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.
- Focus on the prime movers in the body – think big muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, lats, glutes)
- Prevent muscle imbalances – Injuries are often caused from muscle imbalances. Lifting while working opposite muscle groups will prevent these injuries later in the season
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Use free weights when possible – machines are better than nothing. But free weights will engage your core and stabilizer muscles.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.