With those of us in the northern hemisphere now if full-swing of autumn, many triathletes are now looking to strength training to improve their triathlon performance.
But how do you ensure the strength training you are doing turns into performance out on course?
Strength training for triathlon is something that has been growing relatively quickly since 2012, when we began to hear more about the pro’s including it in their training regimen. While certainly there were those who were using strength training before that, roughly 2012 is when it started to take off.
But simply hitting the weights and “putting the work in” is not enough to see carryover from the weightroom to your swim, bike, and run. Sure, it’s nice to see more weight on the bar or to be able to knock out a few more reps at the same weight for an exercise, but is that really what you need as a triathlete to see better results in your sport?
Here are 5 keys to helping ensure your strength training is bolstering and boosting your performances.
1. Learning How to Breath
Learning how to breathe better, if not properly, is one of the quickest, but not easiest, things that you can do that will boost your performance, recovery, and adaptations. Yet we’re too often focused on buying the newest compression boots, signing up for cryotherapy, and a number of other costly doodads, gadgets, and technology.
Start with Crocodile Breathing, which will challenge you to learn how to relax the shoulders, neck, and hips, while getting full, 360 degree filling of your lungs- much like opening up an umbrella.
Start off each session with 1 set of 5 breaths, taking 5 seconds to inhale through your nose, hold your breath for 2 seconds, and then exhale over 8 seconds, holding the full exhale for 3 seconds.
2. Learning How to Move
Living in the modern era, our movement patterns tend to suck, as we sit too much, slouching our head and shoulders forward, while we do lots of pushing, and next to no hinging or pulling in our daily lives.
Taking the time to learn how to move better, and checking our egos at the door of the weight room, has one of the biggest positive impacts on our abilities to stay strong, endure, and to keep healthy.
Be sure to take your time and learn how to do this properly!
Learning how to fire your full 360 degree abdominal hoop, and locking your ribs+ hips together is a must if you’re looking for improved performance in anything.
The internet and YouTube are filled with literally hundreds, if not thousands of “how-to” videos for the McGill Crunch and the Bird Dog, yet there are only a few which demonstrate them correctly, with the HVTraining videos being one of those few which are correct!
Bird Dog (Levels)
Learning to move from the shoulder and hip is so absolutely integral to your success as a triathlete, yet very few take the time to learn how to do so. Instead they spend hours working on running technique and swimming technique. If only you take the time to learn how to move to produce more efficient power, will you see a big leap forward in your performances. Otherwise, it’s as Paul Chek said: “You’re trying to fire a cannon from a canoe”!
Learning to Squat
Now that you’re moving better and able to move well from your hips and shoulder, next up is to learn the variations of two major movements that need to be dialed in for YOUR sport of triathlon, and not “general health & fitness”.
Not all squats are created equal! There are different stresses placed on the body depending on how you’re loading it. While we all tend to think of barrel back squats as being the “go-to” there are in fact a number of far better options. . . especially for triathletes.
Learning to Push
Learning how to push is actually very important for triathletes, specifically because of the swim, and the loads of time we spend in the TT position on the bike. Losing the ability to push well, and especially to have quality movement of the shoulder blade (which makes up ⅓ of your shoulder joint), leads to some pretty major issues down the road.
Are Barbell or Dumbbell Bench Press Better for Cyclists & Triathletes?
Learning which Push exercise is better suited to your triathlon needs is only part of the answer, as you’ll also need to learn to Press overhead, Pull, and resist rotation. However, push tends to be neglected or outright omitted by many, as they figure “I don’t need it”. You do.
3. Building Tissue Qualities
Ah, this is perhaps the missing link for many endurance athletes, as they think that they need to bury themselves in training stress week after week, until a deload week.
In fact, especially when it comes to strength training, we need enough time in between sessions so that the tissues of the body can regenerate and adapt. ADAPT is the key word here, as recovery won’t cut it. I’ve written about this previously, in specific talking about your back and how the bones need time (sleep, nutrients, and a break from loading) in order to adapt. The same goes for your tendons, other bones, and ligaments, as they too take time to adapt to the stresses you’re placing on them.
For most age-group triathletes who train between 10-12 hours a week of swim/bike/run, this means that 2-3 strength training sessions a week, with just one of them being a heavier session (for that time of year) is where they need to be.
However, these sessions should be at least 36-48 hours apart, with the session following the heavy session being closer to 48-60 hours after (2-2.5 days).
4. Moving in Ways That Supplement Your Triathlon Sport
The internet is (once again) full of people telling you that you need to follow the “SAID Principle” (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) and thus train the same movements as you do in your sports of swim/bike/run if you want to see performance gains.
Unfortunately, they’re really far off base, as any experiences performance coach will tell you.
Yes, you’ll need some movements similar to what you do in your sport, however the bigger part of your training will be focused on doing things that balance out the 10’s of thousands of repetitions you’re already getting. This helps your body keep in better balance, as well as allows the body to work as it’s intended- with strength around the entire joint, and allowing your body to better deal with the forces and stresses you’re placing on it.
One exercise which may help you tie much of what we’ve talked about so far together, is the Prone Hip Abduction. This is an incredibly difficult exercise, but once you’re able to do it, you can see significant improvements in your running and swimming. . . as well as your TT split!
5. Building Better Stability & Control
When we hear stability, most of us tend to think of BOSU Balls and balance boards- things that are unstable and force us to find our center of gravity. While these toys are cool, and can serve as a nice break from the monotony of the regular strength program every now and again, or as a part of a physical therapist guided rehab program for an injury, what most of us really want, is to be able to better put power and force down to the ground through a strong, stable surface.
This is where we take all off the movements we’ve discussed today into play, as we give the Can Crush exercise a go.
This running technique and power exercise can be a great way to test and see how you’re doing in putting everything in this article together.
Make sure to take your time and master the starting position, as well as keeping the ribs + hips locked together, while pushing the wall away (shoulder blades down and forward), while getting a good, full 360 degree breath in, and then pushing down from the hip only, getting that foot to the floor as quickly as you can, without anything else moving!
Simple, but it sure as heck ain’t easy!
Start with 3-4 sets of 2-3 repetitions a side, and do not increase repetitions until you can finish 4 set of 3 repetitions each side, all with absolutely impeccable form. Skipping ahead and adding repetitions completely undoes any gains you’d get out of this exercise, as you’re just programming in poor technique, posture, and missing the entire point of the exercise.
There are a lot of triathletes hitting the weights, and while they may be “getting stronger” in the gym, they’re not seeing the rewards they had expected in their run/bike/swim. Focus on the 5 factors in this article for the next 2-4 weeks, do the consistently, and with proper focus, and you’ll see some quick, and sometimes big, wins in your triathlon training, and performances.