Choosing your path:
There was a recent article in Triathlon 220 magazine, saying that there is now enough data to confirm that strength training improves Triathlon performance. In the world of Strength and Conditioning there has already been a number of studies confirming that S and C improves Cardiovascular performance, but not specifically for Triathlon. As a developing Elite Athlete but more importantly as a long time Strength and Conditioning coach, I have seen first hand how strength training can improve all sports. During this blog I will refer to 2 people I have worked with who both had very different starting and finishing points, but have both benefited from strength training in different ways. I think in general these 2 paths represent the two main ways of improving Triathlon performance with strength training. Over time you can move from one to the other. One represents building a solid foundation and improving Triathlon efficiency as well as reducing the risk of injury, and the other represents aggressively improving power output as well as stimulating the correct muscle fibres so they can actually change to become Fast twitch fibres that improve Cardiovascular performance. To move to the more aggressive approach takes time and you cannot do it without completing the first approach.
Phase 1-Improving your efficiency and resistance to fatigue and injury.
This Phase works for everyone, but I will refer to a chap I trained who was in quite an extreme situation for his first Olympic Distance. His name is Filippo and he came to me wanting to improve his fitness, so to his horror I quickly signed him up to do an Olympic distance Tri. He couldn’t run 2k, couldn’t swim and had never ridden a bike, but the main issue with him finishing was that many years ago he had been born prematurely and had been heavily operated on. He has a 12 inch scar that cuts across his rotator cuff, and this complicates all movement in all 3 disciplines. He was over reliant on bigger muscle groups and his movement patterns were extremely unbalanced, and this lead to injuries in other areas and reduced his efficiency, especially on the swim and run. On top of that he was unable to grip properly with his left hand and his left side as a whole would tire more quickly than his right. The only approach for someone in this situation is to begin by training both sides of the body in isolation, and this doesn’t have to mean you can’t improve strength and efficiency.
Training areas of the body in isolation doesn’t and in my opinion shouldn’t mean that you have to ignore the rest of the body, unless you’re doing rehab. Activation exercises such as leg abduction with a band, or rotator cuff movements that you might have been given by a physio are good for rehab, but if your time is limited you can still activate the correct parts of the body as well as improving full body strength and efficiency. The biggest killer of activating the right muscles and creating the right movement patterns, is bad technique and lack of flexibility. But good technique can be learnt quickly, and with the correct exercise choice and some patience your flexibility will improve.
So where to start? A Split squat or Lunge done with good technique and full range of motion will leave nothing from your neck to the bridge of your foot unworked. And the fact that you are isolating one side of the body during the press or push means imbalances will be found out. Adding a Shoulder press, Lateral or Front raise will work every muscle in your body! My personal preference is to add a twist holding a weighted object (to recruit your obliques and increase your range of motion twisting, both of which will help your swimming) If you aren’t in the right position, are unable to get your hip as low as your knee, or don’t have your spine in the correct position you will not create the right movement pattern. Most likely to be neglected will be your Glutes and Hip flexors, all of which are incredibly important in any sport, but especially during the bike and run.
Going back to Filippo, it became incredibly obvious which areas needed improving whilst doing Split squats, but over time whilst only adding different lifts to the split squat, we were able to correct most of the problems. No isolated rotator cuff movements, no band work and no isolated lifting. He had problems from head to toe, but this one exercise increased his range of motion, improved his flexibility, created the right firing patterns and gave him the opportunity to improve his strength in other ways.
-However much time too have you can find time for Split Squats with a lift or twist, and you don’t need to be in a gym. 2 sets on each side of 15 reps, with 1 min rest between sides is the minimum you need to develop some strength and flexibility. Around 10 mins in total!
Whilst developing his Split Squat we were also developing his Back squat and Deadlift. The weight was low and the goal was to reach a good range of motion without any lopsided lifting of pushing. After doing Split Squats or Lunges you become aware of how your body works due to the isolation of each side, and you take this awareness in to the Back Squat. But it will take time before you can lift correctly under severe fatigue. It took Filippo 3 months of his programme to be able to do a really challenging 4×15 rep set with 2 mins rest correctly.
