Strength Training for Triathlon

author : KenMierke
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A correct strength training program increases strength in the muscles, joints, and connective tissues. This should lead to greater stability and fewer injuries.

A well-designed off-season strength training will improve performance for almost every athlete. Females, athletes with a relatively thin build, and seniors benefit most.

While there is no scientific research proving reductions in the risk of injury from strength training, most experts believe that this is a benefit. A correct strength training program increases strength in the muscles, joints, and connective tissues. This should lead to greater stability and fewer injuries.


Strength training doesn’t increase the amount of work you can do; it lets you do faster without doing more work. Increasing strength makes triathletes more efficient in all three triathlon segments.

Many triathletes lift relatively light weights for a high number of repetitions in a misguided attempt to build endurance. Avoid this mistake. Weight training with light weights is little more than entertainment. A cyclist averaging 90 rpm for a three hour ride will complete 16,200 repetitions. In that context, are we really going to improve our muscles’ aerobic system with a set of 20 or 30 repetitions? Absolutely not! Research consistently shows that a triathlete incorporating high repetition weight training into his/her program will not increase aerobic conditioning at all.

To this end, using heavy weights is a necessity. To achieve the goals of a strength training program, the muscles must be overloaded by a heavy weight, not by fatigue from acid buildup generated during high repetition strength training. Build endurance in the pool, on your bike, and in your running shoes. Build strength in the weight room.

The most effective type of strength training program for a triathlete incorporates a single, very high intensity set for each muscle group. This stimulates the desired strength increase without building huge muscles or using up too much time or energy that we need for swimming, cycling, and running. Strength training is an important supplement, but it is a supplement. Spending hours in the weight room won’t improve triathlon performance.

I recommend that triathletes use extremely slow speed of movement during strength training. Ideally, the lifting phase should take 8 – 10 seconds and the lowering phase should take 4 – 5 seconds. Slow movements provide many benefits for an endurance athlete, such as:

  • Providing more sustained, longer duration muscular contraction

  • Reducing momentum, making the muscle work through the full range of motion

  • Reducing microtrauma, the tiny tears in the muscle that cause soreness

  • Reducing injuries during strength training by reducing power. Power = Force x Speed. Force increases strength; power injures. Keeping speed of movement slow optimizes both.

Selecting the correct weight to be used is critical. The weight must be heavy enough to overload the muscle’s ability to produce force, but light enough that perfect technique can be maintained. Each set should last between 40 and 80 seconds. With slow movements this will not produce a large number of repetitions, but duration of contraction is key, not number of repetitions. A set of 30 repetitions can amount to 20 seconds of muscular contraction, while a set and a set of 6 repetitions can amount to 90 seconds of contraction. Use your watch to monitor set volume. Using 12 to 15 second repetitions, each set will require only 4 or 5 repetitions.

When you become strong enough that 80 seconds of continuous contraction are possible, increase the weight by about 5 percent. This will reduce the set duration back toward 40 seconds. Gradually build duration back up before increasing the weight again.

Exercises

I recommend performing one set of each of the following exercises for each workout. Triathletes should perform weight training two or three times per week.

1. Leg Press: Place feet at the very top of the platform, shoulder-width or narrower. Set seat so that knee angle is slightly less than 90 degrees and hip angle is significantly below 90 degrees. Press the platform out slowly until knees are almost straight. Lower slowly until knees are bent to a 90 degree angle and repeat. This exercise works the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh and the gluteus maximus muscles of the buttocks. Placing the feet too low on the platform puts most of the stress on the quadriceps and minimizes stress on the glutes.

2a. Seated Leg Curl: Sit on the machine with legs between the two roller pads. Slowly and deliberately pull the heels back toward the buttocks by bending the knees. Keep the toes pulled up toward the knees and avoid pointing the toes. This exercise works the hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh.

2b. Lying Leg Curl: Lie face down on machine with knees lined up with machine's axis of rotation and heels hooked under the roller pads. Slowly bend your knees until your heels come up and touch your butt. Your hips may rise slightly off the machine; don't try to keep them all the way down. During the entire set, keep your toes pulled up toward your knees - don't point your toes or your calf muscles will assist and may fatigue before the target muscles have been effectively worked. This exercise works the hamstrings on the back of the thigh.

3. Leg Extension: Sit with your knees lined up with the machine's axis of rotation and your feet hooked under the roller pads. Slowly straighten your legs until they are completely straight. Make sure to achieve a full 180 degree angle - the last few degrees are very important. Lower the weight stack until your knees are bent to a 90 degree angle, without setting the weight down, and repeat.

4a. Calf Raise: Sit on a leg press machine with only the balls of your feet on the platform. Straighten your legs and lock out the knees (unless you feel pain or have a history of knee problems). Keeping the knees straight, lower the weight by dropping your heels. You should feel a deep stretch in the calves. Slowly point your toes, trying to shift your weight onto the big toe of each foot. Don't let your feet roll to the outside.

4b. 1-Legged Standing Calf Raise: Stand on one foot on the edge of a stair with the ball of your foot on the stair and your arch and heel off the stair. Drop your heel to get a full stretch of the calf muscles, then slowly push up on to your toes and extend your ankle. As you push up, try to roll your weight on to the big toe as much as possible.

