You have all read that strength training is a positive element for triathletes to implement. The question is what type of strength work is going to maximize triathlon fitness? From P90x to Crossfit to Yoga and Pilates to “functional” strength, we can get a big confused as to what specific program can best fit the needs of our sport. Let me give you some key principles to look for when deciding on a strength program:
1. Working your soft tissue. As a triathlete we are putting stress and impact on our body during training. Our muscles become tight and inflamed and it can limit our performance and increase our chances of injury. Soft tissue work using a foam roll, massage stick or a baseball should be part of your strength program. Athletes that come through our facility start every workout with soft tissue work. It’s the foundation of human movement. “With soft tissue and flexibility issues, strength gains will be limited if we don't solve the tissue problems first”, says Lee Burton, President of The Functional Movement Systems. We will limit our triathlon performance if we do not improve our muscle tissue quality first.
2. Movement quality versus movement quantity. Just because you get sore and tired from a specific strength workout doesn’t mean you are improving your triathlon fitness. In fact, hard, aggressive and random program design can actually lead you down the path of chronic pain and injury, and then you cannot do anything. If you train to absolute failure, your form breaks down, the wrong muscles are being utilized and your movement will be impaired. This sets you up for injury and bad patterning down the road. Think technical failure. Do as many repetitions as you can with absolute perfect form. Stop when the movement is no longer perfect. I can have someone do 100 squats; think they will feel a burn? Absolutely. Is there a point to performing 100 squats? Not really. Like I said above, a sore body doesn’t necessarily mean you did something right. Clean movement enhances your functionality which sets you up to push harder in your swim, bike and run workouts, which then improves total performance. Quality over quantity!
3. Working your “core” through smart training. This word is probably one of the most used words in the fitness industry. Proper core development teaches the entire body to cohesively work together. If our “core” has weakness, we will limit the use of our lower and upper body strength and power. The inner core incorporates the Multifidis (small spinal muscles), transverse abdominals (built in “weight belt”), pelvic floor (small muscles lining the pelvis) and the diaphragm (skeletal muscle used for respiration function). These are muscles that we will never see but when functioning properly can aide in athletic development, optimal recovery, deep strength and stability and total body strength development. Working your core is not just isometric “ab” training. Performing thousands of crunches is not considered smart “core” training. Researchers like Dr. Stuart McGill and Dr. Craig Liebenson are providing the world of athletics information on smart core training.
4. Look for a system. Your strength program should have a similar system each day you workout. There should be a recipe that you follow each day. If you are doing something completely different every workout you will increase your chances of injury and progress will be stagnated. You shouldn’t just randomly run through a workout without detailed attention to progressions, appropriate sets and repetitions based on your triathlon-training schedule and proper functional training.
A system that we use in our facility could look like this:
Soft tissue work with foam roll
Activation/mobility (glutes and shoulder stabilizers/t-spine and ankles)
(Series of drills to prepare the body for the work ahead)
(Olympic lifts or Jump training; 2-leg and 1-leg drills can be used and medicine ball throws for upper body explosiveness)
1a) Knee dominant
1b) Loaded carry movement
1c) Upper body pull
2a) Hip dominant
2b) Core stability
2c) Upper body push
This system is consistent every workout for the endurance athletes that we train.
5. Stretching for everyone? Flexibility training improves muscle length by going through specific range of motion movements and allowing the muscle to increase elasticity. It also increases the circulation and supply of oxygen and nutrients the muscles need to work effectively. If flexibility is limited, our movement and range of motion will be inhibited, thus making us more susceptible to injury. Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic principles of physical fitness. Does everyone need to stretch? In my opinion, the answer is no. Hyperflexibility is an issue. Individuals who participate in dance, martial arts, cheerleading and gymnastics can generally have extreme flexibility. When muscles are overly stretched, the affected joint will lose the ability to control movement during activity. This will cause abuse to the joint, which can cause debilitating injury (shoulder and hip labrum tears, rotator cuff trauma, ankle sprains, etc). We need adequate range of motion, not extreme. These overly flexible individuals need to focus on building stability and strength to support their joints. Now if flexibility is an issue then yes, you need to stretch throughout the week. Your range of motion limits your movement; thus causing a lack of performance.
6. How does your body feel after a workout? This is a key indicator of a smart strength training program. If you are having trouble walking the morning after a strength workout, you did too much. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be sore, but having minor muscle soreness and having trouble sitting and standing are two totally different effects from training. As triathletes, we are not looking for extreme soreness after strength work. In fact, you should feel really good after a strength session because you have worked on the above principles. You didn’t just go to the gym and bang out endless repetitions of squats and lunges. There was a balanced attack of full body, multi-joint movements implemented to improve your athleticism.
Triathletes should be strength training. Triathletes shouldn’t be extreme in the gym. The #1 goal of a strength program for triathletes should be injury prevention. If you are getting hurt inside the gym, you should reconsider what you are doing. If you are constantly getting hurt outside the gym, you should reconsider what you are doing. There is a smart way to implement strength training into your program. Abide by the above principles and you will set yourself up for a successful triathlon season.