Looking to use strength training to boost your cycling or triathlon performances?
Before you jump into those "6 advanced core exercises for triathletes" you should learn how to P.L.A.Y first
Especially these days it seems that every cycling or triathlon website is putting out new exercises along the lines of:
“The 6 advanced plank variations that you NEED to add to your program”
“Strength Training for Triathletes: The only 3 exercises you’ll ever need”
While they mean well, and come from a place of caring about you and genuinely trying to help you, those drivers are often lost behind the need to get more clicks, eyeballs, and shares, in order to ensure they are able to keep their traffic numbers up.
What I’m about to share with you is not sexy, it’s not flashy, and frankly, it’s not new either.
But….. They’re kinda a really, REALLY big deal- that is, if you care about improving your performance and abilities.
So if you’re looking to build your performance to new heights, and gain a better level of true FUNCTION in your body, learning how to P.L.A.Y – either again, or for the first time- offers you huge rewards that will just keep on coming.
At the foundation of every single movement, is the ability to produce enough stiffness at your core- meaning EVERYTHING between your neck, knees, and elbows, in order to allow work to be done from the hip or shoulder down into the extremeties.
Failure to produce appropriate stiffness and motor control leads to what many in the “functional fitness world”call “energy leaks”.
(Why “functional fitness” is in quotes is a post for another day)
What those “6 advanced core exercises” and “98 plank variations” won’t give you, is the ability to learn how to produce the proximal stiffness you need in a way that relates to your sport.
If you’re a cyclist, you need to produce this stiffness as you pedal down the road so that you’re able to put more power down to the pedals, and thus push you forward down the road.
If you don’t have the ability to produce appropriate proximal stiffness, every time you push down on the pedals your hips will rock as they separate from your shoulders, and you’ll wind up looking like you’re hula hooping more than cycling.
You can pretty much count on looking like an overcooked piece of spaghetti as you try to push out more power.
Fast is loose, and loose is fast
Too much tension, and you’ve lost the ability to carry the energy forward without getting in your own way.
Being fast is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced often!
Learn to Produce Proximal Stiffness:
Chin tuck Head lift
This may look like a neck exercise, because, well, it is- at the very low level. As you’ll see in the video, it’s actually a deep abdominal exercise.
But exercises can serve very different purposes, depending on how you coach them, cue them, and order them. Keep this in mind for the rest of the exercises in todays post.
The chin-tuck head lift serves as a basic core-stiffening exercise, as in order to do it properly do it, you need to provide enough stiffness at the midsection, to keep your ribs from moving.
Start with 2-3 sets of 3-4 repetitions
This is a fantastic exercise to learn not just core bracing, but also how breathing ties into performance.
Start off with 2 sets of 3 breaths with 3-4 “stops” along the way.
Side Plank, top foot forward
This is actually how the side plank is best performed, but many simply stack their feet.
Why the top foot forward, and what difference does it make?
By taking the top foot forward, we are challenging the inner thigh muscles, along with the deep hip rotators, obliques, quadratus lumborum, Lats and glutes to all fire together in order to produce stiffness to keep the spine in a straight line.
By stacking the feet, you’ve lost the ability to get an optimal firing of all these muscles as they normally work- in walking, running, or many other movements.
This is a simplification of what goes on, but this variation should be built up until you can relatively easily perform 2* each side for 60 seconds. Yes there is research to back it up. If you’d like to learn more head over to www.Backfitpro.com and look up the research articles on this plank variation.
PRO TIP: Less is more!
You want to teach your body to do these movements correctly from the beginning, so do not push your limits!
Instead, stay at around 80% of what you can do with great technique for the first few weeks. This will allow you to get better results, as well as to recover more quickly, and thus build faster!
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Learn & master good technique
For some reason even with all the rage of “sport specificity” of exercises in the strength training side of things, cyclists, cycling coaches, triathletes, triathlon coaches, and the fitness trainers claiming to train for “sport specific results” completely omit the VERY thing that WILL make you a better cyclist or triathlete:
Practicing the very techniques and movements that are part of your sport.