-Only lift in full range and with correct technique. Once that has gone you’re not doing any good and the weight is too heavy for you. Simple!
Deadlifting was a bit easier for him but there was a tendency for his left side to drop. As soon as it did we would stop. He could keep lifting the weight and his technique was only slightly off, but if your hardest reps are done in an unbalanced way then you will get stronger in a unbalanced way, carry that in to your swim/bike/run and still have a good chance of picking up an injury, and more importantly you’re not gonna be as efficient as you could be.
-When you are doing your strength training in this way with a high number of reps, you are improving the efficiency of your movement. You might have been told to keep the rest short when doing high reps, but your cardiovascular system will not be improved anymore for Triathlon than it already is during swim, bike, run by doing circuit training, and the goal here is to move well and create awareness and not tiredness that will drain your other sessions.
-Do the reps slowly and deliberately and feel the way your body moves. Take time to recover between sets and save that energy for your other sessions.
So Split Squats with a twist, lift or press, Back Squats and Deadlifts all done with correct technique will work every muscle in your body that a Triathlon will test. But technique and range must be correct! If you keep the reps at around 15, the rest around 1.30-2 mins, the weight at a point where you could do a 16th or 17th rep if you had to, whilst keeping the range full and always being aware of which muscles tire and when, you can improve your efficiency and reduce the risk of injury. Filippo followed this programme and finished his first Triathlon in under 3 hours, and he won’t mind me saying that his body was a mess beforehand. As his strength training progressed we moved in a different direction. This direction has a more aggressive influence on your performance by first improving your maximal strength, changing the role of certain muscle fibres and making them available for anaerobic (maximum intensity) efforts on the bike and run, and as a result of that you will be improving your maximal power on the bike and your output on the run. But you cannot jump in to this approach without completing Phase 1. At the start of every off season I go through Phase 1 to correct any imbalances, and also to prepare my body for the heavier loads to come.
Phase 2-Maximal strength and power.
Although Filippo progressed to this level of training even with such dramatic problems at the start, I will refer to a Lady I coached called Rebecca Pattinson who went on to be the overall Female Winner of the Atacama Desert, Race the Planets, multi stage marathon race. Rebecca came to me having failed to finish the same type of event in Nepal a year earlier. She had pulled out on stage 3 in quite a state, and was in a bad way for sometime afterwards. I could see pretty quickly that she was naturally good at endurance running, but she lacked strength and therefore power. Her best marathon time was 4 hours and her best half was around 1.55, and for 10k and 5k she didn’t run at a much faster pace than she did for a half.
Rebecca was bio-mechanically very balanced, so we were able to pass through Phase 1 quite quickly and get on to the heavy lifting. So what type of lifting do you do you do and why?
Our goal was to eventually increase the maximum amount of power her body could produce with one step, as well as improving her top end running speed, as studies have shown that through this type of training you convert fast twitch muscle fibres, so they become available to use during high intensity cardiovascular efforts, providing you do the right kind of cardiovascular training to accommodate the switch. Before you can produce power (moving objects quickly) you must develop maximal strength (lifting heavier objects more slowly), and before developing the relevant type of strength to produce power you must have completed Phase 1 of training as I discussed earlier, so your body is able to withstand the strain of heavy lifting.
So back to the initial question of which exercises to do to develop maximal strength and power?
First you must do the exercises I discussed in Phase 1 and be ready to train under heavy loads, and then you must develop maximal strength with a goal of developing maximal power. To develop maximal strength you need to do only a handful of lifts in a rep range of 2-6 with 3-5 mins rest.
-Back squat, Deadlift, wide grip Pull ups and Step ups and optionally a double or single Leg press. And personally I would include a Split Squat at a slightly higher rep range of 8-12, as split squats encourage a good balance of strength as well as good flexibility.
You don’t have to include Pull Ups but they are a good way of developing the strength you will need in your upper body to eventually do a Snatch lift, and this is a very good way of developing power in your upper body and posterior chain without putting on too much size up top.
