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Triathlon: why endurance-only training is not enough
Triathlon may be the ultimate test of cardiovascular endurance, but triathletes who neglect musculoskeletal strength and flexibility will never fulfill their true potential
Triathlon is an endurance sport consisting of swimming, cycling and running over various distances. In most modern triathlons, these events are placed back-to-back in immediate sequence, and a competitor’s official time includes the time required to ‘transition’ between the individual legs of the race, including any time necessary for changing clothes and shoes.
While there are various race distances the three most common are Sprint, Olympic and Ironman. Take a look at the breakdown (see table 1 below) for each stage of the event and you can see that when it comes to the Ironman competitors, these are no normal athletes!
For most triathletes, the benefits of strength training are outweighed by the fear of gaining too much bulk, loss of flexibility and diminished ‘feel’ of their sport. Unfortunately this thinking keeps many triathletes from participating in a properly designed strength and conditioning programme.
Many triathletes tend to have a traditional ‘endurance training’-based paradigm, centred on volume of training and time spent training for the actual event itself. It’s all about wearing a badge of honour for the number of hours spent running, cycling or swimming. Unfortunately this is a pretty flawed approach, not least because there is a mass of research showing that volume of training is one of the main culprits of overtraining and injury incidence(1,2)
By and large the triathlon community has overemphasised the benefits of endurance-based training and underestimated the benefits of strength training. Triathletes will spend hours completing endurance sessions in the hope that they can squeeze a little bit of extra performance from their cardiovascular system, but are reluctant to spend just a couple of hours a week in the gym.
One heart, two lungs, lots of muscles!
Part of the reason for the above is that many triathletes have forgotten about the huge potential that the musculoskeletal system has to offer to performance and pay scant regard to its training benefits. Let’s not forget that the only reason your cardiovascular system is involved in the first place is because of the demand from your muscular system; your muscles don’t move because of cardiovascular demand – the demand on the cardiovascular system is elevated because of muscular demand.
If the musculoskeletal system cannot handle the stress of thousands of repetitions (which is what happens when you are training for a triathlon) then you need to condition the musculoskeletal system first. In other words, you should programme your body based on the movements it’s going to perform – not based on the cardiovascular system, which is an upside down method of programming!
Strength training in the gym can make a real performance difference via a direct ‘transfer of training’ effect into the event (see PP256 for a full explanation of this training effect). Typically the triathletes that I’ve worked with have had so little structural integrity that a resistance training programme to target their muscular weaknesses and imbalances had to be our first approach.
The fact is that for many triathletes, moving the body is the biggest problem – not their ability to transport oxygen! I’m currently working with a number of triathletes who have seen the light and are now benefiting from a structured strength training programme. For years they’ve been focusing purely on improving their cardiovascular system but more often than not, they’ve broken down at some point during their season through illness or injury. Using a motoring analogy, they were trying to trying to put a new engine in a beaten up old car with worn out chassis and suspension. A better approach is to set to work on improving the chassis and bodywork first and tinker with the engine later.
Setting the programme and shifting the mindset
Triathletes typically cite three main areas of concern when considering engaging in a strength programme:
1. Increased mass – fear of weight gain and subsequent drop in performance is a real worry. However, this is not a problem; a correctly balanced training programme will develop relative strength and power (ie improved power and strength to weight ratio) without significant increases in weight;
2. Lack of time – many triathletes are convinced they won’t have any extra time to fit strength training into their already busy schedule. This is flawed thinking! Many triathletes have lots of time to swim, cycle and run but won’t consider adding just a small proportion of strength training into their training schedule. The key is to make sure that your programme is time efficient – 30-45 minutes duration (maximum);
3. Increased risk of overtraining – triathletes are often (rightly) concerned about overtraining, so there is a very real concern that extra strength work may tip them over the edge. However, the key is to ensure that the strength training sessions are quality focused and don’t have too much volume in them. That said, the risk of overtraining is much more likely to arise from hours and hours in the pool or on the road than a couple of 40-minute gym workouts!
