Strength Training for Triathletes

Strength training claims to have all sorts of benefits for endurance athletes.  However, if you are like me, you really despise the gym for several reasons… like being the scrawniest guy in the room and/or because some the “meat heads” in the gym monopolize a single machine for about 20-30 minutes and only use it for about a minute.  Despite all the reasons most endurance athletes hate going to the gym to move heavy objects, the gym plays a crucial role in the in how your season will play out.  Knowing your way around the gym, what to do during various times of the training cycle, and when to do your lifting around your endurance workouts are all very important.  Additionally, most triathletes are already extremely busy with their careers, family, and training, so getting in and out the gym quickly while still getting the quality in is a good skill to have as well.  The good news is that you can get some serious benefits in about 30 minutes of focused activity in the gym once or twice a week.

We will start with the basics of lifting.

  1.  Focus on the prime movers in the body – think big muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, lats, glutes)
  2. Prevent muscle imbalances – Injuries are often caused from muscle imbalances.  Lifting while working opposite muscle groups will prevent these injuries later in the season
  3. Use multi-joint exercises when possible – An example of single joint exercise is a bicep curl.  While everyone can admire 20 inch biceps, single joint exercises don’t mimic the multi-joint movements required by a triathlete. Multi-joint exercises would include exercises such as squats and several exercises with TRX bands.
  4. Always engage the core – When swimming, biking, and running a lot of force is transferred from one half of the body to the other through the core. If the core is weak, the power is lost and the athlete will move slower.
  5. Keep the number of exercises low – Spend as little time in the weight room as possible while getting as much sport specific improvement as possible
  6.  Use free weights when possible – machines are better than nothing.  But free weights will engage your core and stabilizer muscles.
  7.  Warm up –  before doing any strength routine, you should do about 10 minutes of light cardio to get the blood moving and muscles warmed up.

There are 3 basic “phases” of strength training.  Depending on where you are in the training cycle for your big race of the season will determine what routine to go through.

The first one is Anatomical Adaptation.  It’s exactly what it sounds like.  This phase is light weight high rep to allow the body to adapt to the added stressors.  Below is what Joe Friel recommends in his book “The Cyclist Training Bible” for the Anatomical Adaptation phase.  Assuming most triathletes in the northern hemispheres are training for their A race in late summer or early fall, the anatomical adaptation phase should start in late fall or early winter.

picture from Joe Friel’s “Training Bible for Cyclists”

When doing about a 9 month training cycle to your “A” race, this should be about 5-6 weeks.  To add a”cardio” element to your strength training, do a circuit by grouping the exercises into pairs.  For example, do a set of hip extensions and then while your legs are recovering, go to the Lat pull down machine for a set.  Repeat until you do the number of goal sets are accomplished.  In the anatomical adaptation phase, this is 2-5 sets.


The next phase of strength training is call Max Strength Phase.

Picture of the Max Strength protocol taken from Joe Friel’s “The Cyclist Training Bible”

As you can see, the number of reps per set and total number of sets goes way down in comparison to the Anatomical adaptation phase. What I have found that works best for myself and my athletes is to strategically plan these workouts as the last workout of the day on the day before a recovery day or day off.  The reason being is that your legs will most likely be too tired the following day to get in a high intensity run or bike workout.  That way the body has 48 hours to recover from the stress of lifting heavy prior to the next hard workout.  For a 9 month training cycle, this phase typically lasts about 4-5 weeks.


The final phase of strength training is called the Strength Maintenance Phase.

picture from Joe Friel’s “Cyclists Training Bible” for strength maintenance phase

This cycle is only once a week to keep the strength gains completely disappearing after all that hard work.  Again, time this workout on a day before a recovery day or day off to allow time in recovery.  This phase is good to try to do once week til the last 2-3 weeks of your A race for the year to allow the body to taper down adequately for peak performance.


For all the phases of strength training, you will inevitably go through a recovery week (assuming you work those into your training regime).  When you get to those weeks, reduce the number of sessions in gym, or the number of sets within the workout.


Once you feel comfortable with the strength training routine and want to add an additional stressor to help increase the speed/amount of gains made in power on the bike and speed on the run through in some pylometrics after a hip extension exercise and/or calf raise exercise.  Pylometrics can include, but not limited to, box jumps, single leg hops, lung jumps, etc.  These need to be explosive movements.  Don’t do these as fast as possible, so take time to recover a bit between the bursts in movements.

As with any workout, you should consume some calories within 30 minutes of working out to prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle recovery/building.

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Pure Fit Where Results Matter

Triathlon training consists of swim, bike, and running… and lots of it.  But how many of us consider doing any strength training during the off-season two or three times per week and continue it through the spring/summer about once a week.  And those of us that do strength training, how effective is it?  Do you find yourself doing the same two or three boring routine every time you decide to hit the weights.

I’m just as guilty as the large majority of triathletes out there.  I never really took time to strength training seriously.  In high school, I loved lifting weights, but I burned out from it… and found myself bored with it and unchallenged.  The only competition I had in the weight room was the football players.  Their mentality for weight lifting was much different than what I should have been doing as a cross country runner and swimmer.

