your program in order to develop motor control skills.
Hypertrophy/Strength Endurance: 4-8 Weeks; 3-4 sets with 8-12 reps @ 50-75% of 1 Rep Max (1RM); 2 to 3 sessions per week
This phase is also known as the “strength endurance phase.” The training intensity is low to moderate and the overall volume is high. Rest intervals between sets should be relatively short (1-2 minutes) during this phase. This phase serves as the foundational phase for higher intensity training. The primary goal for triathletes is to increase strength endurance without increasing hypertrophy.
Power/Plyometric Phase: 2-4 weeks; 3-5 sets with 2-6 reps per set; 1-2 sessions per week
While not all endurance athletes will include power or plyometric phase in their strength training progression, it can be valuable for those who participate in short course racing such as sprint or Olympic distance triathlons. These are events where quick bursts in and out of corners for short durations are important.
Muscular Endurance Phase: 2-4 weeks; 1-3 sets with 15-25+ repetitions per set; 1-2 sessions/week
A muscular endurance phase of training typically focuses on a localized muscle group prone to fatigue that is exercised to near failure with relatively low weight but a high number of repetitions. This can get sport-specific as this is closely related to the type of fatigue that sets in over long course racing for a triathlete. Whether a half-ironman or ironman distance race, you will find yourself in a tucked aero position for lengths of time greater than 2 hours on the bike. Honing in on developing cycling-specific strength will increase your resistance to fatigue during the race.
Strength Maintenance Phase: 2-12+ weeks; 1-2 sets with 8-15 reps per set; 1-2 sessions/wk
During phases of very high endurance training load and during race season, your focus is on your sport-specific cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Strength training should not be taking away from your current triathlon training, but be viewed as supplementation. Strength training should be continued in order to maintain your strength as well as maintaining mobility, and reducing any tendencies towards overuse injuries.
Example of a Strength Session Set-Up:
Since strength training is not your main sport, try keeping the session between 45-60 minutes, outside of this window and your body begins to build up additional cortisol.
The basic skeleton of a session can include the following:
Your prep work should focus on loosening/warming up muscle groups that are either tight or ones that will be used during the following strength exercises. Once warmed up, activate the muscle groups so that you can perform the movements with proper form and technique. This can include doing exercises with bands.
The strength portion of the session can include the number of sets you wish to perform throughout the session. Each set can include a main lift, supplemental lift, and a core exercise. These sets can be performed 1-3 times depending upon where you are at in your own training cycle/season.
If looking to challenge your stability work, you can perform this at the end of the session when your neuromuscular system is taxed and will require a focus on good technique. This is good practice for race scenarios: at the end of a race when fatigue sets in and you still need to perform!
When beginning any strength program, always take things slowly. Avoid jumping into programs too quickly, or increasing weight too soon. Strength work should supplement your endurance training, not the other way around. As always, be mindful of your technique and never push beyond your limits.
Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.