5a. Seated Row: Sit in front of a low pulley with your feet braced against the machine. Grip the handle with your palms facing each other. Keeping the elbows straight, slowly pull the shoulders back (squeeze your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out) without raising them toward your ears. Only when your shoulders are pulled all the way back, slowly bend your elbows and pull back until the elbows are well behind the torso. Lower the weight until the arms and shoulders are fully extended and repeat.

5b. Lat Pull: Using a palms-away grip about six inches wider than shoulder width, slowly pull the bar down to the base of your neck where it meets the upper chest. Allow the bar to slowly rise back to the starting position and repeat for the designated number of repetitions.

6. Bench Press: Lie on your back with the bar lined up with your shoulders. Grip the bar about 6" wider than shoulder width. Lower the bar to your chest and slowly press upward. Slowly lower and repeat.

7a. Lateral Raise: On a machine, place your elbows inside the pads. Or, stand with dumbbells hanging at your sides. Slowly raise your arms out to your sides. Make sure to rotate your arms from the shoulders, instead of "shrugging" the shoulders up toward the ears. This exercise works the outside of the shoulder.

7b. Shoulder Press: Grip a barbell using a palms-away grip about four inches wider than shoulder width. Slowly push the barbell upward until arms are fully extended overhead. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest and repeat.

8a. Low Back: Sit in the machine with your hips pressed all the way back against the lower pad. Put both belts across your hips and legs and tighten as much as possible. Cross your arms on your chest and press back slowly against the upper pad with your upper back and shoulders until you feel a stopper. Lower the weight, rounding your back as you come forward. If you cannot hit the stopper, you are using too much weight. Make sure that the belts are tight enough that your hips cannot move forward or up during the movement.

8b. Dead Lift: Stand with a barbell directly in front of you. Grip the bar at shoulder width. Stand up, keeping your arms straight and lifting the bar to thigh level. Slowly lower the weight to the floor and repeat.


9a. Leg Lifts: Lie on your back with your arms on the floor at your sides. Very slowly raise your legs and bring your knees in to your chest, bending the knees as you lift. At the end of the movement, concentrate on rotating your pelvis upward as much as possible. During the entire movement, concentrate on squeezing the abdominal muscles, not just completing the movement.


9b. Crunches: Lie on your back and cross your arms on your chest. Very slowly roll your shoulders forward and upward while keeping your lower back in contact with the floor. Pause at the top and return. As with the leg-lifts, concentrate on squeezing the abdominal muscles, not just completing the movement.

9c. Sit-Ups with Twist: Lay on your back on the floor. Put your feet under the edge of a couch or have a friend hold them down. Lock your fingers behind your head. Bring your right elbow up to your left knee, go back down, and bring your left elbow up to your right knee. Repeat. Additional resistance can be created by holding a weight behind your head or using an incline board.

10a. Shoulder Internal Rotation: Attach a stretch-cord to a doorknob or other stationary object at about waist height. Stand far enough away to create optimal resistance. Face 90 degrees away from the doorknob, so that it is directly to your right. Hold the stretch-cord in your right hand with your elbow tucked firmly against your side and bent at 90 degrees so that the forearm is horizontal and pointing toward the doorknob. Maintaining a 90 degree elbow angle, slowly rotate the upper arm, moving the hand away from the doorknob in an arc. Make sure to keep the elbow locked against your side and move only the forearm and hand. Repeat slowly for one minute. Resistance should be great enough that completing the final repetition is very difficult. Repeat with the left arm.

10b. Shoulder Internal Rotation: Grip a lat bar so that you have a 90-degree bend at both the elbow and shoulder. Begin with your upper arms horizontal and your lower arms vertical (pointing up). Rotate your hand and the bar forward until your lower arms are pointing down. Your elbows should remain in place, with the upper arm only rotating. This works small, weak muscles, so start very light.

11. Shoulder External Rotation: Attach a stretch-cord to a doorknob or other stationary object at about waist height. Stand far enough away to create optimal resistance. Face 90 degrees away from the doorknob, so that it is directly to your left. Hold the stretch-cord in your right hand with your elbow tucked firmly against your side and bent at 90 degrees so that the forearm is horizontal and pointing toward the doorknob. Maintaining a 90 degree elbow angle, slowly rotate the upper arm, moving the hand away from the doorknob in an arc. Make sure to keep the elbow locked against your side and move only the forearm and hand. Repeat slowly for one minute. Resistance should be great enough that completing the final repetition is very difficult.

12. Hip Flexors: VERY IMPORTANT!!! Use an ankle strap and a low pulley machine to work the hip flexors. Face away from the machine and lean forward on a chair or something similar for stability. Begin the exercise with the strap on your right ankle and with the right leg fully extended behind you. Slowly drive the right knee forward, allowing the knee to bend. Ideally the range of motion at the hip will vary from about 45 degrees behind you to 45 degrees in front of you. Allow the leg to stretch out behind you again and repeat. The hip flexors are a largely ignored muscle among triathletes. Work this muscle particularly hard as it is important in all three triathlon segments.

Incorporate strength training into your off-season triathlon training program and you will be race faster, recover from workouts more quickly, and have less down-time due to injury.




Ken Mierke, two-time World Champion triathlete (Disabled Division, 1997,1998) and exercise physiologist, coaches cyclists and triathletes, from beginner to professional. Ken is Head Coach of Fitness Concepts (www.Fitness-Concepts.com), developer of Evolution Running (www.EvolutionRunning.com) and author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Run Training. Ken can be reached at CoachKen@erols.com

 

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date: January 1, 2006

KenMierke