Off-Season Strength Training for Triathletes
The nature of triathlon training is incredibly repetitive. For many athletes, putting in long hours with less than perfect form can result in muscle imbalance and dysfunction over time.
An essential fourth discipline to triathlon training is strength. When performed properly, strength training can improve mechanics, performance, and injury resistance.
A general framework for triathletes is to plan 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training starting in the off-season and later shifting to strength maintenance during the competitive season.
The Importance of Strength Training for Multisport Athletes
The primary goal of strength training for multisport athletes should be two-fold: injury prevention; and a positive transfer of strength, power, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance to the sports themselves.
Because movement patterns of swimming, cycling, and running are highly repetitive, it's critical to address any impairments early on with targeted strengthening of under-active muscle groups to effectively prevent injury. For performance, athletes can benefit from strength exercises that are highly specific in terms of both movement patterns and velocity.
Many periodized strength training programs progress athletes from general to specific exercises. Particularly with endurance sports or multisport events like triathlon, exercises should move from general to more specific to avoid conflicting peripheral adaptations. For swimming, cycling, and running, this means eventually performing a portion of the strength training within the targeted sports (see #6 below).
Although strength work has been shown effective in all phases of an annual plan, it makes the most sense to start strength training during the off-season to avoid overtraining.
If you can invest a solid 12-16 weeks of structured strength training at the start of the off-season, there is a long-lasting training effect and a long-term delayed training effect of strength preparation that can yield great results during the competitive season.
What this means is that you might not experience performance gains immediately, and in some cases, performance can see a small decline. However, in the long term, investing in strength training can be highly beneficial. This is especially the case for long-course athletes training for Ironman triathlon distances.
Here are some guidelines and fundamentals to help you execute a safe and effective off-season strength routine.
1. Embrace Strength Training Fresh and Avoid Maladaptations
Strength training is high-intensity work, so it’s especially important to perform these exercises when you are fresh. A strength athlete would never do a long endurance session before training strength, and that same standard goes for endurance athletes.
A short ride or run is okay, but it’s vital not to start strength training in a fatigued state. Similarly, you can significantly destroy the benefits of your strength session by doing a long, exhausting endurance workout immediately after.
A short-to-medium distance workout shortly after strength training can help transfer some performance adaptations to your sport. But if you go too long or hard before or after a strength workout, you can encounter issues with maladaptation.
2. Focus on Functional Movements
A balanced strength session becomes much easier to assemble and perform when you think in terms of movements and planes of motion versus individual muscle groups.
To put this into perspective, avoid single-joint isolation unless your goal is targeted injury prevention and activating an under-active muscle group. Focus your lower body strengthening on ground-based, multi-joint exercises. For example, when you perform a squat or a lunge, you are recruiting muscles in the proper ratios compared to hamstring curls or leg extension.
As for other functional movements that are great for endurance athletes, incorporate exercises in a single leg stance, such as a single leg squat, single-leg RDL, or step-up to balance. The movements work exceptionally well in building greater stability and injury resilience.
3. Don’t Overlap Endurance with Strength Training
Always keep in mind that strength training is supplemental to endurance training. Keep strength training at high intensities, but avoid high-repetition, short rest programs like CrossFit and other boot camp-style circuit training.
Your primary goal is to build strength and power without accumulating unnecessary fatigue. In doing so, make more rest between sets and work more intensely for short amounts of time.
Your body uses three fundamental energy systems: A-lactic (ATP-PC), anaerobic, and aerobic. If you keep most of your exercises A-lactic (10-15 second periods with adequate rest), then your strength work won’t interfere as much with the rest of your training.
4. Incorporate Plyometrics
Plyometrics are essentially high-intensity jumping exercises with short ground contact time. The underlying goal of plyometric exercises is to increase power.
Jumping is not for everyone, but it’s important to remember that a little bit goes a long way. Start with lower intensity exercises such as ankle hops or running drills and progress to higher intensity movements like box jumps, squat jumps, and bounding. Plyometrics can be stressful on the body, so pay attention to how many jumps you do in a session.
There are studies that show plyometric training improves running economy. This means that for a given running speed, oxygen cost is actually lower. Incorporating plyometric training as part of a structured program is proven to improve fitness. Not only can athletes reduce heart rate at a given running speed, but reduced oxygen consumption further indicates improved running economy.
5. Emphasize Power in Addition to Strength
Work is defined as force multiplied by distance. Power is defined as force multiplied by distance/time. When you add speed to a given movement, power increases. Heavy strength training in particular has demonstrated excellent results in studies because there’s both high muscle fiber recruitment and high power. However, increases in power can be achieved by moving lighter weights more quickly.
Interestingly, there are ample studies that support heavy weight lifting to be effective strength training for endurance athletes. Similarly, there are studies that show light to moderate weight training to also be effective.
With lighter weights, it is possible to move at a faster speed that might replicate the sport, similar to plyometrics. However with heavy weights the speed of movement is slow, but still increases power. They discovered that the intent to move quickly is as important as actually moving quickly.
Regardless of how much weight you are lifting, it is important to have the intent to move that weight quickly to increase the power output.
6. Transition Your Strength Training to Actual Sports
Transfer of training is the ultimate goal of concurrent training. If you increase your one-repetition max on the squat by 30%, you will not see the same 30% improvement in watts on the bike.
One solution is to mimic some of the motions of your sport and the velocity. But at some point, you should actually perform strength training within the actual sports.
As an example, swimmers can swim with drag or do tethered swimming. Although a popular tool, be careful with paddles as there’s a greater risk of shoulder injury. Runners can perform sessions that involve strides or short hill reps. Likewise, cyclists can perform short, A-lactic stomps, which are 10-15 second max sprints with full recovery.
7. Strength Training Should Replace a Portion of Total Training Volume
The addition of strength training to endurance training, known as concurrent training, is almost always effective as long as an athlete doesn’t add strength training on top of an already maxed-out training plan.
If you are just adding strength training on top of your schedule, then maladaptation can occur or you can be more prone to overtraining. This is why the off-season or pre-season is a good time to add strength training, when overall volume is lower.
Endurance athletes are typically well-trained aerobically but may be under-trained muscularly. So always be sure to begin a strength training program conservatively.
Remember, strength training is supplemental to training for triathlon and endurance sports. Don’t get side-tracked with your desire for a better physique or bigger biceps. A little bit of strength work can go a long way, and more is not always better.
This article was written in association with bettertriathlete.com.