As you transition to the lifts you need to do to develop power, it’s worth remembering that to develop power you have to do the lift quickly. This will mean keeping the reps very slightly higher and at a lower percentage of 1 rep max. Around 60-70% depending on the lift, and between 2 and 6 reps also depending on the lift. The movements must be explosive in order to train your muscles, tendons and neuromuscular system to deliver power.
-Training for muscular power in the gym is the only direct way to improve your power on the bike and improve your output on the run, all other strength training improves your efficiency and your resistance to injury.
-By training for Power in the gym you are training muscle fibres, that with the correct cardiovascular sessions can deliver a percentage of that power during a Triathlon.
So, to Train for Power which exercises and why?
So taking you back to Rebecca who was training for a multi stage Ultra Marathon, and this is a girl only who weighs 53kg, but ended up doing:
-Back weighted Jump Squats, Snatch, Plyometric weighted Lunges and explosive Step ups.
-And for the same body fat percentage she was only 1kg heavier come race day.
Im using Rebecca as an example, because a multi stage Ultra Marathon has far less need for this kind of Strength/Power training than a Triathlon, but as her strength improved her running took massive strides forward. Her cadence remained the same but each stride took her further, and on top of that she also had all the benefits you get from Phase 1 training, more efficiency and more injury resistance. If you get 1/4 of a Cm more clearance from each step, over the course of an endurance event those 1/4 Cm will add up! After dropping out the previous year she went on to win the overall female Tittle in 2013. This obviously wasn’t only down to the type of strength training we did, and how you marry the strength training to your overall programme requires good planning, but having seen it with a large number of people as well as in my own performance, and with all the data and science being conclusive, it’s worth investing the time to learn the lifts and to find a way to marry it to the rest of your programme.
So, the key points.
-Generally speaking, unless you are doing the lifts I discussed in a rep range of 2-6 with 3-5 mins rest you are not improving your maximal strength.
-Generally speaking, unless you are doing explosive exercises in a rep range of 2-6, with 3-5 mins rest you are not directly improving your power output in a Triathlon.
-All other strength training will improve your efficiency and injury resistance. This could therefore improve your power or output indirectly.
-Progressing from one phase to another takes time and cannot be rushed. I would recommend a minimum of at least 2 months working on Phase 1 and a further 2 months minimum working on max strength, before you start training for power.
-When your final blocks of Cardiovascular training start, you can maintain the weight and reps you are doing in your Power lifting. You don’t need to keep building the weight up, and the emphasis should shift towards getting the most out of your Cardio sessions, and as the fatigue rises from your other sessions lifting the same weight will become more of a challenge. But by this point you will have already gained a lot and it will feed nicely in to those key Cardio sessions.
-This type of training will have an influence on the rest of your training. You will have different types of fatigue and you will have increased tightness in some areas. Learning a good stretch routine for your Neck and upper back, as well as your Glutes and lower back is important.
-I will write a piece on stretching for Triathlon as well as how and when to incorporate it.
-Some Strength/Power sessions to
Cardio session combinations I would avoid if possible are:
*Swimming moderate to hard the day after a set of heavy pull ups.
*Maximal or Threshold bike intervals the day of or the day after a maximal strength/ power session. This one can feel truly horrible if you have target watts. You won’t reach them and it will hurt a lot more!!
-Possible combinations but not recommended.
* A long ride the day after a maximal strength/power session. You can get away with this one and there is a lot to be gained from it, but from my experience your Neck and possibly Lower Back will not be happy.
*A maximal strength session the day after a long run. If you know how and what to stretch correctly this is possible, but you will lose a percentage of your lift, and you will be taking a slight risk if your stretching has not been very focused.
-Good options that will benefit the Cardiovascular session.
*Maximal strength/Power in the morning, or directly before a long possibly hilly run. Tiring but effective!
*Maximal Strength/Power before a Strength/overgeared bike session.
*Maximal Strength/Power before a drills/skills based swim.
