Strength training for triathletes is key to reducing injury and increase overall performance - It should not merely be an afterthought.
All three triathlon disciplines require extremely repetitive motion. This repetitiveness creates muscle imbalances, leaving the door wide open for injuries.
Correcting these muscle imbalances through resistance training decreases the risk of injury and, in turn, allows you to train longer and harder.
According to a recent study, only half of triathletes participate in strength training.
The two greatest barriers were found to be time constraints (53.1%) and a lack of knowledge regarding exercise progression and form (52.5%).
Do not fret!
This article will provide you with a quick strength training sample – including when and how to do it.
If you are currently not incorporating at least one strength training session weekly, you are missing out on some severe race day gains.
Let’s get started.
When Should You Do Strength Training?
For optimal gain, you want to aim for 1-3 strength training sessions per week, frequency depending on your time constraints, and prior experience with resistance training.
If you have never done any strength training before, even the addition of one session weekly can help you get stronger.
Just like with swimming, biking, and swimming, keeping a consistent schedule is vital.
Ideally, you want to implement these workouts as far away from your core endurance workouts as possible to allow for maximal recovery in between sessions.
For example, if you train five days a week, the best time to do your strength sessions would be on your days off.
If you train daily in the morning, you will complete strength sessions in the evenings.
The good news is that – when compared to each other in a detraining study – the effects of strength training are harder to lose than the impact of endurance training.
Another study showed that one could take up to three weeks off from strength training without suffering loss of strength.
How Should You Do Strength Training?
Do not worry; not all strength training results in massive muscle hypertrophy to the point where it compromises your running form.
The main focus of strength training in triathletes should be injury prevention and muscle imbalance correction.
Each session should be approximately 30-60 minutes in length, starting with a 5-10 minute warm-up.
Your warm-up can be anything to get your heart rate up, such as an easy jog, dynamic stretching, or light resistance band exercises.
The main set consists of 2-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions with no more than 90 seconds rest between exercises.
You should pick a weight/resistance that is light enough for you to complete all 12-20 reps at once, but not too light where you could easily keep going after.
When strength training, it is essential to listen to your body and make adjustments accordingly.
You will feel tired and sore at times, and that is to be anticipated. However, do not just ignore pain!
Shoulder injuries are the most common swimming injury; past research indicates that shoulder pain affects between 40% and 87% of swimmers.
The reliance on the upper body for propulsion generated by repetitive overhead arm motions are thought to be the foundation of shoulder injuries in swimmers.
The following two exercises are focused on stabilizing the rotator cuff muscles and correcting the inevitable muscle imbalances found in swimmers.
1. Prone or inclined I-Y-T exercise
This exercise activates the posterior chain by strengthening your upper back muscles, especially the scapular, rhomboidal, and trapezius muscles.
This is a great exercise to counteract the overdeveloped anterior chain – mainly consisting of the chest and anterior deltoid muscles.
Over time, this exercise improves posture by strengthening the muscles responsible for pulling back slouched rounded shoulders.
You can do this exercise prone – laying flat on your belly – or inclined on a bench or exercise ball. You want to use a very lightweight for this (no more than 5 pounds).
The exercise is performed by moving your straight arms up and down in each position of I, Y, and T.
One common mistake people make is facing their thumbs the wrong way, correct is: down for the I, up for the Y and T.
2. Single-arm dumbbell row
Like the I-Y-T exercise, the single-arm dumbbell row also targets the weaker posterior chain, but this time you are targeting the lower-mid back muscles.
If done right, the single-arm dumbbell row strengthens your latissimus dorsi, which is responsible for drawing the upper arm downward and backward and rotating it inward when swimming.
When performing this movement, you must keep your back straight and keep your head slightly higher than your hips so that there is room to pull your elbow to a level behind your torso.
Additionally, you need to pull back with your elbow, not your bicep, by keeping your forearm perpendicular to the ground.
3. Single leg deadlift
The deadlift targets your primary movers (your legs) by working your hamstrings, glutes, and to a lesser degree, your quads, core, and lower back muscles.
The reason why people usually prefer a single leg deadlift over the traditional deadlift is because working one leg at a time develops balanced strength as most of us have one stronger side.
You perform the move with a medium weight in one or both hands. Be careful using too heavy of a weight, as your hamstrings will be sore for many days to come.
If you want to engage your core more, you should only hold one dumbbell in the opposite hand of the planted leg.
You can have a slight bend in the knee, and be sure to keep your back straight throughout the movement.
4. Russian twist
The Russian twist helps strengthen muscles that support your body on and off the bike.
By strengthening your obliques – located on the side of the torso – you will be able to minimize that lateral rotation on the bike as your legs pedal up and down.
This exercise is performed with a medium-heavy weight, twisting left and right from the waist.
Make sure to keep your back straight when you lean back about 45 degrees to keep your abs engaged throughout the movement.
5. Crossover step-up
The step-up is an excellent movement and should be a staple in any runner’s routine.
It closely mimics the running stride and can be modified to target different phases of the running stride.
The crossover variant specifically strengthens the gluteus maximus, which is crucial to maintain proper running form after biking.
When performing this advanced step-up, focus on your balance and try not to collapse at the hip by keeping your core and glutes tense.
Generally, you want to start with a lower step-up height of about 7- 8 inches and work your way up from there as you master the movement.
For added difficulty, you can add resistance by holding a dumbbell in hand closest to the step and finish the movement with an overhead press while maintaining your balance.
You can never go wrong with a well-executed push-up in your strength workout routine.
For runners specifically, it helps develop the upper body and core muscles needed to keep a robust upright form.
Additionally, it allows you to keep pumping your arms when your legs get tired at the end of a triathlon, so that you can maintain a higher cadence to keep moving forward.
When doing a push-up, most people try to execute the movement as quickly as possible.
However, to get the most benefit from a push-up, you should slow down the eccentric phase (aka lowering your chest to the floor) and be explosive on the concentric phase (aka pressing back up to a high plank).
Most Important Muscles in Triathlon
Don’t forget when strength training to give you an advantage in your event, some overlooked but critical muscles - your respiratory muscles!
These muscles, including the diaphragm, intercostals, and various muscles of the trunk, neck and abdomen, can be trained just like any other for increased strength and endurance. In fact, studies have shown that inspiratory muscle training delays respiratory muscle fatigue and increases ventilatory efficiency.
A more recent tool many athletes are taking advantage of to perform this type of training is the Airofit breathing trainer. This device can be used to increase resistance against both inspiring and expiring, to act as resistance on the muscles and improve their function.
Let us know your favourite strength exercises for triathlon below!