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Strength Training for Triathletes

Strength training is defined as activities that make muscles stronger. One could argue that triathlon training alone fits this definition. Indeed it does. So, why do you need to add another workout to your weekly training? The reality is, love or hate it, need it or getting by without it; no matter your circumstances, your triathlon performance will improve with some level of year-round strength training. Here’s a quick rundown on why it’s important, how often to do it and some sample exercises to incorporate right now.

1. Strength training vs. endurance training

Yes, endurance training (swim, bike, run) is a form of strength training in that your muscles are moving your limbs in a specific motion over and over. This is the nature of endurance training: rhythmic repetitive motion activity. The biggest difference lies in the energy systems used. Endurance training is an aerobic activity: using large muscle groups to move your body that increases heart rate and oxygen consumption. Strength training is an anaerobic activity: short bursts of activity with intermittent rest performed with various muscle groups. Even though you’re breathing and your body is delivering oxygen to the muscles, the processes that provide energy for strength training do not rely on oxygen as the aerobic processes do (Hagerman 2015).
Strength training makes your muscles stronger. And, when they’re stronger, they’re more capable of performing longer at higher intensities before they fatigue, i.e. fatigue resistant.

2. Produce your best, most efficient muscular forces

Muscular endurance is defined as the ability of a muscle to withstand repeated use over a period of time. Repetitive motion activities of swim, bike, and run require muscle force over and over and over for minutes or hours at a time. You will certainly achieve good results and improved strength with just swim, bike and run (phase one of the training equation), but if you’re looking to improve your performance or prevent injury, this is where strength training is key.
Strength training provides an additional stimulus to your muscles that you cannot achieve through endurance training alone. This is where the overload principle applies: over time, you must continually work harder as your body adjusts to the existing training load. By applying this overload principle in a way that your body is not adapted to, i.e. strength training, you can create a more powerful engine than relying on endurance training alone.

3. Durability & resilience – fatigue resistance

The general definition of durability: longevity, ability to last, to withstand wear and tear; to be resilient. Repetitive motion endurance training requires us to be durable and resilient. The more durability and resilience you and your body achieve, the greater your chances of improved results and staying healthy.
To further the concept of durability specifically in triathlon, Jesse Kropelnicki provided the phrase “peripheral system toughness”. This includes three areas: aerobic efficiency (proper amounts of low-intensity aerobic conditioning), soft tissue toughness (strength training), and your ability to meet your race potential (i.e. do the training required for your goal race distance). By working on all three levels of conditioning, you are then prepared to meet the demands of the race at your highest potential with less chance of form and pace degrading, especially on the run.

4. Injury prevention

The downside of repetitive motion activity is the increased chance for repetitive motion injuries. What is the physiological basis of strength training to reduce injury? Strength training provides dynamic loads on your joints, therefore creating physiological changes in the bone, muscle and connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia). Since muscles, tendons and ligaments are the support system of every joint and help the body stay aligned, they are at high risk of injury from complex, dynamic movements. Resistance training helps strengthen muscle and tendons while increasing the flexibility of the ligaments, decreasing the risk of tear, strain or overuse.

Injury prevention is one of the most important reasons that strength training improves performance. Quite simply, if your muscles and joints are strong, flexible, durable and move with integrity, then your chances are much higher that you will be free of injury. When you’re injury-free, you can train more and improve both training and race performance.

When there are imbalances in muscle groups, this opens the door to injury. Correcting these imbalances through strength training decreases the risk or severity of injury. For example, the risk of ACL injury in female soccer players was decreased by 88% utilizing a 15-minute per day exercise program to strengthen the hamstrings and balance the thigh muscles (Mandelbaum, et al. 2005).

If you’re injury-prone, had any in the past, just coming off one now and want to prevent future injuries, I recommend a functional movement screen or physical therapy (physio) driven analysis and recommendations. Also, long-term dedication to a strength training and mobility program is the smart move.

