By Helen Jewell
Strength training for triathletes and the frequency and intensity of exercises throughout the training cycle has been a big talking point. It is without debate, however, that strength training is hugely beneficial for athletes, specifically ironman or longer distance triathletes, and many studies support this.
Why Do Triathletes Need Strength Training?
A triathlon is a multi-discipline event that requires extreme fitness and muscular endurance. A stronger, more powerful triathlete will be more robust and able to cope with fatigue and carry out an overall higher training volume. Consequently, this means triathletes will adapt to triathlons quicker and make more significant improvements in their performance.
8 Benefits of Strength Training for Triathletes
To highlight the importance of strength training and why triathletes should do it, I have listed some of the main benefits below...
- Increased strength, which in turn increases power.
- Increased muscular strength and endurance, which helps prevent fatigue and reduce injury.
- Increased core strength, resulting in a stable platform for swimming.
- Increased pedalling power and posture during running.
- Increase in endurance cycling capacity and lactate threshold.
- Improved movement (running and cycling) economy.
- Corrects or prevents muscular imbalances and prevents injury.
- Improved bone density and health.
- Reduced risk of falls.
Strength Training Tips for Triathletes
How Often Should Triathletes Do Strength Training?
Triathletes should plan for 12-16 weeks of consistent weight training in the off-season and shift towards strength maintenance during competition season.
- Three strength sessions a week would be substantial in the transition period or off-season,
- One strength session a week of approximately one hour is enough for triathletes, to avoid jeopardising specific training. However, as stated, this is just a rough guide that could vary significantly depending on the triathlete's age, fitness, competitive level, and capabilities.
Which Strength Training Exercises Should Triathletes Do?
- Big compound movements such as squats and deadlifts are invaluable due to the large number of muscles targeted.
- Other exercises such as lunges, step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, and single-leg exercises would also be helpful because they are more specific for the unilateral element of the events and quickly identify imbalances.
- Upper body exercises like bench press, lat pulldowns, dumbbell shoulder press and lateral raises will help with swimming due to the high amount of upper body usage.
- Athletes should move from general to specific exercises, eventually performing part of the strength training within the targeted sports such as hill sprints, sled pulls or short sprints on the bike.
High Weight / Low Reps or Low Weight / High Reps?
Most people would think that endurance athletes need to use lower weights and higher reps due to the muscular endurance component. However, this is not the case. All the endurance training is done in the specific training, so it is unnecessary to slog away more and spend hours upon hours in the gym. Some evidence shows low-moderate weights (40-70%) for higher reps can be beneficial, but more evidence points towards heavyweight resistance training (90%) for low reps.
Where Do I Start With My Strength Training?
For the initial four weeks, if the triathlete is new to strength training, they can start by doing light-moderate weights to prime the body and gain a good base using up to 6-8 reps per set. After this, the triathlete should start to increase the weight and lower the reps. There is no real need for triathletes to train with less than three reps per set for the majority or unless they are testing for a one-rep max. Rest periods should be kept between approximately 90 seconds and 2 minutes, which will allow for increased density and volume. It is said that 80% of a one-rep max causes maximum motor unit recruitment, which will increase power output. Therefore, this should be the aim for each session whilst strength training. More importantly, you must use the maximum effort method to create maximum motor unit recruitment and develop strength. This highlights how important and valuable intent is. High intensity and high effort workouts should be carried out for maximal benefits. The eccentric phase (the lengthening or lowering part) of an exercise should be slow and controlled, but the concentric phase (when shortening or contracting the muscle) should be as fast and explosive as possible. 75-90% are respectable intensities to use, but the triathlete must be technically proficient first to get the best carryover and reduce the risk of injury.
Every athlete is different in the amount they will tolerate and how quickly they will progress. So it is extremely important the coach must watch and identify when they need to hold their athletes back to improve the quality of work, or add an extra rep or a few kilograms to push the boundaries and force adaptation. Consequently, it is extremely important to have an experienced coach who knows what they are talking about and a good coach/athlete relationship. There should not really be a fixed reps and sets programme because of daily variance, life stresses etc. If an athlete is set something on paper, they will more than likely force themselves to do the programme regardless and end up performing bad reps with poor technique and engraining faulty patterns. This could potentially predispose the athlete to injury or illness.
If you do not have a coach for all your sessions, then a set and rep range could be given. For example, you could use five sets of 3-5 reps and video feedback/analysis. Technique is key to staying healthy and having an all-around balanced triathlete.
Busting the Strength Training Myths!
A common misconception is that weights will make you big and bulky, and as a triathlete, you don't want to carry any extra or unnecessary bodyweight. As shown by the lightweight Olympic weightlifters, one does not have to be big or heavy to be strong, but bodyweight should never be a prime focus over performance, particularly with younger/developing athletes. Training for strength and power in the weights room, using heavier loads and fewer reps per set, maximises myofibrillar hypertrophy as opposed to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which is seen in bodybuilders from using lower loads and higher reps. The more myofibrils in a muscle, the stronger it is. Therefore, by training heavy with fewer reps, you gain strength without seeing a big difference in size. The other thing required to gain mass is a calorie surplus. Due to the nature of triathlon/ironman and the amount of training undertaken, this will be unlikely unless you are specifically trying to eat more.
Strength is the master bio motor ability, as speed and endurance are derived from strength. This means that weight training for increased strength will channel down into improving speed and endurance. Performance gains may not show immediately, or you may notice a slight decline in performance to begin with. But in the long-run, strength training will be invaluable.
Why Should I Incorporate Strength Training in my Routines?
In summary, it has been proven that strength training has many benefits. With strength affecting all other bio motor abilities, it would be detrimental to an athlete's progression if they did not use weight training to increase their strength. A lower rep range (1-5) with heavier loads (75-90%) will cause increased myofibrillar hypertrophy. Therefore the athlete will have a minimal size increase but with a definite increase in strength production, resulting in better transfer into the triathlon events and improving performance.