B Strong. B Fast. Just Fit.

Strength Training for Triathlon: The Secrets to Your Best Season Ever!

Published March 1st, 2011 in BAMFing, Just B, Strength Training

When I say “… Your Best Season Ever,” I’m talking about you, the coach, as well as your athletes.  The reason for this is that if you can get your athletes to focus on consistent strength training now, and continue that through the season, they’ll have much improved results with less injury down time, and your business will benefit from their success. 

I have three secrets to strength training that will get your athletes stronger, more powerful, and keep them motivated at the same time.  In no particular order, they are 1) functional training, 2) power training, and 3) using multiple modalities and protocols.  I’m going to go through each one of these and give you example workouts at the very end.

Functional Training:  In short, you have to train in a manner that mimics or resembles the activity you are going to perform.  “Functional” is essentially the Principle of Specificity, or the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands).  This means that results from training are limited to the physiological systems used and overloaded during training.   So, what’s “functional strength training” for triathlon?  To answer that, you need to understand what movements are involved in the sport.   Here are some key points.

  1. All three disciplines require different movements for locomotion, but all use rotational forces to facilitate those movements.  It makes sense then to incorporate exercises in your program that strengthen your core with particular attention focused on rotation. 
  2. All three sports require multi-joint movements working together in an integrated/coordinated fashion.  Therefore, it’s important to train with movements that require more than one joint at a time. 
  3. Two of the three involve ground reaction forces, so it makes sense to train in a standing position with your feet in contact with the ground. These are also referred to as “closed chain” exercises.  
  4. They all require power in order to move faster, so incorporating power training such as plyometrics is essential to improve performance.
  5. They all require movements in multiple planes of motion (sagittal-forward, frontal- side to side, transverse-rotational), and require multiple planes of stabilization (balance) so training must mimic those movements such as working on a single leg, or using reciprocal and unilateral movements.

It’s important to understand that not all exercises will fit into these descriptions, but that does not mean that they are ineffective for triathletes.  However, just going to the gym and doing a few rounds of exercises on traditional machines is not going to cut it if you want strength that will translate to performance on race day. 

Power Training: In physics, Power = work/time.  Power can also be expressed as force x velocity, or strength x speed for our purposes here.  In other words, power is the rate at which work is done.  The faster something is done; the more power is exhibited to do it.  Last I checked the goal of any endurance event is to finish first, or be the fastest, or at least be faster than your previous time.  In order to do that you need to generate more power than the competition or than you did in your last race.  Okay, for some, the goal is just to finish, but you still need to generate enough power to cross that line.

Plyometric exercises enable a muscle to reach maximum strength as fast as possible.  In other words, they help generate speed-strength, also known as power.  How does this work? 

There are three different types of muscle contraction.  Eccentric contractions occur when the muscle is lengthened under tension.  They are used by the body to decelerate (slow down) the body.  Isometric contractions are static contractions where there is no perceivable movement in the muscle.  The muscle length stays constant.  Concentric contractions involve a shortening of the muscle fibers and are used to accelerate the body, or limbs being used.

If we use running as an example, when the foot hits the ground the muscle lengthens, but eccentrically contracts and controls the descent to prevent a collapse.  When the muscle lengthens to its maximum ability, there is a brief moment of no movement where the resistance and the muscle contraction are equal.  This is an isometric contraction.  The muscle then begins to shorten rapidly in a concentric contraction to accelerate into the next stride.  This stretching followed by rapid shortening is called the “stretch-shortening cycle”, which is what plyometrics were originally known as.  

During the eccentric phase the muscle stores a lot of energy through the build up of tension.  This energy is then only partially recovered and used during the concentric phase.  It depends on how long the duration of the “in-between” isometric phase of the movement is, as to how much energy is recovered.  The longer the runner’s foot is on the ground, the more energy is dissipated as heat and lost for the push off.    In order to maximize the energy transfer from eccentric to concentric contraction, you need to shorten the time “in-between,” or what’s called the amortization phase.  This is exactly what plyometric exercises are designed to do. 

Plyometrics include many jumps, hops, and bounds, all with the intent of minimizing the time spent on the ground.  If you analyze video of your runners, you’ll notice that the faster, more efficient runners spend less time on the ground.  They are using more stored energy with each foot strike to accelerate into the next stride.

An important thing to note is that plyometric training is anaerobic in nature, and uses the creatine phosphate energy system.  However, it is also important to realize that at no time does any one energy system (phosphagen, glycolysis, oxidative) work alone in the body.  Depending on the intensity and duration of the activity, each system is used to produce energy.  That’s good to know the next time your athlete needs to “power” up a hill, or close the gap and pass someone on the bike, as well as become a faster and more efficient runner.

