The consensus among triathlon coaches is that strength training for triathletes necessitates a distinct approach in contrast to athletes who depend on explosive strength and fast-twitch power. This article will discuss essential principles to assist triathletes in achieving maximum benefits from endurance-specific strength training.
Should Triathletes Incorporate Weightlifting and Strength Training into Their Training Regimen?
As with most endurance activities, triathlon involves a significant amount of repetition. Continuous training and racing may result in muscular weaknesses and imbalances over time for numerous triathletes.
Incorporating strength training as a fourth discipline is crucial to achieving longevity and success in triathlon. When appropriately implemented for a specific distance event(1), strength training can enhance sport-specific mechanics, race-day performance, and injury prevention.
Triathletes can follow a general outline of scheduling 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training during the off-season, followed by strength maintenance during the competitive season.
The Objective of Strength Training for Triathletes
Achieving two primary objectives should be the focus of strength training for triathletes: injury prevention and transferring strength, power, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance to the sports themselves. The repetitive nature of swimming, cycling, and running makes it crucial to address any impairments early on by strengthening under-active muscle groups to prevent injury effectively. Athletes can benefit from particular strength exercises concerning movement patterns and velocity for improved performance.
Many periodized strength training(2) programs progress athletes from general to specific exercises. In endurance sports, exercises should move from general to more specific to avoid conflicting peripheral adaptations. This means that a portion of the strength training should eventually be performed within the targeted sports of swimming, cycling, and running.
Although strength work has been shown to be effective in all phases of an annual plan, it's recommended to begin strength training during the off-season to avoid overtraining. Investing in 12-16 weeks of structured strength training at the beginning of the off-season can lead to a long-lasting and delayed long-term training effect that can yield excellent results during the competitive season.
Although immediate performance gains may not be apparent, especially for athletes training for Ironman or long-distance(3) triathlon distances, investing in strength training can be highly beneficial in the long term. The following guidelines and fundamentals will help you implement a safe and effective off-season strength routine.
Preventing Maladaptations and Embracing Freshness
Strength training requires high-intensity work, so doing these exercises when you are fresh is crucial. Just like a strength athlete wouldn't engage in a long endurance session before training strength, endurance athletes need to adhere to the same standard.
While a short ride or run is acceptable, it's crucial not to start strength training in a fatigued state. Additionally, doing a long, exhaustive endurance workout immediately after a strength session can significantly negate the benefits of your strength workout.
A short-to-medium distance workout after strength training can help transfer some performance adaptations to your sport. However, you can face maladaptation issues if you go too hard or too long before or after a strength workout.
Prioritize Functional Movements
When designing a balanced strength training session for triathletes, focusing on movements and planes of motion rather than individual muscle groups can make the process easier and more effective.
Avoid single-joint isolation exercises unless your goal is targeted injury prevention or activating an under-active muscle group. Instead, concentrate on ground-based, multi-joint exercises for lower body strengthening, such as squats and lunges, which recruit muscles in the proper ratios.
For additional functional movements that benefit endurance athletes, incorporate exercises that challenge balance in a single-leg stance, like single-leg squats, single-leg RDLs, or step-ups to balance. These movements can improve stability and injury resilience for athletes.
Avoid Overlapping Endurance and Strength Training for Optimal Performance
Remember that strength training is meant to supplement endurance training. It's essential to keep the intensity of your strength training high but avoid high-repetition and short rest programs like CrossFit and other boot camp-style circuit training. The main objective is to develop strength and power while minimizing unnecessary fatigue. To accomplish this, take more extended rest periods between sets and work more intensely for shorter periods. To plan your fitness routine, consider using online software to help you improve your overall fitness.
Your body uses three fundamental energy systems: A-lactic (ATP-PC), anaerobic, and aerobic. If you focus most of your exercises on the A-lactic system (10-15 second intervals with adequate rest), your strength work won't interfere as much with the rest of your training.
Maximize Your Workout with Plyometrics
Plyometrics are high-intensity jumping exercises that aim to increase power through short ground contact time. While jumping exercises may not suit everyone, starting with lower-intensity exercises such as ankle hops or running drills and gradually progressing to higher-intensity movements like box jumps, squat jumps, and bounding can go a long way. It's crucial to remember that plyometrics can be strenuous on the body, so paying attention to the number of jumps performed during a session is essential.
Studies have demonstrated that plyometric training can improve running economy, reducing the oxygen cost for a given running speed. Incorporating plyometric exercises into a structured fitness program has enhanced fitness levels. Athletes can lower their heart rate at a given running speed and further improve their running economy by reducing oxygen consumption.
Balancing Strength and Power
In physics, work is defined as force multiplied by distance, while power is defined as force multiplied by distance over time. Adding speed to a movement can increase power output. Heavy strength training has proven effective in studies due to the high recruitment of muscle fibers and power. However, lighter weights can also increase power by moving them more quickly.
