Swim, bike, run who has time for strength?
Muscular strength is the foundation for everything you do. Swimming, cycling, running, walking, sitting; you MUST have a strong base to build off of. I look at your body as 2 systems. Your aerobic system and your muscular system. As endurance athletes we have built our aerobic system to work very efficiently. We could go out and train at low intensity for hours upon hours at a time. But why can’t we go hard for hours at a time? Most of the time it is because our muscles, or muscular system fatigues before our aerobic system. We are forced to slow because we do not have the muscular endurance built up to keep the effort/heart rate as high as we would like to keep it. In order to build that muscular system we must commit to consistent strength work both in and out of our specific disciplines in order to build the muscular system. We must have a solid foundation built in order to achieve our true potential.
When I found the sport of triathlon I was coming from a very strength centric sport of ice hockey. The motion of ice skating is all strength based in that you must push against the ice in order to move forward. The strongest, most efficient, and most powerful ice hockey players are the fastest. When not on the ice, we would be working day after day in the weight room. Not only to skate stronger and faster but also to remain strong on our skates allowing us to keep defenders from knocking us over or fending off defenders from taking the puck from us. The whole aspect of ice hockey is very similar to strength training in that it is very short, powerful bursts of energy just as strength training is short, powerful efforts. They both stress the VO2 max of the athlete.
When I came to triathlon I had a huge foundation built up from my years of ice hockey. I had taken the necessary steps to build my body into a muscularly and aerobically strong athlete. My body could handle intense training day in and day out without the muscles tiring. Because of this I made huge gains. I was not muscularly fatiguing which allowed me to complete workouts at max effort which, in turn, allowed me to make those gains. The body adapts to the stress it is placed under. I was able to put my body through an enormous amount of stress. I could keep adding to that stress which my body kept adapting to. I went from novice triathlete to professional triathlete in a very short amount of time because of these adaptations and gains.
When I look at strength training and how an endurance athlete can most benefit from it, I look at it from a functional, dynamic standpoint. We don’t perform our sport in a static environment. We are constantly using multisport movements to complete the various sports we perform. Our strength training should be no different. We need to use functional strength to lengthen and strengthen our muscles. Many of us have day jobs which promote bad posture and misalignment. These dysfunctions are not fixed simply because we are swimming, biking, and running. We must work to counterbalance these dysfunctions through functional strength and flexibility training so when we swim, bike, and run these dysfunctions are not exaggerated because of them. For example, if someone sits at a desk all day they are most likely to have very tight hips. When that person stands the hips remain tight pulling the pelvis back. As the pelvis is pulled back and the person rises to stand upright the stress is placed on the lower back as this is the focal point. The lower back is not meant to take that amount of stress nor is it meant to be flexed in that manner, so it begins to ache. Then the person goes for a run, with the same sway in the back. The tight hips and the pounding of the run further worsen the pain in the lower back. This person must commit to a strength program which loosens/opens the hips and strengthens the glutes. This will counteract the position of sitting all day and keep the lower back from having to absorb all of the stress placed on it. You can use this example for any pain/dysfunction in the body. There is always a reason for why something is hurting. In dealing with the cause of the pain you will not only be fixing the dysfunction but you will also be strengthening your foundation.
I look at strength training in 3 phases:
Foundational Phase(4-6 weeks): This is a very low impact phase of training. This is the phase in which you get the body right. You balance out dysfunction, build intrinsic core muscles, use a majority of body weight, functional movements, and work to higher repetitions over the course of the training block as your body adapts. 3-4 sets 15-20 receptions or holds of 30-60 seconds. Examples of Foundational Exercises are planks, bridges, body weight lunges, body weight squats, high knees, leg lifts, balance and reach, wall sits, push ups
Strength Phase(4 weeks): Only when the body has sufficiently adapted to the foundational phase can the athlete move into the strength phase. If the progression is too quick the athlete risks injury due to too much external stress being placed on the muscles/joint/skeletal system before the body is functionally ready to accept it. This phase includes lower repetitions at higher weights starting very light and adding weight week over week. 3-4 sets 6-10 repetitions. Example of Strength Exercises are Ball Wall Squat with Dumbbell Press, Box Step up with 1 Arm Press, Reverse Lunge with Weight extended in front of the body, Barbell Squats, Walking Railroad Lunges with 1 Arm Dumbbell Extension overhead, side walks with band, Dips, Pull Ups with slow eccentric lowering
Power Phase(2-3 weeks): The Power phase is vital in incorporating into your training regiment. The muscles must learn to fire at a rapid rate in order to effectively use them to their fullest potential. We can go long and slow for a very extended period of time. With the Foundation, Strength, and now the Power we are adapting our body to go long and fast for and extended period of time. The Power Phase consists on short explosive movements which push the muscles to rapidly contract while stress is being placed on them. This allows the athlete to turn those arm faster, turn those pedals faster, and move those legs faster all with more strength and strength plus power equals speed. Consistent speed equals faster results. Since the Power Phase is very taxing on the body the length of the phase is shorter and dependent on the athletes variable such as training volume, fatigue, and age to name a few. Exercises in the Power Phase build over time and consist of 4-5 sets of 12-20 repetitions. Some examples of exercise in the Power Phase are jump squats, split squat jumps, plyometric push ups, 1 leg box jumps, jump rope, hip ball toss, jump pull ups, dynamic step ups
Strength training does not have to be very time consuming and most of it can be complete from the comfort of your own home. Go into each session with a routine and stick to the routine. Once the body has come accustomed to strength training you can complete foundational and strength sessions 3-4 days a week and power sessions 2-3 days a week. Strength training will make you a more efficient, stronger athlete less susceptible to injury. I have built a strength routine application geared towards the needs of endurance sport athletes, Fit With It. Download it and follow the routines. I have taken all of the guesswork out of what you should be doing to build your strength.
Jim Lubinski in a Professional Triathlete, Owner of Red Performance Multisport, Creator of Fit With It, USAT/Ironman Certified Coach, NASM-CES/PES Certified Personal Trainer, Host of Tower 26- Be Race Ready Podcast, Host of the podcast Jim and the Other Guy. To contact Jim email him at firstname.lastname@example.org