Multiple modalities and protocols are a must if you want to keep your athletes motivated to continue a strength training program.  It’s hard enough to get endurance athletes to fit in strength training at all, so when you do succeed at incorporating it into their programs, you’d better keep it interesting!

There are a number of different modalities and tools I like to use with my athletes to help keep the workouts fresh and motivating.  The great thing is that most of them are very affordable, as well as portable.  These include the following: 

Bodyweight training (including plyometrics) – This is a great place to start especially for those just beginning a strength program.  Before adding weights to any exercise the athlete should be able to perform quality repetitions using just their bodyweight.  Squats, lunges in all planes of motion, push ups, single leg reaches, bounding, and box jumps are all good examples of functional bodyweight exercises.

Tubing or elastic band training – lightweight and very portable, tubing allows you to add resistance to your exercises, and also helps simulate the actual movements of your sport, i.e. – swimmers pulls which can be done with arms together or using a reciprocal movement as you would in the water.

Free weights – using dumbbells requires each limb to do an equal amount of work to stabilize and control movements. 

Medicine balls – are an excellent tool to use for core training, especially rotation, and upper body plyometrics.  

Stability balls – are effective for core training, balance and stabilization training.

Suspension training – the TRX by Fitness Anywhere is a fantastic piece of equipment.  Not only is it incredibly portable, but performing all the exercises requires using the core and some form of stabilization.  It consists of adjustable canvas straps and handles that can be attached almost anywhere.  Exercises can be modified for beginner and more advanced athletes.

Kettlebell training – Kettlebells are an old Russian training tool that looks like a cannonball with a handle attached to the top.  They are an excellent tool for developing power, core strength, and overall ability to deal with momentum which occurs in every sport.  Kettlebells are also useful in creating metabolically challenging workouts, which your endurance athletes will appreciate.

 Protocols should vary between timed circuits with light weights to counted repetition ranges such as 6-8 for heavy days and 12-15 for light days.  Rest time should be commensurate with the resistance.  Heavier weights and plyometrics will require more rest than lighter weights. 

Workouts:  Workouts are only limited by your imagination.   The following workouts should take anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour.  I prefer to use circuits for my strength workouts, but I do allow sufficient time for rest whenever needed.  Most of the exercises can be found on the video library of my website, www.b-athletics.com.

Warm Up example:

Arm Circles 10-15 reps forward and back

Med Ball Chops and rotations (10 reps of up & down, diagonal right to left, left to right, 20 rotations)

Old School Windmill rotations – 30 reps – legs spread, arms out to the side, bring opposite arm to opposite foot.

Leg Swings 10-15 reps side to side and front to back

Alternating calf stretch – 50-100 reps

Wall Jumps – 3 x 15 seconds of jumping, 5 second rest

Workout #1: 3 x 30 second intervals (do each exercise for 30 seconds then go to the next)

Lateral lunges                                                                                    Knee Flexion Bridge on Ball

TRX Suspension Rows                                                                    TRX “Y” Raise

MB Russian twist                                                                              Prone Plank (1 minute)

Single Leg Reach w/ hip flexion & calf raise

Push Ups                                                                                             Stretch


Workout #2:  Kettlebell Circuit – 2-3 rounds x 6-8 reps for heavy weight or 12-15 reps for light weight

KB Single Arm High Pulls                                KB Windmill

KB Double Arm Swings                                  KB Russian Twist

KB Single Arm Swings

Rest 1 – 2 minutes                                           Stretch

KB Single Arm Power Clean

KB Single Arm Snatch

KB Double Arm Push Press

Rest 1 – 2 minutes

Workout #3:  Plyo & Strength Circuit (3 x 5-10 Reps for Plyo exercises/ 30 second intervals for Circuit) Rest as needed between Plyometric exercises.

Plyometrics:                                                                                      Strength Circuit:

 Squat Jumps                                                                                     TRX Balance Lunge

Split Squat Jumps                                                                             Reciprocal DB press on Ball

Box Jumps                                                                                          Reciprocal Tubing Swimmers Pull

Lateral Med Ball Toss against wall (both sides)                    TRX Sprinters Start (no hop)

                                                                                                                Ball Switch

Resources & References:

Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, National Strength and Conditioning Association, Thomas R. Baechle, Roger W. Earle.

Jumping into Plyometrics, Donald A. Chu, PhD.

Functional Training: Breaking the Bonds of Traditionalism, Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS.

To the Max! Functional Training for the Endurance Athlete, Gary Lavin BS, CSCS, USAT II, Juan Carlos Santana, Med, CSCS