Even if you’re very good at the sport of triathlon (indeed all my professional triathletes lift weights), if there’s one muscle that is undertrained and is suddenly called into help support the body but doesn’t have the functional capacity, it will most likely cause an injury. Thus, a full-body strength training plan is necessary to help lower this risk in any athlete, regardless of skill level and activity type.

5. Improve bone density

Bone has an incredible ability to rebuild itself, so when a load is placed on the bone, it is remodeled, increasing the bone density and therefore making the bone stronger. This decreases the chances of a bone injury.
Weight-bearing exercise increases bone density and this is important for everyone, especially women and older men. You will need to push some heavyweight, load your spine and do some light to moderate plyometric exercises. Functional exercises where you move through a range of motion using multiple joints and muscles with weight give the greatest benefits. Example: squats with bar on back, walking lunges with rotation, walking with heavyweights, ropes, deadlifts, etc.

In one study, published in The American Journal of Health Promotion, women 25-50 significantly increased their hip bone density by performing 2 sets of 10 vertical jumps (30-second rest between sets), two times per day. This simple daily exercise improved bone mass better than running and only takes about 2 minutes per day.

6. Weight control and fat burning

Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. It needs more energy to maintain, thus higher muscle mass vs. fat mass means your body is more metabolically active and you burn more calories all day long.

7. The research – does strength training actually improve triathlon performance?

For years, the research about strength training and endurance performance was unclear: does it help? Harm? It’s taken a while for researchers to focus on triathlon, so we still infer many benefits from single sport studies. Over the past 10-15 years, research has increased in endurance sport and has swung in favor of strength training to improve endurance performance.
Current research does suggest that strength training combined with an endurance training plan improves performance and physiological measurements such as economy, velocity, lactate threshold, and anaerobic capacity. Research is very clear related to running and cycling in triathletes, but not as clear for swimming improvements.

In 2013, Ronnestad and Mujika reviewed multiple studies and reported that among runners, running economy (energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running or cycling) improves when endurance training is combined with heavy or explosive strength training. Also, to improve the cycling economy, heavy strength training is needed.

In a 2002 study by Millet, triathletes were studied doing 14 weeks of heavy strength training two times/week. These triathletes improved their maximal strength, running economy and velocity at VO2 max; the improvement in running economy was 6-7%.
In a 2017 study by Vikmoen, female duathletes were studied. After following a heavy strength training program for 11 weeks, they showed a 7% improvement in the cycling time trial and a nearly 5% improvement in running economy.

As for swimming, by the pure definitions of science: “Overall the research on exercise training and swimming is sparse. This leads to many gaps in research for this multi-factorial concept. Overall it is concluded that dry-and or in-water strength training may have positive effects on freestyle swimming performance.” (Mullen, 2018)

Science and research are powerful and important, but so is practical experience, especially what coaches and athletes know to be true and what works for them. Often scientists study trends (proof-of-concept) that coaches and athletes are already using effectively.

8. When and how often

Aim for 1-3 strength sessions per week and vary this based on your schedule, proximity to race day, and time of the season. (Yes, one day per week, performed consistently with the proper stimulus, will help you get stronger.) Each session should be approximately 30 to 60 minutes in length. A year-round approach will bring the best results; varied for throughout the year. Repetitions and sets will depend on how heavy you’re lifting. Generally, a good place to start is with 1-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.

One thing is clear from the research, heavy and/or explosive movements bring the most improvements. BUT, if you are just starting out, you must progress intelligently to these types of exercises.

Exercise specific vs. general, balanced strength. Performing a tri-specific movement can help you with that specific movement, but to balance imbalances, you’ll need to work your muscles in different ranges and planes of motion. If you’re unsure of your technique or what your body needs, get some help from a coach, personal trainer or physical therapist (physio).

9. Sequence to follow

Warm-up for 5 minutes with light cardio, 5 minutes mobility/dynamic stretching, 20 to 30 minutes strength phase, 5-minute cool down with mobility and foam roller, total time: 35 to 45 minutes.

