Strength Training for Triathletes

I was on an Ironman Facebook page once and someone mentioned that all of us could swim 2.4 miles, then bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles but couldn’t do one pull up. It’s true many triathletes, especially those who go long, ditch their strength training in favor of running, biking and swimming sessions. There’s only so much time in the day. The problem with this approach is that it cuts out a key component of a triathlete’s success–developing power. Speed drills can only get you so far. You need jetfuel to light that engine. And strength is one of the areas that can light that fuel fire.
In Triathlon Science, a book edited by the Triathlon god Joel Friel, a research study is quoted that showed men over age 50 increased their endurance and their efficiency on the bike when three strength sessions a week were added. Another study showed  strength training yielded extra performance benefits for female, younger and older athletes. Not so much for elite athletes.

So what exactly does strength training do for the endurance athlete? Let’s separate some proven fact from fictionalized gut feelings.

Facts on strength backed by research

  • Strength training can increase power.
  • Strength training can increase economy.
  • Strength training can increase endurance.

The following is an article by Ironman god and triathlon hall of famer Mark Allen. It includes some great tips on tri-specific exercises. (Originally printed in Triathlete Magazine.)

By Mark Allen, Triathlete Magazine ©

I have a few questions for you.

Are you over 35 years of age? Do you have a limited amount of training time? Do you want to reverse—or at least slow down—as many aspects of the aging process as possible? Are you an endurance athlete looking for an extra edge? Do you want to boost power, reduce fatigue, guard against injury and increase your late-race energy reserves?

Well, who doesn’t? And strength training can be the tool to help you accomplish each of these universally sought-after benefits. In fact, strength, or resistance, training is one of the most commonly overlooked means to improve endurance athletic performance.

All too many triathletes sacrifice strength training in favor of additional swim, bike or run sessions. This is unwise. In fact, a well-executed strength-training program can allow you to carve up to 25 percent out of your swim, bike and run volume while improving performance and enjoying better race-day results.

I fought going to the gym for years until I reached my mid-30s. Suddenly, speed work started to look more like steady-state training, and I could no longer override a lack of power on climbs with desire. My race performances started to suffer. I could see that even with a huge volume of miles out on the roads, my fitness was not what it was in my 20s.

Adding resistance training was the next step, but I had a problem. I had no idea how to design and integrate a strength program into triathlon training. I was also intimidated by the gym because I felt like the scrawny weakling on the beach compared to the hulks pushing around weights that would crush me. So there I was, the Ironman champion, embarrassed to go into the gym.

But my desire to win was even stronger than my embarrassment. I was introduced to a top strength coach, a woman named Diane Buchta. She led me through an entire season of weights, focusing on building overall body strength and, eventually, muscular speed.

The results were dramatic. In the first full season I used the program described below, I won the Triple Crown of Triathlon: the Nice International Triathlon, the Zofingen duathlon and the Hawaii Ironman.

Getting With the Program

I have boiled the program down to what I consider the 12 key exercises to develop overall body fitness for a triathlete. The workout is done twice a week throughout the year, and each session takes about 45 minutes. Separate the two weekly strength sessions by at least one day. The exercises, their order, the muscle groups they work and their sport-specific benefits are as follows:

1. Lateral Pull-downs (upper back; improves pull phase of swim stroke)

  • Beginning position: Grasp bar with arms straight and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Push chest forward; arch lower back
  • Ending position: Pull bar in front of head down to shoulder level

2. Leg Extensions (upper legs/quads; supports weight-catching phase of running and builds additional muscle mass necessary for half-marathon distances and up)

  • Beginning position: Sit on machine. Rest shin pad just above ankle. Line knee with pivot point of machine
  • Ending position: Extend both legs fully to straight line

3. Leg Curls (upper leg/hamstring; boosts pull-through for both cycling and running)

  • Beginning position: Lay face down on machine bench. Place leg pad just above ankles. Keep legs slightly bent
  • Ending position: Contract hamstrings fully. Keep stomach on pad at all times

4. Bench Press (chest; improves pull phase in swim)

  • Beginning position: Lay face up on bench, hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Bar in line above mid-chest
  • Ending position: Lower bar to one inch above mid-chest. Keep lower back on bench at all times

