You swim. You bike. You run.
However, if you’re like most triathletes, you probably don’t do much strength training. I believe this to be one of the most common mistakes among triathletes.
An intelligently designed strength program prepares you to better endure the high volumes of stress your sport commands and builds the strength needed to perform well. The aesthetic benefit doesn’t hurt, either!
The Triathlon Pitfall
The injury woes of triathletes are well-known and widespread.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy tracked the training and injury patterns of 131 triathletes over a 10-week period during the triathlon season. A “retrospective 6-month analysis of training history and prior overuse injuries” was also conducted.
During the six months, Fifty percent of participants sustained an injury. During the 10-week competition season, 37% of participants sustained an injury. Overuse accounted for 68% of the preseason and 78% of the competition season injuries reported.
Those numbers are scary, but intelligent strength training can significantly reduce triathletes’ risk of injury. How you get there matters. Your strength training plan should run in tandem to your endurance plan.
I get that the programming process is already difficult and often overwhelming.
This is why many triathletes and coaches alike have the best intentions in terms of integrating strength training into each phase of the program, yet the minute the training blocks become more aggressive in volume, strength training becomes an afterthought.
That’s a major mistake.
In his book The Well-Built Triathlete, Matt Dixon writes, “functional strength is defined as resistance training to target mobility, stability, strength and power to improve the movements necessary for your specific sport and to uncover optimal performance gains.”
Why Strength Training Makes Better Triathletes
Lifting weights with purpose and an understanding of your desired outcome builds a greater overall performance profile.
Consistent adherence to a proper strength training program will:
- Grant you access to those power-generating, type-II fiber muscles that seem to remain unused when only sticking to your endurance plan.
- Build biomechanical fluency that helps to offset the risk of injury by reducing the asymmetries typically seen in triathletes.
- Increase your work capacity, allowing you to train and compete at near-threshold levels for longer.
- Make your muscles larger, potentially helping you produce more power as you swim, bike and run.
- Increased muscle mass leads to increased calorie-burning at rest, helping you look and feel like the highly trained athlete you work so hard to be.
- Access, organize and design a powerful neuroendocrine adaptation that positively influences your vitality and emotional well-being.
These big benefits are accompanied by countless other potential improvements. Listing them in full simply isn’t possible.
What Won’t Happen When Triathletes Strength Train
“I don’t want to get too big.”
“But every time I pick up a weight, I put on size.”
These are some of the most frustrating responses I hear when strength training comes up in a conversation with a triathlete. Yet, I can appreciate the fear.
Lifting weights has always been associated with getting bigger, and the training and appearance of Hollywood action stars like Dwayne Johnson do little to dispel that.
However, it’s essentially impossible for your everyday triathlete to accidentally get anywhere near that big.
A more realistic outcome would be something like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or even Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool.
Don’t get me wrong, those body compositions still take a ton of hard work, and they’re not achievable for everyone. But they’re far more in line with what a triathlete who eats well and who regularly strength trains might be able to achieve.
There is a hierarchy of biological adaptations your body undergoes in response to training. Since triathletes must continually develop their aerobic fitness, your adaptations will be different than a bodybuilder who does nothing but lift weights.
It would be rad to dive down the rabbit hole of exercise molecular physiology, but let’s keep things simple. Simply put, you are always going to out-“aerobic” your strength training, and your body will build and maintain only the amount of muscle mass that’s needed.
Strength Training for Triathletes
All strength exercises are not created equal.
Triathletes need safe, effective exercises that provide a high bang for their buck.
I often see triathlon coaches recommending resistance exercises that will provide little-to-no benefit in loading schemes that seem to make little-to-no sense.
Sticking with the core lifts and accessory work that complement these lifts will provide you the most value.
Core Lifts for Triathletes
Your core lifts serve as the bedrock of your strength-training program.
Each core lift ties into one of five movement categories: Hip Hinge, Squat, Lunge, Push, and Pull.
- “Hip Hinge” Core Lifts: Trap Bar Deadlift, Power Clean, Kettlebell Swing
- “Squat” Core Lifts: Front Squat, Goblet Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat
- “Lunge” Core Lifts: Forward Lunge, Reverse Lunge, Lateral Lunge, Front Rack Lunge
- “Push” Core Lifts: Push-Up, Floor Press, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Push Press, Jammer Press
- “Pull” Core Lifts: Chin-Ups, Pull-Ups, Seated Rows, Bent-Over Rows, Lat Pulldowns
For strength training to work for you, you must utilize progressive overload.
This essentially means changing your training over time so your body is continually incentivized to adapt. There are many ways to do this, with the simplest tactic being to add more weight. Altering your training tempo can also help you achieve superior results.
Many variables go into executing the core lifts correctly, which is why I strongly recommend working with a qualified strength coach, particularly if you have little to no previous strength training experience.
Accessory Exercises for Triathletes
Accessory exercises complement the core lifts.
They are designed to activate, mobilize and course correct imbalances.
Compared to the core lifts, accessory exercises are generally of a lower intensity in terms of stress placed on the body. They can be used immediately preceding or following your core lifts, as a warm-up, or even as pre-endurance work.
Examples of some of my favorite accessory exercises for triathletes include:
Standard set/rep ranges for accessory exercises tend to fall in the range of 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
I do like utilizing what are known as eccentric-isometrics with accessory exercises. The simplest application of this is a 4-2-1-0 tempo.
This means a 4-second lower (eccentric), a 2-second pause at 90-degree/parallel joint angle, a 1-second raise (concentric) and no pause at the top. Eccentric-isometrics aren’t limited to accessory work and can be applied to your core lifts, as well.
Triathletes who do not consistently strength train are ignoring a huge potential advantage. An intelligent strength program will improve your ability to call on power when needed, allow you to sustain this power for longer periods of time, reduce your risk of injury and relieve aches and pains, and give you greater overall athleticism to rock life.
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