WHY TRIATHLETES NEED TO STRENGTH TRAIN
Everyone knows that to increase your endurance sports performance levels, you need to move more consistently overloading the system to get your body to adapt to get stronger. Sometimes that means swimming, riding your bike then running. You might even do that all once in a triathlon.
Is that a good thing? Should you be putting your body through three incredibly repetitive stress activities (swimming, riding and running)?
Especially since triathletes have a much higher injury rate than their other endurance sports counterparts. Want to fast track your body breaking down? Train for a triathlon (1).
One possible explanations is that triathletes very often train after sitting behind a desk all day. This can do a number on the hip flexors before you take your first swim or pedal stroke not too mention your first step on a run.
Keep in mind triathlon training only takes place in one range of motion (moving forward) and it gets a little easier to see how combining sitting all day then doing three uni-planar activities can lead to losses of flexibility and mobility, reduced glute function and create performance robbing muscle imbalances.
Luckily, its not all gloom and doom for triathletes when it comes to keeping your body from falling apart. With the right approach you can upgrade your ability to prevent injuries and maybe even get a little faster.
However, before we get there, let's look at what's typically recommended for endurance athlete specific strength training.
The following moves, while common, don't really look like producing power with one leg in a diagonal loading pattern. Which is what you're actually doing when you swim, ride and run.
Here are some of the exercises I've seen endurance athletes do for "strength training." Keeping in mind how you produce force while you train and during your events when compared against the planes of motion where these exercises take place, its easy to see why these may not help:
Crunches: on your back, face up, flexing the spine
Crunches with Twists: on your back, face up, flexing your spine, rotating your torso
V-Ups: on your back (I sense a theme here), face up reaching for your feet. And let's be honest, we sit in a hunched position all day shortening the front half of the body, why the H-E-Double Hockey sticks would you train the body even more in this position? Again, triathlons require a downward force production with one leg in a diagonal loading pattern. There's a hint there if you can find it.
*Planks: I'm good with these in a warm up or corrective setting.
Straight Leg Raises: on the floor, face up, raising the legs to "work the core." If you've got an arched low back and tight hamstrings... Do. NOT. DO. THIS. EXERCISE.
Burpees: Brilliant, dynamic explosive movements for a population prone to forward rounded shoulders and reduced range in the thoracic spine, lack of glute activation and reduced ankle mobility. There's a reason I very rarely (if ever actually) have the triathletes I train do these.
Seated Machines: if you sit down all day, why would you sit to lift a weight? If you sit on a bike where your range of motion is dictated by your bike, why would you do the same in the gym? If you train in one plane of motion three different ways, why would you do that in your strength workouts?
While the above list doesn't look anything like what a triathlete might do, this exercise does. If you've only got time for one thing at the gym, you'd be hard pressed to find one that will hit all of the muscles of swimming, riding and running more than the Split Stance Alternate Arm Cable Press/Row.
It will mimic the way the muscles of the hips and trunk are suppose to fire while running due to the diagonal loading component. As the left arm pulls in this movement, the right hip is stabilizing the force involved.
The same is happening as the right arm punches and gets its foundation from the left foot pushing into the ground through the core and hips. Compare this to floor work done face up, and you'll see pretty quickly how this type of training is superior for endurance sports.
One of the bigger reasons is because an exercise like the one above not only involves the core in a big way, the glutes have to fire to proved the arms the platform they need to move. That's a huge component for triathlete strength training because the glutes power the engine that get you across the finish line.
There are several reasons why the glutes are pretty critical to improved athletic performance. They accelerate the hips which helps with power jumps in the saddle and on your runs. The provide dynamic stabilization of the pelvis and lumbar spine. They also play a major role in keeping the knees happy.
If you've got a "glute-iny" and they aren't online the way the should be, here's what your looking at (2):
Higher risk of low back pain.
The hip flexors and hamstrings will become overactive (which could make you more prone to cramping)
Your chances of over pronating go up and your chances of healthy knees go dow.
If your glutes are week, your piriformis may tighten up which could cause sciatic issues.