5. Squats (glutes and quads; generates power for cycling and strength necessary for hilly running)

  • Beginning position: Stand with legs wider than shoulders. Find neutral spine posture. Keep weight over heels at all times
  • Ending position: Lower butt toward floor as though you’re sitting in a chair. Bend knees until thighs are parallel to floor

6. Lateral Dumbbell Raise (shoulder joint; supports healthy shoulders to prevent swimming injuries)

  • Beginning position: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, elbows even with the plane of your body and slightly extended away from your torso
  • Ending position: Extend arms out sideways, keeping elbows still in the plane of your body. Stop arms parallel to ground

7. Calf Raises (lower legs/calves; helps push-off for running)

  • Beginning position: Place one foot on a step and the other raised off the step just slightly. Hold the weight in the arm on the same side as the calf you are working
  • Ending position: Lower the heel until you feel a moderate stretch

8. Dumbbell Pullover (works all muscles in catch phase of freestyle stroke)

  • Beginning position: Lay face up on a bench. Clasp dumbbell between both hands with arms extended straight toward the ceiling
  • Ending position: Arms fully extended behind your head, with weight touching floor, if you are that flexible

9. Backward Lunges (adductors and glutes; targets all muscles used in push phase of hilly running)

  • Beginning position: Stand with legs together; rest the bar comfortably on upper back
  • Ending position: Step back, extending leg out behind, and lower your body into a split squat. Drag the toes of the extended foot on the floor on the way back up to the starting position

10. Bicep Curls (front of upper arm; assists in part of the pull phase in the swim and provides climbing leverage on the bike)

  • Beginning position: Grasp a weighted EZ-curl bar with both hands, using an underhand grip. Elbows tight against the sides of your body and arms slightly bent
  • Ending position: Elbows fully flexed, bar raised up to collarbone height. Make sure to keep elbows locked tight against your sides

11. Tricep Extensions (back of upper arms; maintains form through back half of swim stroke)

  • Beginning position: Kneel one leg on the bench, place the other foot on the floor. Bend forward 45 degrees from the hips. Place the weight in the hand on same side as the leg that is on the bench. Keep elbow tight against your side. Begin with weighted arm bent.
  • Ending position: Arm extended back fully in straight position

12. Leg Press (glutes and quads; most important exercise for developing power on bike)

  • Beginning position: Start seated on the sled with your knees bent and feet roughly shoulder width apart
  • Ending position: Legs extended fully

Each exercise should be done on a count of two on the contraction (or lifting of the weight) and a count of four when lowering the weight. Form is of utmost importance when doing the exercises. Isolation of each muscle group is the goal.

Breathe out on contraction and in when lowering of the weight. The one exception is the dumbbell pullover, where the breathing pattern is reversed: breathe out when lowering the weight and in when lifting it. Rest 90 seconds after each set.

Finish your strength-training routine with:

  • Sit-ups
  • Stretching

On the sit-ups, work all areas of the abdomen (lower, middle and upper), but don’t go overboard. It is important to strengthen the abdominals because they help prevent lower-back problems and support the diaphragm.

However, overdevelopment of your abdominal region may restrict your ability to breathe during intense exercise. An effective breath comes from expanding your abdomen, not from raising your shoulders. If your abdominals are overdeveloped, you cannot get a relaxed, deep breath. My rule of thumb is no more than five minutes of moderate abdominal work twice a week.

Optional Additions

There are countless other exercises that you can use to develop overall body strength. If you have any specific needs or areas that require extra attention, feel free to add in up to three more exercises to help create balance among the three sports.

A short list of additional strength-training exercises includes:

  • Incline press
  • Reverse flye
  • Back extension
  • Any core strength and balance moves

If you have a question on how to do any of these exercises correctly, consult a personal trainer. Proper execution of each lifting move is significantly more important than the weight that you use. Not only does improper form reduce the effectiveness of each exercise, but it can also put you at risk of injury.

The Four Phases of Strength Training

The strength program cycles through four distinct phases. Each one is designed to work different aspects of your overall strength and will ideally match up to the different phases of your aerobic training throughout the season (pre-training, base, speed and taper).

