It is always a controversial subject when we talk about strength training in relation to becoming a more efficient triathlete. There is a wide debate around the effectiveness of an integrated strength plan however we here at Airofin are huge advocates of incorporating some relevant strength based exercises to improve efficiencies and aid in becoming a better all round triathlete and athlete.
Each discipline in triathlon consists of a few basic movements that are repeated over and over. The movement patterns consist of two patterns - application of force followed by recovery. If the recover aspect of the movement becomes under utilised, the joints and muscles involved in a specific movement can become imbalanced which can bring about the risk of injury. In essence performing specific strength training exercises that target both force application and recovery parts of the movement patterns will provide you with the biggest gains when competing.
We have outlined a few strength exercises which could be carried out to improve each discipline. In addition to all of these exercises triathletes should always include some core work to help the stabilising muscles.
Exercises for swimming
For the force application phase in swimming, you want to hit the big muscles in your back, shoulders and core that are activated by the stroke action and the body rotation through the stroke.
A lat pull down is a really good exercise to improve the movement pattern for a high elbow position in the freestyle stroke.
Another great exercise would be the one arm cable pull where you set the cable to a height where you can bend over and create that high elbow position.
One final exercise would be the cable straight arm pull down - this is great for the strength aspect for the motion your hand takes through the water - if you can increase strength aspect in this area then when it comes to the arm stroke brushing through the water it will feel much easier.
Exercises for cycling
In cycling, you have two different exercises for applying force – one for seated and one for standing cycling.
The main exercise here to develop strength would be the standard barbell squat. The squat will activate many other muscles including the core and lower back however the main focus will be on the quadriceps.
Another Leg exercise to incorporate would be the leg curl as in the recovery phase of the cycling motion where your hamstrings do the work to drag the pedal up from 6 to 12 o’clock requires strength for improved cycling efficiencies.
Exercises for running
For running and also standing cycling the ultimate exercise if the single leg squat. There are many ways to do it, and most of them are good. But I just happen to think that the one that best mimics the movement patterns of running is the version where you elevate yourself using a box. When you want to maximise power, doing single-leg squats in a Smith machine with more weights is a better choice though.
Whichever version you do, never let your technique deteriorate. Make sure the knee of your bent leg doesn’t track inward.
There are a number of specific core exercises that can be done, including exercises which incorporate the core muscles without being the primary focus. We find that spending a session or two a week for 10-20 minutes is one of the best ways to develop that strong core. We have added a 18 minute core workout below which can be done anywhere.
Frequency of training
For the training frequency, aim for at least once a week in race-season and twice a week in the off-season. Training once a week can still have a relatively big impact, depending on where you start. In race-season, your emphasis is on swimming, biking and running, and you should focus on that and do a low-volume of strength training more as maintenance, or to get small gradual strength gains.
Your focus is on the three triathlon disciplines, and you shouldn’t go into your key sessions fatigued from weight lifting. The exception to this is core exercises, which you can (and probably should) do at least twice a week, but more is even better. A 10-15 minute core session won’t overload you.
Sets, reps and weights
Let’s get straight to the main point here General consensus today is that low-rep high-weight strength training has more benefits than high-rep low-weight. Doing the exercises correctly is always the most important thing however. Between 5-10 reps would be the ideal rep range. By training this way you build strength and power by improving your neuromuscular system and by learning how to activate more muscle fibres. With a high-rep low-weight regimen you build strength by increasing muscle mass. That is, you bulk up. As a triathlete, you probably don’t want that to happen.
Note that the same principles doesn’t really apply to the core exercises, especially not if you’re just doing body-weight exercises.