IT (ITS TENDER!!!) Band Syndrome
Once you begin to shorten muscles, you begin to change joint angles. If a change in alignment in one joint occurs, you will alter the angles of other joints which could lead to an injury.
Keep in mind that triathlon training is a highly repetitive stress activity. Meaning, if you've got dysfunctional joint mechanics, your weekend brick workout will do more to worsen that than help it. Especially since the more you use a muscle incorrectly, the higher the chances of that muscle shortening and becoming dominant in a given motor patter (3).
Also keep in mind that your muscles tighten up for a reason so stretching isn't always the answer. This increased tension typically comes because something else is weak. More times than not, a core muscle dysfunction is causing the issue (4).
I've seen this happen first hand. I've had hip dysfunctions that have hampered core muscle function. Once those muscles got fired up, the hips came back online and worked a lot better.
Can't you just stretch tight muscles? You can stretch all you want. If that's your thing and you feel it helps, keep on it.
However, you have to know if you've got muscle dysfunction somewhere in your kinetic chain, its going to be a lot harder to restore the range of motion you're trying to fix with the stretching. The bottom line is this: get stronger, move better.
If you swim, ride or run, your best chances of improving performance and reducing your chances of becoming injured come from dialing in your diagonals. Meaning,that your performance gains (or losses) are directly affected by how well the hips and the opposite shoulder move together.
Loosely translated if your right shoulder is internally rotated, chances are your left hip won't function optimally and vice versa. Same goes for a hip elevation or rotation on one side affecting the shoulder on the opposite side (5).
This is very important because it directly affects the following:
Proper ab recruitment
Support for the hips and healthy shoulders
Low back & knee happiness
Improving performance in the pool, on the bike and on your runs
How Efficient Are You?
We know that the shortest trip to a great event time is based on how fast you can get from A (the start line) to B (the finish line). The more efficient you are, the more manageable that becomes.
We know that efficiency is based on how much effort you need to put out to maintain a given pace and it happens on 2 levels (6):
Neuromuscular: the more you repeat a movement, the less wasted energy from the brain signaling the muscles to move.
Technique: the better your technique, the more efficient you become and the less energy used.
The key to both of these is having your movement patterns dialed to maximize performance. This may come from floor work face up on your, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me of that. I've trained endurance athletes since 2006, and I've seen their biggest strength gains coming from them hitting primal patterned movements.
Since more power is what allows you to go faster, you need as much joint stability as possible. The primary reason being your shoulder and hip stability is proportional to how much power the brain will let you use.
This is why it doesn't matter how much you swim, how many intervals you do on the bike or how many bricks you run. If you aren't working on creating a rock solid movement foundation, you won't come anywhere near being able to reach your performance potential.
It doesn't matter if you are competitive athlete or casual fitness enthusiast, performance is all about doing more work in less time. This is why you need power, and lots of it. The right functional core strength training program can help you achieve this (7).
Here are some of the exercises that can help you increase your performance and reduce your chances of getting injured. Notice these exercises involve the movement patterns associated with endurance athlete real world strength requirements.
Here's the deal. If you want to train your core get off the floor. This will be a much better way to lay down a movement platform that allows you to produce more strength, improve your balance and ultimately give you more power. You'll also improve your joint stability as well as mobility which may decrease your chances of sustaining an injury.
Put all of that together and you it is a lot easier to increase your event performance from a reduced time.
Thank for getting this far down the page, it is much appreciated!
1) "Triathletes, on Your Mark ...Whoa!," Sean D. Hamill, New York Times
2) “NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training,” Michael A. Clark, Scott C. Lucett
3) “NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training,” Michael A. Clark, Scott C. Lucett
4) “Some Reasons Why You Should Stop Stretching Your Hip Flexors,” Dean Somerset, BSc, CSCS, MES, CEP
5) ”The Essence of Band and Pulley Training Companion Guide,” Juan Carlos Santana MeD, CSCS
6) “Triathlete Magazine’s Complete Triathlon Book: The Training Diet, Health, Equipment, And Safety Tips You Need To Do Your Best," Matt Fitzgerald
7) “To The Max: Functional Training for Endurance Athletes,” Gary Lavin BS, CSCS, USAT II, Juan Carlos Santana MeD, CSCS