Strength training for triathletes is so important. Strength training delivers much faster triathlon race results in almost no time at all!
But most triathletes would rather do another 3 hour run than hit the weights room for 30 minutes.
It is a cultural thing that is pounded into people in triathlon clubs that “volume is everything” and bragging rights are given to the athlete who has done most mileage.
The ONLY bragging rights worth having are those earned on the finish line with a gold medal round your neck or having just achieved a new personal record.
Great if it produces results but more often than not, these “long mileage people” just get injured more, get burnt out and end up doing the same times year in, year out.
They are NOT training smart!
I value my time massively- so if 30 minutes in the gym can save me a 2 hour swim and a 3 hour bike and get me better results- then I am doing that!
Each and every time!
Incredible benefits of strength training for triathletes over endurance training
• The anti ageing benefits
• The increased fat metabolism
• The looking great in a tight T-shirt
• Less incidence of injuries and time on the physio bench
Most elite and pro triathletes do 3-4 sessions of strength training per week approximately 60-90 minutes long.
Do you think they would spend that much time on it if it did not produce results?
But let’s remember to compare like with like: we may moan and whine at how far away our performances are from the elites. But our time is spent very differently.
And life happens- our kids get sick, our boss changes a deadline, the car breaks down- all sorts of things get in the way.
If you only do swim, bike and run and wonder why your results are not changing, it may be that you need to change the WAY you train, not be thinking about adding MORE volume.
If you do not embrace strength training in your work out, then the volume of Ironman training you do will increase the likelihood that you get over use injuries and tendonitis.
If you claim you do not have “time” for strength training, beware of lazy thinking- as specific strength training for triathletes will actually save you time and will give you better performances.
Myths associated with strength training for triathletes
Again this is lazy thinking and going with outdated information and not looking at the research based facts.
Some will protest that extra muscle will make them bulky and will slow them down.
This is NOT true.
Strength does not always mean bulk . Advanced Neuromuscular Exercise Physiology found that strength training produced increased recruitment of motor units (strength without bulk).
You need actually need a lot of strength to move your bike over 140 miles and move your legs over 26.2 miles and drag your body through 2.4 miles of water.
The aim is not to become bulky. Pure marathon runners tend to be ultra skinny but if you look at the shape of good Ironman athletes most of them have a decent amount of muscle tone.
Muscle tone will prevent injury, joint health and help preserve your form when you are fatiguing at the end.
Strength is not always development of more fibers but increased recruitment of existing fibers
A motor unit is defined as a nerve and all the muscle fibers stimulated by that nerve. Muscle fibers are grouped together as motor units. If the signal from a nerve is too weak to stimulate the motor unit, then none of the muscle fibers in that motor unit will contract. But if signal is strong enough, then all of the muscle fibers in the motor unit will contract.
It doesn’t take much of a signal to recruit slow-twitch, or endurance muscle fibers in a motor unit. It takes a stronger signal to recruit fast-twitch, or explosive muscle fibers. However, the goal of weight training and strength building is not to increase the signal to the fibers, but rather to train the body to be able to recruit multiple motor units, whether those motor units are comprised of slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The strongest athletes in any sport have the capability to recruit multiple motor units, which means more fibers are firing, which increases force production and strength.
So as an endurance athlete, you can have a relatively small number of motor units, but with proper training, can gain the ability to recruit a significant number of those motor units simultaneously. If this is the case, you don’t need much muscle bulk, but just the ability to be able to wholly recruit the muscles that you do have.
From a health, performance and anti ageing point of view: the hormonal response to strength training for triathletes is significantly different than the response to endurance exercise
From the perspective of an endurance athlete, an increase in anabolic hormones such as testosterone may be beneficial for decreasing body fat, improving mood, having a better sex life, or increasing longevity.
How should I strength train for triathlon?
1) Large multi joint training
Do not waste time isolating small muscles. Do big global exercises that maximize recruitment of all your muscles. These exercises are generally more functional and relevant to swim, bike and run as well.
Squats, deadlifts, over head press, press ups and pull ups and cleans.
This video teaches the nitty gritty of a decent deadlift.
Don’t do the same thing week in, week out.
You get bored and your body will not respond as well unless you mix it up a bit.
Off season– This is a great time to do a lot of strength training as you can not worry so much about muscle soreness as you are doing a lot less endurance work.
As a guide do 10-15 reps 3-5 sets of each at 70% intensity. 40-60 seconds rest in between each set.
Goal is to develop strength and coordination. Endurance training will increase so decrease strength training to 1-2 sessions per week. 8-10 reps; 3-5 sets at 85% intensity. 90 seconds rest.
This is where volume and intensity increase. You can reduce strength training to 1 x per week.
90% intensity, 2-4 sets 6-8 reps 2 minutes rest between each one. Start to include plyometrics.
Peak and taper
Aim to maintain recruitment of motor units. You want little or no muscle soreness. 1-3 sets 4-6 reps at 50% intensity lifted explosively.
Reduce to just 1 session per week now.
Do no strength training 72 hours before a race.
Lots of coaches and experts say to do strength training for triathletes ONLY in the off season, then leave it the rest of the year sticking to core stability.
This is flawed as it takes just 7 days to lose strength- so all your hard work will be wasted. This gets more and more important the longer the distance you are racing. You need strength to hold your body together during Ironman and ultra races. Even if you maintain what you have built during the season, it will dramatically improve your results.
Do not do strength training on consecutive days.
If you are doing 2 sessions a day- generally do your swim bike run first so you are fresher to make sure your technique is good.
Then make your second session a strength training one.
If you want some further triathlon specific guidance check out Ben Greefield Tri-ripped program.
Ben is an ex body builder but has transformed himself into an awesome triathlete completing Ironmans in sub 10 hours on minimal training. He knows a ton about both strength training and high performance triathlon training. Not too many people are expert in both.
Nutrition and Strength Training
Nutrition: how much protein do I need?
You certainly need protein for muscle repair. But excess protein places a strain on liver and kidneys. Many triathletes have switched over to the Paleo diet to improve their diet from a high carbohydrate and sugar diet common amongst endurance athletes. Check out this article and make up your own mind. Whilst strict Palo might be too extreme for ultra endurance athletes, some adaptations can be made to ensure it serves the needs of endurance athletes and strength athletes.
The current US recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (0.8g/kg),
But studies such as this one suggest that even for strength training athletes, there really isn’t much additional benefit of exceeding 0.55 grams per pound of protein (1.2g/kg)
Too much protein creates ammonia which is a toxin which can build up and damages the kidneys. Too much protein also creates dehydration if you do not drink enough water.
Strength, power, speed, balance and mobility are absolutely essential if you want your body to last for a long time – but most endurance athletes who can pound the pavement for two hours can’t even do a single flawless rep of a one-legged squat, a turkish get-up or a lateral lunge. This is NOT what I call being fit.
Strength training for triathletes is neglected in endurance sports through old fashioned nonsense. Start to implement it in your training and it won’t take long to start to feel the benefits.
I am shocked at the runners I see with injuries- who have no activity in their gluteal muscles, poor muscle balance in their quads and no core strength at all.
They proudly tell me they hate the gym and they are an outdoor person.
Great – do some strength training outdoors then
Grab some kettle bells– you can do everything with them- over head press, squats, lunges, deadlifts…
Do some press-ups and planks at home, ask Santa Claus for a TRX and get it done.
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