Now of course, bringing your bike to the gym to practice is 99% of the time not realistic, but simply performing strength exercises that look like the movements in your sport is NOT “sport specificity”.
In fact, programs which do this, and only this, show immediately that they have been built by someone just starting out in the world of strength training for sports results, or someone who has not taken the time to advance their knowledge and understanding of true sports performance training.
Either way, these kinds of programs should be approached with an air of caution.
This is not to say that the program won’t help you- perhaps it will. However, if these sport specific movements are not balanced with non-sport movements that balance out the muscular asymetries and imbalances that your chosen sport requires or develops, your road to an overuse injury or issues will be put on warp speed.
Learning good technique
This is actually a VERY fun part of training, as the results from this side of things, built atop and alongside your abilities to produce proximal stiffness, have generally faster positive impact on your performances.
The key here to learning good technique is to do JUST ENOUGH each session, getting HIGH QUALITY of the movements, in short sets with ample rest in between.
Here are a few ways to learn good technique for cycling & running.
Bumping- Learning when, where, and how to take a little contact on the bike is an important, and incredibly often avoided part of our sport. You’ll want to do this under the guidance of an experienced coach. This is also incredibly relevant for triathletes in draft-legal racing, yet most will avoid this.
DON’T BE THAT ATHLETE.
Cornering- Simple, right? Go around the corner.
Cornering is a skill that should be practiced in a structured fashion at least 1x a week for 15-20 minutes at a time.
All you need is a pair of water bottles and a safe, closed space. A driveway (Preferably level) will work.
Place the water bottles 6 feet apart (now days everyone should know how far that is- Thanks, Corona!), in your small ring up front, and third to easiest gear in the back, practice making figure 8’s at a slow speed. Be sure to look where you want to go, turning your eyes and head to look at the opposite water bottle when turning around the current one.
You’ll need to go slow for this one, and work on leaning the bike, using your pedals to distribute weight, and feeling momentum as you turn.
Exercise #2 for cornering
Turning at speed- This should be done on a closed course, preferably, as you’ll want to practice braking before the turn, taking the turn at different speeds, and with different lines.
The focus here is on braking as you need before the turn, looking through the turn, keeping your speed through the turn, and keeping your “line” (the path you choose through) at speed.
Simple, but not easy.
These are just 2 examples, but there are many, many more.
Other skills cyclists & triathletes should be practicing include:
- Bunny Hopping
- Power skids/ slides
- Use of gearing
- Riding in a straight line (SUPER IMPORTANT!)
- Riding with 1 or no hands
These are actually incredibly simple exercises to do, yet they are not easy (notice a trend here?).
These exercises build alongside/on top of learning how to produce proximal stiffness.
This is a fantastic exercise to help you learn better technique through the first half of running gait.
You’ll need to first produce and maintain great proximal stiffness as you hold that foot up under you glute, maintaining great posture and position as you pop the foot down to the floor.
Most runners and triathletes cannot perform this simple exercise correctly.
Their head bobs around, their hips separate from their rib cage, or they roll their shoulders around. Take the time to learn how to do these well, and you’ll be surprised as to how the miles begin to fly by with less effort.
Start with 2-3 sets of 2-4 repetitions. aside, looking for ZERO movement anywhere except from the working leg, and are able to keep speed up repetition to repetition.
For nearly every triathlete and runner this exercise is an eye opener- especially when you video yourself from the front and from the side.
In part due to not ever learning good running technique, and not being taught about proximal stiffness, this exercise is much more challenging than it looks.
However, it is a great way to improve your running technique, as well as use as a test to see how well your strength program is (or isn’t) working to help you run better and more efficiently.*
Start with 4-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions a side.
*Caveat- In order to run better, you’ll need to RUN LESS, and include a few other dynamic running technique drills. Simply performing a stationary drill will not make you a better runner.
On top of these, simple jumping exercise, such as Hands on Hips Vertical with Stick, can help you learn how to produce power, as well as how to absorb force- when done correctly.
Hands On Hips Vertical With Stick
These exercises LOOK easy, but to do them properly from start to finish, with movement from the correct places, at the right time, takes careful practice, and attention to detail.
Take your time and start small, focusing on one major part of the movement at a time.
Oh yeah, and don’t make the mistake most people make when training power/jumps:
Doing too many.
Start with 2-3 sets of 2-3 repetitions, making each one better than the time before.
Rest 3-5 minutes between sets, and take your time to set up properly in between repetitions as you see demonstrated here.
If you’d like to learn more about WHY this rest period is so long, as well as why we keep the sets and repetitions so low, pick up a copy of my book on Strength training The Vortex Method, on Amazon Kindle or in paperback.
While everyone is jumping into compression boots, and socks, and ice baths, and slamming down these highly processed anti-oxidant rich post workout smoothies, few, if any, have stopped to ask:
What do I ACTUALLY need after my workouts?
You’ve just spent this time practicing and training, looking to drive your body to adapt and improve its ability to deal with these stresses.
Simply jumping onto the “recovery” bandwagon without understanding the effects of each of the different modes, and how they can actually STOP the very adaptations you’re after- and if not stop, at least significantly blunt- is leading you to ultimately wasting your time training and hard earned money on these things.
How to get better adaptations:
- In between your intervals, if it says “recovery” ride or walk/jog at recovery. Seriously. Slow walk if you have to.
- Quality Sleep- The hours before midnight count for 2x, as many of the hormones see changes before midnight.
- Higher Quality, Lower Quantity- JUST ENOUGH training stress to get the desired response and adaptations. Then go home.
- Better Stress Management- Stress is stress, whether it’s training stress or life stress. The better you. can manage it, the better your training results will be.
- Practice Gratitude- Getting angry screws up your hormonal balance, and blunts training adaptations. Being in a cool, calm, happy mood sets the internal environment up for better results.
- Nutrition- 6-8 servings a day of protein & produce, and 3-4 (minimum) of fats. Simple, but not easy. (Having an individualize plan is best, but these are good starting points)
What’s Recovery without adaptation?
A vicious Cycle.
You're having fun
This is too often lost in the world of fitness, and especially endurance sports. The thought that we need to HTFU and PUSH HARDER, which in and of themselves are poor practices that often lead to burnout or other issues, is one of the major reasons so many triathletes have hung up their bikes, running shoes, and weights through the Corona lockdown.
Yes, it is true that a part of their stopping is due to lack of a goal event and uncertainty around whether or not racing will return. However being externally motivated (i.e. for. an event) often means the individual sees their training as a job, not as an act of improving themselves, or PLAYing a game.
Let’s be honest here, getting into shape for an event, or a specific date, is a fantastic way to get started and is how many of us began.
But without a coach or a guide helping us to foster a genuine enjoyment for the process, we will be on this unending ocean of “being in shape” and “screw it all” where we’ll see our health, weight, and even stress go through these big upwards and downwards waves.
This is NOT to say that you should not have goals- you should.
However, only focusing on the goal and not enjoying the path to better fitness, health, and lifestyle, means you’re missing a big part of what you could be getting out of your fitness journey:
Good, hard work, sweaty, pushing yourself some days, getting lost in the flow of the workout other days, and learning about your new abilities.
That’s why here at HVT Rule #1 is TO HAVE FUN.
That doesn’t mean you won’t work- you will!
Nor does it mean it will be easy- it won’t!
But over the course of the journey, you should be able to have frequent points of enjoyment and fun- be it finishing that dreaded climb feeling like you could have done another 2 minutes at that effort, or feeling that you’re flying at the end of your 10 mile tempo run.
When you change your focus from making strength training another part of “the job of getting to a race or goal event” into learning to P.L.A.Y., the rewards will begin to come fast, furiously, and with more smiles as you build up the miles.
But not only that, you’ll come to realize that there are still quite a number of low-hanging fruits that you can EASILY pick to work on, that will offer you MASSIVE training and performance benefits.
Don’t get sucked into the latest, greatest, newest, coolest, looking exercises or gadgets.
Instead, ask yourself: How well can I P.L.A.Y.?
Learn & Master Great Technique
You’re having fun
As always, it’s up to you.
Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it IS all about YOU!