10. Six Sample exercises:

Step-ups: Use a bench or step, the higher the step, the harder the effort and stress on form and joint alignment. Try not to go above a 90-degree angle at both your hip and knees when your foot is on the step. Start with no weight to check your form, no knee or hip wobble or collapse. Add hand weights for additional resistance. Complete repetitions on one leg, then switch to the other. Keep the majority of the work in your hips and upper leg, little push off from leg that is on the ground. (Works: hip and thigh strength and stability for bike and run)

Stability ball bridge/hamstring curls: Supine on the floor with ankles/calves on top of the stability ball. From here, press hips up to be in line with shoulders and knees, stabilize, then press legs down into the ball, bend and straighten knees for hamstring curls in the bridge position. (Works: hamstrings, hip and core stability, posterior kinetic chain)

Standing pulley straight arm press: Stand facing the lat pull down or pulley machine with a straight bar. Place both hands on the bar with elbows straight at arm’s length. Using your lats, press the bar down to hip level. (Works: lats to engage in swim arm pull, posterior kinetic chain)

SB prone triceps kickback: Lay prone on the stability ball with legs straight feet firmly on the ground (use a prop or wall if the floor is slippery). With arms straight along your sides (weight in each hand), extend into back extension, head neutral, activate glutes, knees straight. Hold a strong body position while you bend at the elbows to 90 degrees, then straight back to start. (Works: core strength and stability, back extensors, triceps in swim finish)

Front/side planks: Hold body strong and “plank-like” for 30 seconds to several minutes. Alternate left side, prone, right side. (Works: Core and hip strength and stability)

Prone plank: Prone on floor, place forearms or hands on the floor. Push up into flat back, plank position, abs and glutes engaged. Head and neck in neutral.

Side plank: Lie on your side with legs and feet stacked (straight bottom leg or bottom knee bent on the floor). With your forearm flat on the floor, push yourself up into a straight line – keep squeezing your glutes and brace your core.

Front Plank:

Side Plank:

Reverse hyper or back extension: Reverse hyper: Lie prone on a flat bench so your hips are at the end of the bench. Grab the bench for stability. Start with straight legs and lift them as high as possible focusing on lifting from glutes and back muscles. Slowly lower.

Back extension: prone on floor, stability ball (feet firmly on the floor) or back extension machine. Liftback and legs off floor, hold for 5-10s, slowly lower and repeat. (Works: back, glutes, hamstrings, posterior kinetic chain)

Reverse hyper on flat bench:

Back extension on floor:

Back extension on SB:

With a healthy, balanced, strong body, you’ll feel good, look good and DO good!

References & Resources

Askling C, Karlsson J & Thorstensson A. (2003). Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload. Scandinavian Journal of Med & Sci in Sports, 13(4): 244-250.
Drohan, Freya. The key to strength training success for triathletes. Triathlete Magazine. June 2019.
Eriksson, Mikael. Triathlon strength training in 2018 – the definitive guide. Scientific Triathlon Website. 2018.
Hagerman, Patrick. Strength training for triathletes. 2015.
Kropelnicki, Jesse. What is “durability”? QT2 Systems Blog: February 2011.
Mandelbaum, B. R., Silvers, H. J., Watanabe, D. S., Knarr, J. F., Thomas, S. D., Griffin, L. Y., … & Garrett, W. (2005). Effectiveness of a Neuromuscular and Proprioceptive Training Program in Preventing Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries in Female Athletes 2-Year Follow-up. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 33(7), 1003-1010.
Millet, GP, et al. Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2002 Aug:34(8):1351-9.
Mullen, John. Is resistance training in swimming effective? April 4, 2018.
Pillsbury, Morgan. Strength training to prevent injury.
Ronnestad, B.R., Mujika, I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2013.
Vikmoen, Olav, et al. Heavy strength training improves running and cycling performance following prolonged submaximal work in well-trained female athletes. Physiological reports.
Vleck, SJ, Falkel, JE. Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Medicine. Jan-Feb 1986;3(1):61-8.