Swim, Bike, Run… Lift: The ins and outs of strength training for triathletes

Triathlon presents the unique challenge of concurrently honing the craft of three different disciplines.  Each sport requires a different muscular demand and motor skills as well as a good amount of time and energy to build stamina, speed, and efficiency – all the while, trying to maintain commitments to family, friends, and that pesky day job.  Adding one more task to this long list of things to do can be a daunting venture, but strength training, when done properly, can be one of a triathlete’s more powerful tools.

A well executed strength program can actually help save time, improve economy, and enhance muscle recruitment, power, and structural integrity.  For the time crunched athlete, strength training can carve up to 25% out of the swim, bike, and run volume that would be done without lifting weights.

How exactly does this work?

Let’s take a look at the three largest, most basic predictors of aerobic success:

  • Large aerobic capacity
  • High lactic threshold
  • Economical movement (how much energy is spent during exercise)

Aerobic capacity can be improved through cardiovascular work, running lots of miles or performing high intensity work.  A high lactic threshold is largely dictated by genetics.  Economy is different.  Some things we can control, while others we cannot.  As a swimmer it helps to be tall, with long limbs, and big feet.  A long femur in relation to overall leg length will help on the bike.  And being short and small gives an edge to runners.  None of us can be all of those things at once, nor can we control them.  However, strength training can give us all an edge on the things we can control.  Strength training can help engage slow twitch muscle fibers that will use more fat for energy expenditure and will carry over to the amount of work load the muscles can handle during the swim, bike, and run. Exercises that closely mimic the movement of the sport will make for more efficient, powerful movement in each sport.

Creating structural integrity is an incredibly important aspect of training, especially when you are involved in a sport that requires long, sustained postures, repetitive movements, and the mitigation of impact.   One of the main benefits of lifting weights as a triathlete is to improve one’s resilience against the rigors of sports laden with movements that challenge joint function and length tension relationships.   A good strength program can ensure the proper balance of local and global musculature, the associated connective tissues, and optimal joint function.  This pays off when looking for more shoulder flexibility for swimming, hip mobility for biking, or ankle stability for running.

Triathlon training is periodized much like strength training.  There is a cyclical period of build in intensity and/or volume, followed by a decrease in workload.   The difference lies in that training is planned around races and how an athlete has prioritized their races.  The build cycles need to lead to a peak in performance, then tapering of the workloads.

When planning a strength program, first schedule your races and prioritize them.  The most important race gets “A” priority.  Strength workouts will revolve around your sport specific work outside of the gym and your race schedule.   Your plan can then start counting back from the A priority race, beginning with:

  • Pre/Off Season:
    • During the pre season or off season, your body is either recovering from the last season (if you raced last season), or preparing for upcoming races. Use this time to:
      • Ready the muscles and connective tissues for greater loads and higher impact
      • Build muscle mass, strength, and tone
      • Perform more exercises during each workout
      • Introduce aerobic component

 

  • Base/Endurance:
    • Swim/Bike/Run workouts begin with focused efforts
      • S/B/R workouts can be as few as 1 of each and as many as 2-3 of each
      • Continue to develop strength and muscular coordination as gains will still be made
      • Start to decrease rep ranges and increase number of sets
      • Phase ends 9 weeks out from A priority race

 

  • Power “fun stuff”:
    • Focus on improving force generation
    • Still increasing loads, dropping reps, begin to incorporate plyometrics and explosive component
    • Volume and intensity of swim/bike/run workouts are also increasing during this time
      • Heavy lifting can cause sluggishness and heaviness in legs and arms
      • Strength should not detract from aerobic work
      • Plan strength sessions for AFTER aerobic work

 

  • Strength Maintenance:
    • As race nears, the majority of focus will be on sport specific work
      • Maintain basic strength established in previous phases
      • Work up to 80% of 1 rep max
      • Focus on fine tuning strength to simulate speed of muscle contractions experienced during racing (0/2/0/2 tempo)

 

  • Taper/Peak:
    • Strength sessions should start to taper (decrease volume and intensity) 3 weeks out from A priority race
    • Tri specific work will start to taper 1-3 weeks out from race depending on length of the event
    • Maintain neuromuscular coordination and peak power
    • Aim to achieve high amounts of muscle fiber stimulation without working till failure
    • Decrease loads and reps of strength work, but continue plyometric component
    • Strength training should stop 7 days out from race

 

*Caveats to 3 week training phases: When training for short course races, the goal is speed so you can spend more time in the build and power phases where most enhancements occur.

Strength training areas of focus:

  • Upper back, lats, serratus, chest: improves pull and catch phase of swimming
  • Shoulders: help prevent injury from repetitive motion of swimming, support weight during cycling. Creating at balance of stability and mobility is imperative.
  • Biceps: assist in pull phase of swim and provide climbing leverage on bike
  • Triceps: maintains form through back half of swim stroke
  • Quads/Glutes: support weight bearing phase of running, generate power and strength for cycling and hilly running
  • Adductors: used in the push phase of running, particularly hilly running
  • Calves: also used in the push phase of running/hilly running

Exercises should closely mimic the movements of your sports not only in overall movement patterns, but in tempo and timing of eccentric/concentric contractions.

My favorite exercises:

  • Squats
  • Single leg deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Hip extensions
  • Chest press and push ups
  • Pull ups and/or Lat pull downs
  • Y, T, W, External rotations, Front and Lateral dumbbell raises
  • Clams
  • Army crawl plank
  • Russian twist
  • Cable chop
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