Jul 29, 2015Triple Threat
Swimming, biking, and running each have their unique physical demands. When training triathletes, a strength coach has to be sure to meet all of them.
The following article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
When I began coaching triathlon more than 25 years ago, many people didn’t know what it was. Since then, it has grown at the professional, recreational, high school, and youth levels. Most recently-in 2014-it became an NCAA emerging sport for women.
If all goes according to plan and at least 40 schools add varsity triathlon programs over the next 10 years, it will become a sanctioned NCAA championship sport. Scheduled as a fall sport, the season will run from September to November, and each competition will include a 600 m to 1 km swim, 20 to 30 km bike ride, and 4 to 6 km run.
As triathlon continues to grow, there will be a greater demand for strength and conditioning coaches who understand how to meet the unique strength training needs of these athletes. They will have to carefully balance the sport’s three disciplines and the athletes’ busy training schedules, all while keeping overuse injuries at bay. Strength coaches will also have to adjust to a culture that doesn’t always view weightroom work as a necessity. After many years of trial and error training professional, Ironman, and Olympic-level triathletes, here is my own set of guidelines and how-to’s for successfully working with this population.
Before strength coaches can attempt to implement a lifting regimen with triathletes, they need to understand the potential roadblocks due to the sport’s culture. Namely, they may have to convince triathletes and their coaches that strength work is a worthwhile endeavor.
Many in the sport view triathlon exclusively as an aerobic activity and put all their training emphasis on volume in the pool, on the bike, and on the road. Sport coaches often assume that swimming, cycling, and running alone are enough to maintain muscular strength and power. However, to build strength and optimize performance, triathletes need to understand that overloading their muscles in the weightroom is necessary, as well.
In addition, a lot of misconceptions still surround endurance sports and strength training. My athletes have expressed fears of bulking up, losing flexibility, and stunting their growth by lifting. I’m always quick to inform them that low reps and multi-joint exercises can instead build athletic strength and power and improve flexibility.
Good communication with triathletes and their coaches is essential for getting them to embrace strength work. Many do not have strength and conditioning backgrounds, so developing collaborative relationships with them can prove invaluable to gaining knowledge and support for your training program.
Once you’ve convinced triathletes and their sport coaches that strength work is necessary, the next hurdle is fitting it into their already packed training schedules. Triathletes often dedicate two or more sessions a day to swimming, cycling, and/or running, so finding the time and energy to get in the weightroom isn’t easy for them. Therefore, I tend to only schedule two strength sessions per week lasting between 30 and 45 minutes each.
With weekends often reserved for racing or long endurance training, Mondays are typically an easy or off day. That’s when I schedule the first strength session of the week. I place the second workout later in the week on another lighter day.
A good time for strength work is right before biking or running intervals, as the weightroom session can prime the central nervous system for high-powered efforts. Strength training after low-level running, biking, or swimming can also be good because the athletes are already loose and don’t need a lengthy warm-up. Plus, since they already completed their endurance work for the day, they don’t have to worry about conserving energy.
The final obstacle is triathletes’ susceptibility to overuse injuries due to their rigorous year-round training and competition schedules. In fact, triathletes may already be in an overtraining status when you first start a strength regimen with them. To check for this when working with a new athlete, I always review their injury history and do a Functional Movement Screen (FMS). This allows me to be proactive and correct any deficiencies.
For example, I once had an athlete score poorly on the FMS’s single-leg step-over due to internal rotation of their femur, which caused their ankle to collapse and lose stability. I remedied the problem by incorporating mini-band walks and side-lying clamshells in the athlete’s warm-up. By also including single-leg strength exercises in their lifts, I improved their external hip stabilizers and running economy.
If I feel adding weight training to a triathlete’s plate right off the bat may exacerbate an injury, I try to get them to lower their running, swimming, and biking volume to make room for strength work. This can be a hard sell initially, as triathlon coaches and athletes are often determined to reach a certain number of training hours and kilometers each week. However, it’s the race results that ultimately matter, and once they see the positive effects of strength work, they are all in. Plus, as the athlete adapts to the weightroom work, I slowly return their training volume back to its original levels.
When it comes to planning your strength program, my overall advice is to keep it simple. Because of the time limitations and cultural resistance that can accompany working with triathletes, attempting more than the basics can backfire.
I mostly use only six tools in the weightroom: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension trainers, cables, and bands. Exercises with these items can be taught quickly, allow athletes to work at multiple speeds and in multiple planes, and prime athletes to safely lift greater loads. Plus, these tools can be found in any basic weightroom, which enables triathletes to continue their workouts when traveling.