Phase One: Adaptation (1 x 12-15 repetitions) — During this phase, the goal is to adapt your body to lifting. Each exercise is to be done as follows: one set of 12 to 15 repetitions. The correct weight choice for each exercise will allow you to feel like you could complete an additional one to three repetitions with good form. The weight is too heavy if you feel a strong burn in the muscles at the end of the set.

The adaptation phase can last two to four weeks. Go to the Endurance Phase once you can complete the Adaptation workout without feeling sore the next day.

Phase Two: Endurance (2 x 12-15 repetitions) — During this phase, increase the number of sets to two, with each set still consisting of 12 to 15 repetitions. Again, the correct weight is one that allows you to complete the two sets knowing you could have done one to three more repetitions with good form and without any major burning in the muscles. Each set should be challenging without requiring maximum effort.

This phase can last four to 12 weeks. How long you extend this phase depends upon when your first big race is on the calendar. Count back nine weeks from your next A-priority race. This will mark the end date of the Endurance Phase and the beginning of the Power Phase.

Phase Three: Power (three sets: 1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6) — Feel the burn! This phase is where the largest improvements in strength occur. It is also where the sluggishness that weights can cause will carry over most into swimming, cycling and running. So don’t expect to feel like Carl Lewis at the same time you’re lifting like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During the Power Phase, you will divide your exercises into two groups. On the first strength workout of the week you will include the following four exercises: lateral pull-down, leg extension, leg curl and dumbbell pullover. These exercises are done in three sets instead of two, and the repetitions change to one set of 10, one set of eight and a third set of six.

The correct weight is one that will require you to give your maximum effort in the final repetition. The remaining eight exercises are kept at two sets of 15, just like in the Endurance Phase.

Then, on the second strength workout of the week, perform the following five exercises in three sets, as above, again completing the final rep at maximum effort: bench press, squat, biceps curl, triceps extension, and leg press. As in the first strength workout of the week, all remaining exercises are performed as in the Endurance Phase, at 2 x 15 repetitions.

The Power Phase is about maximum effort. You will probably find that the weight needed for this phase is 10 to 25 percent more than the weight you were using with good form during the Endurance Phase.

Power Phase Sets

Day 1

  • Power lateral pull-down (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Power leg extension (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Power leg curl (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Bench press (2 x 15)
  • Squat (2 x 15)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 15)
  • Calf raise (2 x 15)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 15)
  • Bicep curls (2 x 15)
  • Tricep extensions (2 x 15)
  • Leg press (2 x 15)
  • Sit-up
  • Stretching

Day 2

  • Power lateral pull-down (2 x 15)
  • Power leg extension (2 x 15)
  • Power leg curl (2 x 15)
  • Bench press (2 x 15)
  • Squat (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 15)
  • Calf raise (2 x 15)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (2 x 15)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 15)
  • Bicep curls (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Tricep extensions (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Leg press (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Sit-up
  • Stretching

This phase should last three to six weeks before you move on to the Chisel Phase.

Phase Four: Chisel (2 x 12 repetitions) — In this phase, you take all the strength you have gained and hone it with repetitions that simulate the speed of muscle contraction experienced during racing.

In the Chisel Phase, you will reduce the weight back down to a level equal to or slightly less than you used during the Endurance Phase. Do two sets of 12 repetitions to the count of two on both the contraction and the relaxation.

Chisel Phase Sets

  • Power lateral pull-down (2 x 12)
  • Power leg extension (2 x 12)
  • Power leg curl (2 x 12)
  • Bench press (2 x 12)
  • Squat (2 x 15)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 12)
  • Calf raise (2 x 12)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (2 x 12)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 12)
  • Bicep curls (2 x 12)
  • Tricep extensions (2 x 12)
  • Leg press (2 x 12)

Note: To compound the positive effect of the leg press during this phase, do each of the two sets with one leg at a time, instead of using both legs together.

During Phase Four, the Chisel Phase, the weight should be chosen so it feels light yet becomes challenging at the end of set two due to mild lactic acid build-up. Fatigue is caused mainly by the speed of the move, not the load you are lifting. Again, focus on good form, and make sure that there are still one or two repetitions left in you at the end of the second set. The rest period between sets is dropped from 90 seconds to about 30 seconds.

This phase should ideally be three weeks but can last two to four weeks and should end about three weeks before a major competition. The anaerobic intensity of this phase makes it sustainable for only a short period of time.