Ever since I started doing triathlons at 17 years old, I hardly every touch a weight.  The thought of doing weight training crossed my mind several times, but each time I went to the gym or started doing a workout in the basement, I struggled getting into the mindset of pushing myself to my limit as I do in my other training.  I wouldn’t go to the point of failure… I would often stop just as it started to hurt, not allowing my body to get any real benefit.

This off-season, after my first (partial) season as professional triathlete, I knew that if I wanted to make the gains I wanted (and needed) to do to start being more competitive, I would have to make a real effort on my strength training.

I found out of Pure Fit through a guy name Mike Jett, a professor (and co-owner of Pure Fit) at University of and is at least in charge in some degree of the Louisville’s Human Performance Lab.  I wanted to get a lactate threshold test on the bike to redefine my training zones for the bike so I could train more effectively in preparation for the 2013 season.  I didn’t expect him to offer me some help with my strength training at his gym by attending some of the boot camps a couple times per week.  I jumped at the opportunity.

So far I’ve attended the Pure Fit boot camp class for about 3 or 4 weeks about twice a week.  If I have time in my schedule, I do some of my own strength training on my own another day of the week where I focus more on my core strength than anything else.

They offer classes Monday through Friday every evening and M, W, F mornings.  The also offer a mid morning class on Saturdays.   So far the only thing that has been consistent in the class is the starting and finishing times.  One thing I absolutely love about Pure Fit is that no class is ever the same.  The muscle confusion that I experience in the classes I’ve attended are already starting to pay off, which I will get to later.

The start of the class usually has some forms of light cardio to get the heart pumping and blood moving, some dynamic stretching, and light resistance with therapy bands. Once that is complete (about 10 minutes worth), we head to the glass room.  The instructor, either Mike Jett or Wendy Wormal, and one of the Pure Fit personal trainers/employees will demonstrate the exercises at each station.  There typically is about 8-10 stations depending on the size of the group that shows up.  Some of the stations may be inside the glass room, while some of them are out in the hallway if extra space is needed.

Typically each station involves a combination of cardio, core, and strength training.  Often times, each exercise targets at least two of these categories, which is great for triathletes, because we are always trying to multitask!  It also is much more functional than going to a gym and only working one muscle group.  Can you tell me one thing in athletics (or everyday life) that only involves using one muscle group?  (the answer is no!).  So, if we want to be more physically fit and better at the sport we do, it would make sense to train this way too.

Shortly after going to Pure Fit, I came down with Achilles Tendinitis for the second time since moving to Louisville.  I still decided that going to class would be a wise thing, but would have to know my limits and not push my Achilles too much.  When I showed up to the class, I simply approached one of the instructors for the class, let them know my injury, and if something would aggravate it (i.e. jumping exercises) they would come over to me and tell me something to do instead to allow me to still get a workout, but not further injure my Achilles.  The knowledge of the staff to work around someone’s injuries or limitations is phenomenal.  I’m confident that no matter what injury someone would present with, they could figure out a way to tailor the workout to your specific needs.

My perception of strength training from high school has been shaken dramatically since starting to go to Pure Fit.  I now enjoy it, and actually look forward to going to class.  I’m starting to meet some of the people that attend the classes and making some new friends, which is always a bonus.  Every time I go to class, I leave with a sense of accomplishment, sore/tired muscles, and the chance to meet someone new.  Everyone that I’ve met there has been very welcoming.  Pure Fitness has people of all ages and abilities… and that’s the beauty of it!  I know I’m the strongest or fastest there, and probably never will be, but one thing I do know is only after a few short weeks of training my butt off in a totally different way, I’m seeing gains already being made.


Today I completed an aerobic set in the pool and finished up with some 100 meters on my base interval.  I noticed that I was consistently coming to the wall with the same amount of effort just under 2 seconds faster… and my muscles were sore from the previous training at Pure Fit.  Two seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but consider two seconds over the course of 2.4 miles (the swim distance in an Ironman triathlon).  That’s a time savings of about 1:15… not to mention the fatigue rate would be less, and would probably be closer to a times savings of about 1:45 to 2:00.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many other numbers since my power meter is getting changed over from a BB30 to a GXP to fit my new ride for next year (Scott Plasma Premium), and my Achilles is just starting to allow my to run again.  But I’m confident that there would be gains in these areas too.  I plan on testing my LT again in January at the U of L Human Performance Lab to see what my training zones are again.  Last time, my LT was 338 watts (4.62 watts/kg).  I would be thrilled if I was able to push 345-350 watts after I have three months of strength training at Pure Fit.

I truly believe that many people could benefit from participating in the boot camps at Pure Fit, whether your sport is an endurance event, or more traditional sports, such as basketball or football.  Or, even it your goal is just to drop a little bit of weight, or keep those Christmas calories from catching up to you… Pure Fit can help you with all your goals.  They will meet you where you’re at, and get you to where you want to be (and more than likely, further than you expected).

The staff at Pure Fit