by Noelle De Guzman
We already swim, bike, and run, so to ask time-poor triathletes to also hit the gym can be quite daunting. But strength and weight training is vital for injury prevention, and even improves form and performance.
As sports science in triathlon continues to improve, we’re seeing more and more elite athletes showcase gym sessions as part of what they need to do to stay on top of their game. You may say, “But of course they have time for that because that’s their job, right? How do I find the time outside my regular training as well as work and social commitments?”
Fear not, fellow age grouper. Here’s how you can get your strength training in.
Specificity and Compound Exercises
You can focus on the muscle groups and movements most important in triathlon: when these muscles are strong, they fatigue slower which will allow you to keep better form longer during training and competition.
Swimming engages the lats and pectoral muscles, while running and cycling use the hamstrings, quads, and glutes in different ways. All three disciplines use the core for efficient movement and energy transfer.
The lat pulldown and seated row help build the muscles required in swimming, while the chest press works the opposing muscles to these. Squats and lunges improve muscle strength through the legs as well as engage the core; this trains proper movement and also the activation of lateral/stabilizer muscles.
Also, try to do compound exercises with free weights (or body weight) rather than single-muscle exercises using machines. For example, it’s better to do a squat rather than a leg press because the squat better approximates natural movement and posture, plus activation through your core.
If you plan to do consecutive discipline+gym sessions (kind of like a brick session but with weights instead of a second discipline), it’s better to do the weights work after the sport-specific session so your body can absorb the strength gains post-workout. Just keep an eye out for proper technique; if fatigue from the sport session is making you lose form during the weights session, reduce the weight or number of reps you’re lifting.
For days you have intense weight sessions churning out reps to muscle failure, do only a recovery session (i.e. yoga class) as your second workout of the day. The gains you make after such an intense workout happen well after the session (within 12 to 24 hours), and trying to train through this recovery period where your muscles are rebuilding can render your strength gains useless. Look at bodybuilders: they don’t do two leg days in a row.
How often and how hard you need to hit the weights during the week depends. Strength training can be integrated throughout the year going from offseason through to the racing. Diane Buchta, the conditioning coach for triathlon legends Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser, set forth five phases in a periodised strength training model.
Phase 1: If you’re relatively new to weight training, you should ease your muscles into it in order to prepare for more intense weight training sessions later on. This usually takes four to five weeks for your body to adapt, with three sessions a week.
Phase 2: You begin to build strength and endurance during the triathlon offseason. You don’t want to be trying to build muscle (“anabolism”) while doing lengthy sport-specific sessions that eat muscle (“catabolism”). This is when you’re training those slow-twitch muscles and encouraging them to build thicker and stronger.
Phase 3: Now that you’ve gotten strong, it’s time to put some oomph into it as you begin to do more explosive work with heavier weights and lower reps to build power. This happens about two to three months before your goal race.
Phase 4: As you begin to approach the season, your weights program should turn your power into speed. Sessions and reps are performed faster, with no rest between sets. You’re in the gym twice a week.
Phase 5: Now that you’re in-season, specific weight training sessions are optional. However, you can head into the gym about once or twice a week for quick and non-strenuous sessions for maintenance.
Before you start a new exercise program, consult an expert to help you through the basics of technique and structure. This is the biggest time-saver and will ensure you see improvements efficiently.