Give Me Strength

Use your head - smart strength training will make you a better triathlete


Posted: 18 November 2009

You've probably made a New Year's resolution to improve your training and set a personal best this year. But you might be wondering what exactly it is you have to do to achieve that elusive best time. Sure, you can increase your training, spend more hours on the turbo trainer, continue to swim endless lengths of the pool and pound the streets for hours. That's training harder; you could be forgetting to train smarter. You could be forgetting the importance of strength.

How strength training helps

For most triathletes the potential benefits of strength training are outweighed by the fear of gaining too much bulk, losing flexibility and having a diminished 'feel' for their sport. Let's get one thing clear: strength training for triathlon is not about developing a beach body or turning you into a muscle-bound hulk. I promise you that getting down to the gym to strength train two or three times a week will
make you stronger in all three disciplines. I've worked with enough athletes to know that a good strength-training programme will not only make you stronger and faster but will also help you to remain injury-free.

Here are the top five training benefits that can be yours in exchange for just two or three short strength-training sessions each week:

1. Increased power output on the bike - with every revolution you will be able to put down more power, which will translate to higher speeds on the Tarmac.

2. Power up those hills - there's no such thing as a fast flat course. The sight of Fraser Cartmell destroying Stephen Bayliss on the final hill of last year's Ironman 70.3 event showed how a race can be won or lost on the hills.

3. Increased swim-stroke strength - grab hold of the water and pull yourself through - watch how your stroke count drops. 

4. Improved endurance - we
don't all have lungs like dustbin liners and hearts to match, so there will be genetic limitations to how much you can improve your aerobic capacity. Strength training will improve your muscle strength and endurance, helping you become more efficient, which means you will be able to work at a higher percentage of your aerobic capacity for longer.

5. Banish aches and pains - strength training will improve your gross athleticism, making you a more robust athlete. This will allow you to withstand the training demands placed on your body and help you steer clear of injuries.

Make the right moves

Stop sitting on machines or wobbling around on stability balls - get functional. For me, functional training is not about circus tricks; it means using the most appropriate methods to enhance performance. The key to success is selecting exercises that will maximise the transfer of training effect; that is, ensure what you do in the gym impacts directly on performance. 

Here are three simple moves that will boost your performance in each discipline. Don't worry if you can't get to the gym - all of these exercises can be done indoors with minimal equipment.                       


Squat

If you can't body-weight squat, you can't squat. End of story. Leg-press machines, Smith machines (any machine, really) are no match for the single-leg squat for developing one of the most important qualities in performance training, single-leg strength. The single-leg squat is something of an endangered species in many gyms and health clubs. Not because it doesn't work, but because it's tough. 

The exercises described here can be categorised as knee-dominant exercises that target quadriceps (knee extension), hamstrings (hip extension) and gluteals (hip extension). If you want to run and cycle faster, spend some time mastering this training technique. Recent research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has shown that knee-dominant exercises "improved running economy and increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed, without changes in maximal oxygen uptake or body weight". 

A) Stand on a step or box with your right foot close to the outer edge, and let your left leg hang down.

B) Pushing your hips back, bending your right knee and reaching your arms out in front (for extra balance hold onto a 2-5kg weight to act as a counterbalance), lower your left leg until it almost touches the floor.Keep a flat back position and the heel of your support leg in contact with the box or step.

Return to the starting position.

Repeat the move five-eight times and do two or three sets.

Alternative

With the leg hanging down you limit your movement, which lets you perfect your technique. Once you can perform multiple sets and reps, take your hanging leg out in front of you (extended at about 45 degrees). This will allow for a deeper squat. If you find those too easy, try a pistol squat. Essentially the same setup as above but this time you stand on the floor before dropping down into a full squat.


Single-leg stiff-leg deadlift

Hip-dominant exercises are neglected in many triathlon training programmes, which is a bit daft when you consider their role in running. A study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine indicates that eccentric loading of the hamstrings improves function and decreases injury rate, suggesting that the addition of specific strength training for the hamstrings can
be beneficial.

Traditionally, triathletes trying to strengthen their hamstrings have sat down on a leg-curl machine and set about training the hamstrings as knee flexors, which is non-functional - hamstrings actually act as powerful hip extensors and stabilisers of the knee during running. So if you want to be strong and stable, make sure you include these exercises, which eccentrically load your hamstrings, in your weekly schedule. This exercise develops the entire posterior chain (gluteals and hamstrings) and you get the added benefit of working on your control and stability at the same time. 

A) Feet should be about hip-width apart, with knees slightly bent. Stand on your right foot and hold a dumbbell in your left hand. Keep a good back position (normal curvature), shoulders back, chest up.

B) Lean forward at the hips while lifting the left leg to the rear in
line with the torso. You should feel the weight shift from the front of your foot towards the back as you lower yourself.

Try to get the dumbbell on the ground outside the opposite foot.

Repeat the move five-eight times and do two or three sets.

The important thing to remember with this exercise is to bend at the hips and push your backside back while maintaining a good back position. If you have to flex your spine to get extra range of movement, stop; only work within a range where you can maintain a flat back. The added bonus of this exercise is that you are getting a great hamstring stretch at the same time.

Alternative

Once you master this exercise, try the two-footed version. Keep your back straight and chest up, your knees slightly bent and both feet on the floor. Lean forward as before. Perform this progression with a barbell or dumbbells, which will allow you to load up.


Chin-ups

I'm sure, as a triathlete, you will have experienced some sort of back and shoulder problem because of long efforts on the bike or as a result of your swim training. In fact, research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport shows that the back and shoulders are common sites of injury, with levels as high as 72 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, of all injuries reported in Ironman triathletes. 

As is usually the case with these things, prevention is much better than cure, and much smarter, too.The chin-up is a great exercise for working shoulder extension and elbow flexion, and will go a long way to developing a strong and stable shoulder joint, while minimising the compressive forces placed on the shoulder joint by exercises such as the shoulder press. 

You are going to reap lots of benefits from this exercise and can look forward to developing strength through your latissimi dorsi, rear deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids and biceps, all of which will transfer to your performance in the water. They can be quite a challenge at first, but they're well worth the effort.

A) Take hold of a fixed bar with a supinated grip (palms facing your body), with your hands slightly narrower than shoulder width.

B) From a fully hanging position (arms fully extended) drive your elbows down and back to raise your body up until your chin is above the bar.

Slowly lower your body back down to the start position.

Repeat the move six times and do two or three sets.

If you are struggling with performing even one chin-up, try these variations.

Alternative

BAND CHIN-UPS

Loop a large rubber band around the chin-up bar and pull it through the other end of the bar, and then pull it tight.

Place your knees in the loop
of the band and perform your chin-ups (the band will give you some assistance in pulling your body up).

If you belong to a gym you could also use one of the assisted chin-up machines as an alternative.

NEGATIVE CHIN-UPS

These will develop your eccentric strength (which gives huge gains in overall strength). Using either a bench or a training partner, boost yourself up to the top of
the chin-up position, then lower yourself as slowly as possible. Start with two reps, aiming for a 30-second lower. 


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