However you marry your strength programme to the rest of your programme, there will be a period where you carry DOMS in to some sessions and it won’t feel nice. Your times/watts may drop and you may feel like you’re going backwards. But this period does pass, and by the time you have reached the block of Power focused training, the DOMS will be much better, and in my opinion the nature of Power focused lifting means you carry less fatigue in to other sessions anyway.
The goal is to start the Power focused block a month or two before you hope to sharpen up for your first A race. So this year the Power phase started for me in early Feb for IM Lanzarote in mid May. Other than how you fit your strength in, the other important factor is that to transfer it across to the 3 disciplines you must do the right kind of Cardiovascular sessions.
From what I have experienced, heard and read the research on whether of not you improve your power in the water is inconclusive and leaning towards no. And my swimming is no shining light of why you should do strength training, but in my defence my first proper lessons were this year, and I only got in a pool a few years ago. But you will kick better off the wall and you will have a better shape in the water. The benefits for swimming are the same as what you would gain from Phase 1.
To transfer the power from the gym to the bike you need to be doing short maximal intervals. From training maximal strength and power the research shows that muscle fibres can actively change to become more aerobic!
-A studied group who combined both resistance and aerobic training, were compared to a group who only trained aerobically.
-The group who combined resistance and aerobic training completed an almost total transformation of Type 2x to Type 2a fibres within their Thigh musculature.
Now this is all very confusing but to put it simply, Type 1 fibres are slow twitch and Type 2 fibres are fast twitch. There are a few type 2 fibres, but to put it simply type 2a fibres are more useful for Triathlon and Type 2x are more useful for lifting weights. Type 2a (the ones that you gained as the 2x decided to switch over through maximal strength and power training and become 2a) are still fast twitch but they are more fatigue resistant and more suited to Cardiovascular training, and with the right kind of bike sessions these new members of your team can gain you a few extra watts.
-Like I said these sessions must be anaerobic bordering on aerobic. So roughly anything up to a minute but the rest has to as long or ideally longer than the interval, and when you go you need to go like dinners ready. Absolutely full gas! In my experience anything up to 10 reps and no less than 5. These sessions then have to be phased in to longer intervals with less rest for you to eventually feel the benefit over longer distances, but that’s another article for another day.
Now your newly recruited, fast twitch best friends can get to work on the run as well, and the principle is pretty similar to the bike. But running flat out for 30sec to a minute and then walking for 1-3 minutes can feel like a waste of time. So in my opinion the best bang for your buck lies in hill reps of the same duration. If the hill is too steep then your movement patterns will change, so anything up to around 4% works well but as long as you can keep form then you’re on a good hill. 4-8 reps has worked well for me as after that you start to lose a lot of power, but as long as you feel you’re bounding and keeping form do what feels right. The Treadmill is an ideal home for these if your local climbs are a bit full on.
-Rest must mean full recovery . Not stopping completely but a slow jog or easy spin so you’re recovered but not switched off. With enough ease in the recovery you will be able to keep accessing your type 2a friends and then pop a blood vessel on the next rep.
I will finish by saying that wherever your strength training is now, and if you feel what you’re doing is manageable and it fits nicely in to your life there are still two exercises you can do, one for Phase 1 and one for Phase 2, that will not shift the balance in your training too much and will improve your performance.
*Split Squat with a lift or twist.
-1.30-2 mins rest between sides.
-2-4 sets on each side.
-Focus on full range of motion and you must have correct posture.
*Back Squat for maximal strength.
-3-5 mins rest.
-Full depth means your Glutes are firing, so aim to get to full depth providing you don’t compromise your posture.
*Jumping Back Squat.
-Around 60% of 1 rep max.
-3-5 mins rest.
-Must be fast and explosive through the jump phase and soft on landing.
I hope this has been a help to you in some way. I am going to put out another Blog soon regarding stretching for Triathlon, and it will include a sequence of stretches that will tick multiple boxes and hopefully save you time. But if you decide Strength training is for you, build it up slowly and carefully. With all the strain of 3 disciplines taking their toll, adding another very heavy strain to the mix needs to be treated with respect. Give it time to bed in, and get a good feel for how it effects you and the rest of your training before you start to test your limits.