All of my strength sessions begin with soft-tissue work using foam rollers, tennis balls, and golf balls. Triathletes use foam rolling to target their upper backs; tennis balls for their glutes, calves, and hamstrings; and golf balls for their feet. Then, they complete a dynamic warm-up to increase their range of motion.
From there, I address the following goals with strength work:
Improving mobility: This may be the most important element in decreasing injuries and improving movement patterns in triathletes. My clients complete mobility exercises for their ankles, hips, and thoracic spine during the warm-up or as active recovery between lifts.
Strengthening lateral stabilizers: I use mini-band walks to strengthen athletes’ lateral stabilizers and external hip rotators, which helps to reduce common overuse injuries and improve running economy.
Creating muscle balance: Swimming, cycling, and running are cyclical activities that can bring about pattern overload and overuse injuries. Therefore, it’s important to create muscle balance in triathletes’ posterior deltoids, scapular adductors, anterior core, hip external rotators, and hip extensors. These are the opposing muscles to the prime movers in swimming, cycling, and running.
Developing explosive power: Upper- and lower-body power development and elasticity are essential for speed development. If I’m working with athletes who have prior Olympic lift experience and good technique, they will continue to use these movements. If an athlete has no prior experience with Olympic lifts, and there isn’t enough time for me to teach them properly, I’ll use other power-based exercises such as kettlebell swings, med ball throws, and box jumps.
Shoulder work: Triathletes’ shoulders sustain a significant amount of stress from swimming and gripping aero handlebars. To avoid compounding this by pressing in a fixed range of motion, my athletes use dumbbells, cables, or TRX for shoulder work, rather than bench press.
Developing stabilization: A lack of stabilization is a major cause of injury in endurance athletes. Because of the demands of their sport, triathletes require a high degree of stabilization in their shoulders and core. To address this, I include a lot of one-arm exercises and anterior core progressions in my strength program, utilizing stability balls, suspension systems, slide boards, and ab wheels. Single-leg squats and dead lift variations also build stabilization and transfer to both cycling and running.
I accomplish the above goals by grouping strength exercises into pairs or trios, keeping reps between five and 10 for each movement to achieve gains while minimizing hypertrophy. This allows for higher training density and maximizes the short time I have to work with triathletes.
The groupings change based on the time of year, needs of the individual, or resources available. However, here’s how I generally group the exercises: power or explosive, core or stabilizer; upper body, lower body; upper body, lower body, and mobility; and upper body, lower body, and core. (See “Group Dynamic” below for a sample workout.)
When creating a yearlong training regimen, strength work for triathletes ideally begins in the offseason. This is the time of year to make strength gains and develop areas that may be lacking.
If a triathlete doesn’t have a decent strength base and skill level, the offseason should be dedicated to developing their basic lifting skills. Taking the time to teach proper technique early on will pay dividends as the year progresses.
The preseason includes the highest swimming, cycling, and running volumes for triathletes. During this time, the strength program should have a lower volume and higher intensity than the offseason plan, slightly increasing both as competitions approach.
The goal of an in-season strength program for triathletes is to maintain or slightly increase strength levels and prevent injuries. Sustaining muscular balance and mobility are keys to keeping the athlete healthy during the competitive season. Therefore, I devote more training time to mobility and range of motion, with only three or four strength exercises during each session. I typically stay in the five to 10 rep range, but I’ll adjust sets and loads according to the athletes’ levels of fatigue.
As triathlon continues to grow in popularity, strength coaches will play a vital role in the health and performance of triathletes. Understanding the unique needs of these individuals will allow strength coaches to position themselves to become leaders in the sport. By educating and communicating with triathletes and their coaches, a strong performance team can be built.
Here’s a breakdown of how I address my strength training goals in a workout.
- Upper-back foam rolling 30 seconds elbows to the side, 30 seconds elbows together
- IT band foam rolling 30 seconds each side
- Tennis ball rolling on glutes and calves 30 seconds per area, per side
- Golf ball rolling on plantar fascia 30 seconds each side
- Single-leg lift 1×6 each
- Quadruped thoracic mobility 1×8 each
- Split-squat 1×5 each
- Lateral lunge 1×5 each
- Ankle mobility 1×10 each
- Forward/backward low walks 1×10-15 yards
- Lateral band walks 1×10-15 yards
- Med ball overhead throw 2×10
- Kettlebell goblet squat 2×10
- Hang clean 2×5
- Stability ball rollout 2×6
- TRX inverted row 2×8
- Kettlebell swing 2×8
- Anti-rotational cable press 2×6
- One-arm dumbbell press 2×8
- Hex bar squat 2×6
- Kneeling cable lift 2×6