Every triathlete knows that training isn’t optional. Without a solid base of consistent swimming, biking, and running under your belt, you wouldn’t make it past the first buoy. Triathletes endure some of the most grueling aerobic endurance work there is, so they’re no strangers to long, frequent, and high-volume training sessions. With all those weekly hours invested in endurance training, it’s no wonder many triathletes don’t have time—or, perhaps more accurately, don’t make time—for strength training. But supplementing your aerobic work with a strength training program designed specifically for triathletes can make a significant impact on your performance—and your injuries. Here’s why all triathletes, from sprint to Ironman, should get in the weight room.
1. Increase Your Durability
When your endurance training volume is very high, as it is for most triathletes, your body takes a beating. All those miles you log in the pool, on the bike, and on your feet can lead to overuse injuries like shin splints, tendonitis, stress fractures and more. In addition to a proper endurance training plan, which should ramp up your weekly mileage by no more than 10% each week, adding strength training to your schedule will increase your body’s durability.
Strength training doesn’t just strengthen your muscles—your bones and tendons get stronger, too. Your muscles, bones, and tendons not only work together to produce force (against the resistance of the water, the bike’s pedals, or the ground as you run), they also absorb force. Having stronger tissues and bones means you can absorb and withstand more force, for longer distances. A correctly designed, triathlon-specific strength training program will develop total-body strength while focusing on the most frequently used joints and muscle groups, and will help bulletproof your body against repetitive, high-volume endurance training.
2. Correct Muscle Imbalances
Ever noticed that one side of your body (or one muscle group) is much more sore than the other the day after a hard workout? While our bodies are designed to be balanced in strength (from right to left, back to front, and top to bottom), our lifestyles often create muscle imbalances that, left uncorrected, can alter your form when you train. Even the act of prolonged sitting (at a desk, in front of a computer, on the couch, etc.) can cause your glutes to be overstretched and weak and your hip flexors/quads to be short and tight—impeding the function of both muscle groups. Lifestyle factors and unnoticed muscle imbalances can explain why your left glutes may be screaming the day after a tough training session, while your right side feels fine. One overlooked benefit of strength training is that it can help expose areas of weakness in your body, revealing strength imbalances between muscles that you can work to correct.
Muscles don’t work in isolation. Instead, they work in tandem with, or opposite to, other muscles (think biceps and triceps, or quadriceps and hamstrings). When one muscle contracts, like your quads during knee extension, the opposing muscle or group of muscles (hamstrings) lengthens to accommodate the quads contracting. And when one muscle is stronger than the other, this can lead to faulty movement patterns—and potential injury. The absolute strength (how much force a muscle can produce) of a muscle or group of muscles is less important than the ratio of strength between muscles that act together to produce movement. A research-based strength training program will expose any muscle imbalances in your body, and help to correct them—improving your form and making your swimming, cycling, and running more efficient.
3. Prevent Injuries
Have you ever started training for an event, only to grind to a halt halfway through due to an injury? Shin splints, Achilles tears, patellar tendonitis, or chronic knee/hip/back pain—all can derail your training. When you run into an injury, you probably reduce your weekly mileage, start an ice and ibuprofen regimen, and start Googling orthotics or physical therapy modalities. This can become a cycle: start training, get injured, rehab injury (usually through some sort of targeted strengthening routine), rinse and repeat. Due to the sheer volume of endurance training triathletes undertake, overuse injuries are common—but you can break this unhealthy cycle of injury and rehab by starting a comprehensive strength training program.
Strength training has been shown to be the best injury prevention method for athletes. By increasing your durability (see #1) and evening out any muscle imbalances (see #2), strength training prepares your body for efficient and powerful movement. This goes for all athletes across all sports, but is especially important for triathletes. A triathlon-specific strength training program will activate and strengthen the muscles that help you maintain correct postures (while swimming, cycling, and running) for longer by prescribing exercises that mimic those postures in the gym.
A squat, which strengthens the lower body, teaches your body to maintain a neutral spine and upright torso under load—useful in the final push on the bike. A plank, which strengthens the core, teaches your body to keep the muscles of your core locked and steady for long durations—useful for efficient strokes in the water. By strengthening your muscles and bones, eliminating injury-causing muscle imbalances, and improving your stamina and strength within certain positions and movement patterns, you can train without injury. And, even better, you can train harder: leading to better performance and faster race times!
A research-based strength training program designed specifically for triathletes will help you hit your next PR. But I think the best thing strength training can do for triathletes is help you just plain feel better during your training. A stronger, well-balanced, more durable body can better withstand the aches and pains that come with high-volume training weeks, meaning you can actually enjoy your training!
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye