Chiswick-Physio BLOG

Strength training for triathletes
Aging, Muscles & Joints

Why is strength training for triathletes important?

It is now well established that strength training is not only a helpful add-on for endurance athletes but also an integral part of a well-balanced training program.

It’s important for injury prevention and a fantastic performance booster. However, there are still some myths that must be busted surrounding the topic of strength training. There continues to be a pervasive narrative that endurance athletes, runners, cyclists should mimic the way they train for their sport in the gym, i.e., a high number of repetitions and a low weight. We now know that lifting heavy with lower reps, and heavy is personal for every athlete, can be tremendously beneficial for endurance athletes of all ages and backgrounds.

In this article we will explore how you can incorporate heavy lifting into your strength training regime. We will also examine the reasons why heavy lifting can be such a great performance catalyst for endurance athletes.

Do triathletes need strength training?

Like most endurance events, triathlon is an incredibly repetitive sport. For many triathletes, constant training and racing can often lead to muscle weaknesses and imbalances over time.

A fourth discipline to achieving longevity and success in triathlon is strength training. When properly executed for a targeted distance event, strength training can improve sport-specific mechanics, race day performance, and injury resistance. 

A general framework for triathletes is to plan 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training starting in the off-season and later shifting to strength maintenance during the competitive season.

What does heavy lifting mean in triathlon training?

Let’s address the elephant in the room, heavy lifting. What do I mean by heavy? 

Like most things, it’s personal. Heavy for one person can be entirely different from heavy for another. From a technical perspective, heavy simply means enough weight (force) to break down muscle fibres for them to be rebuilt stronger. 

In terms of numbers, if you are performing 8 repetitions of an exercise, the final one or two repetitions should feel like an 8 out of 10 in RPE. At Chiswick-Physio, we are sticklers for good form. If you can’t lift it without jeopardising your form, it’s too heavy.

Heavy lifting can elevate your athletic performance and general well-being, but, as with most things, there are risks involved. If you are an inexperienced lifter or suffering from an injury, you should proceed with caution when it comes to heavier loads. If necessary, you may have to avoid heavy lifting. However, this does not mean you cannot engage in a different, lighter load-based strength program.  

A fourth discipline to achieving longevity and success in triathlon is strength training. When properly executed for a targeted distance event, strength training can improve sport-specific mechanics, race day performance, and injury resistance. 

A general framework for triathletes is to plan 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training starting in the off-season and later shifting to strength maintenance during the competitive season.

Will heavy lifting slow me down?

A common misconception in the endurance community is that spending too much time in the gym will bulk you up and slow you down. Allow me to debunk this outdated, and misinformed opinion:

  • The stimulus required to build significant muscle requires supporting strength and recovery work that endurance athletes don’t commonly engage in (nor should they). 

  • Additionally, the large volume of low-stress aerobic activity incorporated into endurance athletes’ schedules will prevent muscle hypertrophy (growth).

  • The length of a program required to build significant muscle is longer than the time we dedicate to heavy lifting during our post-season.

  • In a similar vein, the weights we lift in-season are lighter and, therefore, will not create excess fatigue that interferes with other training.

Finally, say you do build some extra muscle. Is it the end of the world, and will it actually make you slower? No and no, quite the opposite. 

Long-distance endurance athletes can benefit tremendously from putting on some muscle mass in the postseason, especially, if they have an extended race season. The extra mass can make athletes more resilient, and, contrary to what the media tells you, being light does not always mean fast. 

Key strength training rules to include in a training session

Activation exercises 

‘Injury prevention’ based exercises can be included as activation or assistance exercises which are to be included before your heavier strength training component. Some of these exercises can be used as a dynamic warm-up either with bands or body weight. Some examples include Single Leg Deadlifts, Step downs/ups, wall slides and Hip abduction-based movements. 

Power development/ plyometric work 

Plyometrics are typically defined as a system of exercises in which muscles are stretched and suddenly contracted. Plyometric exercises can enable a muscle to reach maximal force in the shortest amount of time which can be completed in one movement or repeated efforts. Some exercises which should be included in your program are a variety of jumps, hops, and bounds to minimise the time spent on the ground. 

This type of training helps increase athletic performance, physiological qualities, postural control, and biomechanical efficiency. Further to this, plyo’s have a stability component as well as a strength-building component that helps you decelerate and land which will create more control of your body. 

Delving into the efficiency element, which is possibly the most important quality for the running aspect of your race. If you watch professional runners, you will notice that they spend less time on the ground which is a lot more efficient. Plyometrics train the body to reduce ground contact time when running which can help improve your running efficiency and mechanics.

Essentially it can help you run faster for longer!

Strength development 

We have touched on the importance of strength exercises within the program but here’s a look at some of the types of exercises to include and why? 

  • Bilateral exercises (when both limbs are used in unison to contract the muscles and create movement). Exercises include squat, deadlifts, bench press, Lat pull down. Bilateral exercises will enable you to lift more weight and produce more force leading to increases in strength. 

  • Unilateral exercises (when one limb is used to contract muscles to create movement). Exercises include split squat, single leg bridge, 1 arm row etc. The benefits include reducing any muscular imbalances, improving muscle recruitment and helping build functional strength which is in line with movement across the 3 disciplines.

Structural integrity work 

Structural integrity exercises are used to help develop 4 key components.

  • Posture 

  • Balance 

  • Stability 

  • Mobility 

Structural integrity exercises include a range of holds and exercises requiring a different range of movement. Some examples include, adductor side planks, isometric (sustained) calf work, plank variations and single bridge holds. 

Conclusion to strength training in triathlon

The key takeaway is having clear intentions behind each strength training session. It’s no question that triathletes need to invest hours doing steady-state endurance training to build aerobic capacity. But when it comes to strength training, there are ways to incorporate high-intensity and occasionally heavy-weight exercises for greater power. 

     

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