Interestingly, studies have shown that heavy weight lifting is effective for endurance athletes, while light to moderate weight training can also be beneficial. Moving at a faster speed when lifting lighter weights can replicate sport-specific movements, similar to plyometrics. In contrast, heavyweights increase power despite slow movement speed. Researchers have found that the intention to move quickly is just as crucial as moving quickly.
Regardless of the weight lifted, intending to move the weight quickly is crucial in increasing power output.
From Strength Training to Sport
The ultimate goal of concurrent training is to achieve transferable skills from your strength training to your sport. However, it's important to note that a 30% increase in one-repetition max on the squat does not necessarily equate to a 30% improvement in watts on the bike.
One solution is to replicate some of the movements and velocity of your sport during your strength training sessions. However, at some point, it's crucial to incorporate strength training directly into your sport.
For instance, swimmers can add drag or perform tethered swimming to simulate swimming movements. While paddles are a popular tool, they pose a higher risk of a shoulder injury, so caution is advised. Runners can incorporate sessions with strides or short hill reps, while cyclists can perform short, A-lactic stomps, which are 10-15 second maximum sprints with complete recovery.
The Inclusion of Strength Training Should Not Lead to an Increase in Overall Training Time
Incorporating strength training into endurance training, or concurrent training, can be effective if it doesn't lead to overtraining. Adding strength training during the off-season or pre-season is advisable when the training volume is lower. As endurance athletes are usually well-trained aerobically but under-trained muscularly, they must begin a strength training program conservatively and ensure sufficient nutrition and protein intake. However, it is essential to remember that strength training is supplementary to endurance and triathlon training and should not be the sole focus. Quality over quantity is critical, and some movements can benefit endurance and strength training.
Top Triathlon Strength Training Exercises
When it comes to strength training for triathlon, specific exercises can effectively enhance power, boost speed, and reduce the risk of injuries. In this article, we have identified three of the most valuable exercises that provide maximum benefits for the effort and time invested.
Lunges are a versatile movement that can significantly improve power, increase speed, and prevent injury for triathlon athletes. They directly translate into running and cycling motions, working many of the same muscle groups.
Aim to do 10 to 20 repetitions per side (20 to 40 repetitions total) of lunges for strength and endurance. Depending on your pace, a set can take over a minute to complete. When adding weights, keep them light. Using 30 to 40 pounds (15 or 20-pound dumbbells in each hand) is sufficient to challenge even those with strong legs and good endurance.
There are several types of lunges that you can do to add variance to your workout. Walking lunges are a fluid movement without stopping, while overhead plate lunges increase stability required in your midsection and shoulders. Dumbbell lunges are the most popular form of weighted lunges; high knee lunges activate your abdominals. One-arm kettlebell lunges can correct muscular imbalances, and twisting lunges can activate key stabilizer muscles in the midsection.
Remember to keep your midsection tight while doing lunges to protect your back and avoid letting your knee extend over your toes or cave inward. Focus on tracking your knee movement outward over the pinky toe.
Kettlebell swings are an excellent way to work out a full range of muscle groups specific to triathlon while also providing an enjoyable experience. This exercise combines a deadlift-like squat with an explosive standing motion, swinging the kettlebell up to chin level with straight arms. It targets the thighs, glutes, low back/core, and shoulders.
The amount of control over the weight is one of the advantages of this lift, allowing for an increased volume of repetitions. For beginners, starting with a lightweight and performing at least 20 repetitions is recommended. As proficiency improves, 50 repetitions or using a heavy kettlebell can be attempted.
The main focus of deadlifts is to strengthen the lower back, which is a common problem area for triathletes. A strong lower back is crucial for endurance athletes but is also one of the most challenging areas to strengthen. Most core and midsection exercises concentrate on the abdominal muscles facing the front, which makes deadlifts an effective way to build a resilient low back and stronger legs, glutes, and other muscles involved in cycling and running.
Despite their effectiveness, deadlifts are often overlooked by endurance athletes who view them as a lift exclusive to powerlifters and bodybuilders. However, deadlifts are an essential part of cross-training for any athlete. Unlike powerlifters, triathletes should keep the weight low to moderate and perform over 20 repetitions with proper form. The weight and hips should be kept back, the knees stable, and the back straight. You can also try variations of deadlifts using kettlebells or dumbbells. One-arm deadlifts using a dumbbell can be done by crossing the arm over to the opposite side, which can help activate the obliques. Proper deadlift form is demonstrated in the video below. Deadlifts are highly effective for building a balanced and resilient system and preventing injuries, making them a cross-training staple for almost any athlete, particularly endurance athletes like triathletes.
Strength Train with Purpose
The main point is to remember a clear purpose for each strength training session. While it's evident that triathletes need to devote significant time to steady-state endurance training to develop their aerobic capacity, there are opportunities to include high-intensity and sometimes heavyweight exercises in their strength training routine to enhance their power.
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