Having coached, competed, and trained for many years now, I have learned so much.  Yet I have so much to learn.  Triathlon, unlike many other sports, is as complex as my wife.  Just kidding.  I am just scratching the surface of understanding her after 13 years of marriage, but I digress.  Not only do we need to understand 3 different unique sports, but we need to be aware of the muscle groups they utilize and how they interact.  For ultra events, the 4th discipline is nutrition, and lurking behind all of that is one of the most overlooked areas, other than nutrition, injury prevention/strength.

If you think about it, both running and biking both utilize many of the same muscles, most of them related to forward movement.  Heavy emphasis is placed on the quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles with lighter emphasis on the upper body for biking and running.  Swimming utilizes upper body strength and is heavy on the core and flexibility.  Very little emphasis is placed on the lateral (side movement) muscles.

One of the primary causes of injury is muscular imbalance.  Many of the first lessons for personal trainers and strength coaches surrounds the use of opposing muscle groups in a well rounded exercise.  Want to strengthen the biceps?  Also focus on the triceps or you’ll walk like Popeye.  Is that lower back hurting?  Focus on core abdominal strength to support the lower back.

The point is, really, that as triathletes, we are focused on forward momentum.  We need to strengthen our lateral and core muscles.  We see injuries oft times related to weak hip flexors and tight IT bands.  Our supporting ligaments and tendons for our ankles and knees have adapted to forward movement only creating an opening for lateral injuries.  Our core is always in need of development, and while we focus on the “abs,” we forget that the transverse abdominus, or core muscles which lie underneath and wrap around.  The transverse abs are our true core.

I’m even boring myself with all of this talk.  Let’s talk about training.

As a father of 3, husband, FT job, and Ironman athlete training for several 70.3s, a century, a 140.6, and a few marathons, spare time is limited.  It takes 12-20 hours weekly to properly train for an Ironman and fitting in swims, bikes, and runs is difficult enough.  How can I integrate strength?  What types of strength training are needed?

Sport Specific Training

I have seen a lot of success by including a strength, speed, and endurance in each discipline on a weekly basis.  Running strength is achieved with hill work.  For treadmills, I alternate between 7% incline efforts and 0% in an increasing fashion.  In a similar vein, hill repeats and stadium running can follow the same progression.  A typical workout would include:

5 min warmup

3 x (3 min at 7%/stadium/hill climb w/3 min recovery at Easy Pace)

5 min cooldown

Each week would see a progression of 4 x 3 min w/3 min rest, 5 x 3 min w/3 min rest.  Once the reps is 5, you would then reset during the recovery week and begin the next round at 3 x 4 min w/4 min rest, 4 x 4 min w/4 min rest, etc.  Once you hit 5 x 5, then set a 9% incline or increase speed and rinse and repeat.

For cycling, I utilize low cadence, high power efforts whether via an indoor trainer or designated hill rides.  Sufferfest workouts always have strength work which greatly aids in FTP generation.

Swimming strength is gained by Distance per Stroke (DPS) drills, pullouts, and swimming with the use of paddles.  I typically only plan 2 swim workouts a week unless an athlete has a swim focus.  One of those workouts is always focused on strength and every workout has at least some strength included.  Swim strength increases distance per stroke and improves cadence thresholds.  Swim set examples would be

10 x 50 w/10 pullouts between each set, or

5 x 100 DPS w/:20 recovery

Core/Cross Fit/Boot Camp Conditioning

I like to keep things simple when training, or as simple as possible.  For that reason I’ve found that there are two activities that are ideal for triathletes.  Planks and Back Rolls.  If you’ve ever done a plank burn, you’ll understand.  Planking utilizes small and large muscle groups alike.  Side planking assists in your lateral muscles.  The best thing is that they are easy to complete while winding down for bed.  Back rolls are when you roll out your back on a foam roller to fail.   You would balance on the roller and roll from your lower back to your shoulder and repeat until fail.  You will notice that your abs burn fairly well after several minutes and your physique is tighter after you wake up in the morning.

upper back roll

Many of my athletes also integrate Cross Fit/Boot Camp type workouts into their training.  Training with like minded, fit individuals is always a benefit mentally and support the isolation that many of us feel unless we train in groups.  It also feels good, and we look much better afterwards as being pumped trumps a long, steady run or bike.

Timing

One of my bread and butter recommendations for all athletes is to perform some type of strength workout 30 minutes prior to going to bed.  The duration should not be longer than 10-15 minutes and focus should be on breaking down as many muscle groups as possible.  Typically I focus on core/lateral planking and rolling as they can be done anywhere.  8 min abs workouts/tabatas are also prevalent and easily found on YouTube.

I also recommend that 12-20g of protein be consumed after strength as the body will need the protein to rebuild/recover.  When we sleep, or body releases HGH (Growth Hormone), which aids in the recovery process.  Protein and muscle synthesis/repair also increases our metabolism during the night increasing lean muscle mass and weight loss.

Where cross fit/boot camp type training is a priority, workouts typically replaces a run strength block or bike strength block and should not exceed 2 times weekly.  Recovery is slightly different depending on the level of intensity, so that needs to be taken into consideration when developing the week’s microcycle.  Strength training should also take more of a supportive role during the peak/build phases and reduced significantly during the taper period before A races.

Conclusion

If you are simply training by putting in the time or distance in each of the disciplines, you’re missing on an extremely valuable component of your training.  Focusing on strength increases overall fitness, reduces the risk of injury, improves form, and helps you break through your prior performance limits.  Advice and support from coaches, or experienced triathletes is also helpful when designing your program.

Happy Trails!