Having convinced the triathlete that we can help them, the key is to develop a programme that will have a positive impact on performance. I like to tackle programme design using the following continuum:
Flexibility Stability Strength
Flexibility, corrective stretching and dynamic movement preparation should play a major role in every triathlete’s programme. This is not to say that you need to adopt a ‘stretch everything’ mentality but you do need to recognise that the nature of the sport means you undoubtedly have to address some flexibility issues before you even think about working on developing strength.
Box 1 (above left) uses the example of the cycling portion of the event to demonstrate why you may want to prioritise the development of flexibility before moving on to strength.
If I had to choose just two core exercises that produce the biggest bang for the buck, it would be the plank and side holds. Research has shown that these two stabilisation exercises result in far more recruitment of the core musculature than more traditional exercises such as sit-ups etc.
The plank is a static exercise for strengthening the abdominals, back and shoulders:
1. Position yourself on your elbows and toes (elbows under your shoulders);
2. Keep your ankle, hips and shoulders in line;
3. Maintain your back, head and body in a neutral position – think about squeezing your glutes together, tightening your abdominal muscles and pushing your chest away from the floor);
4. This is a static position – so don’t move!
5. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
1. Start by lying on your side, legs straight, feet stacked on top of each other;
2. Support yourself on your elbow, keeping it in line below the shoulder, and place free hand on your hip;
3. Balance on sides of feet (feet are stacked) – squeeze your glutes and tighten up through your stomach;
4. Don’t allow your hips to drop toward the ground;
5. Again, this is a static position – so don’t move!
6. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Here we focus on what the Americans like to call ‘big bang for your buck exercises’! These exercises are multi-joint, multiple-muscle group and sometimes multi-planar exercises that recruit considerably more muscle mass than a single joint or machine variation. The box below provides explanations of some of the best training exercises for triathletes:
Split squat (you can perform this exercise with bodyweight or external loading such as dumbbells or a barbell):
1. Place barbell on your back or dumbbells in your hand, and take a long step out (the shin of the lead leg will determine the horizontal length of this step during the lowering – keep it fairly vertical);
2. Aim to keep the trunk vertical throughout the movement;
3. The bottom position should be one where the knee of the rear leg is almost touching the ground. The top position should be just short of the end of range;
4. This can be progressed into dynamic and walking lunges once the appropriate level of control, stability and general strength has been achieved.
Single-leg hip extension (a great exercise to activate the gluteal muscles; most triathletes have problems activating their glutes as a result of spending so much time in the saddle):
1. Lying supine on the floor, bend your left leg to 90 degrees and straighten your right leg (make sure your toes are pulled up to your shin on both legs);
2. Your arms should be face up at 45 degrees from your body;
3. Now lift your entire body up one inch by pushing off your left foot. This is the start position;
4. Continue to lift your body ensuring you maintain a straight line and your thighs are parallel to each other (the only other parts of your body that are in contact with the floor are your arm, upper back and left foot);
5. Lower to one inch off the floor, pause and repeat for the desired repetition – be sure to keep your hips in a straight line.
A simple but extremely effective exercise for triathletes, press-ups are not just a great upper-body exercise, but a great exercise for the core (female triathletes note; if you struggle to complete a press-up it may have very little to do with upper-body strength and more to do with your core strength – make sure you build planks and side holds into your training). I’m not going to explain how to do a press-up here – you should all know how by now!
1. If you can’t do full press-ups, you can start on an incline;
2. If they are too easy simply slow the tempo (see PP 256 for an explanation of tempo), or try decline, medicine ball or weighted vest variations.
Second only to press-ups, this is possibly the most feared exercise in our training facility. Again this is a horizontal pulling movement that is a total body exercise and which really works the core.
1. Lie on your back under an Olympic bar that is placed in a squat rack just slightly beyond arm’s length;
2. Grip the bar with an overhand grip and pull the upper body to the bar so that the chest touches the bar;
3. Keep the body completely flat throughout the entire movement;
4. Once the exercise becomes easy (this will take some time!) you can increase the difficulty by raising the feet. If it is too hard to start with the legs bent.
Training the cardiovascular system alone and neglecting the musculoskeletal system and its contribution to performance is a big mistake that will inevitably lead to reduced performance. This article has hopefully provided an insight into how a strength and conditioning programme can help improve a triathlete’s performance by addressing not just the strength, but the flexibility and stability requirements too.