Weight Training for Triathlon

Weight training for triathlon is a complicated subject. Some triathletes think it is unnecessary while others are in favour of hitting the gym, but may not know exactly what and how much to do in the weights room. Then there is strength training outside the gym – how much and how often? As I said, it’s complicated.

Strength is defined as power over time, a core component of racing at all distances. It is needed not only to hammer a 40K bike, but also to power through choppy water and prevent muscular breakdown at the end of an Ironman.

The key to building that strength lies not just in what you do in the weights room, but also in strength building swim, bike and run workouts.

Tailor it to tri

While I am personally in favour of weight training, taking the gains made in the gym to the pool and the road is critical. Simply hitting the weights room twice a week is not enough because it’s unlikely to offer the specific muscular training you need. Doing several sets of lunges creates a specific muscular pattern, one that is different to the pattern used in biking or running, so they will make you stronger but not perhaps in a way that improves your race time.

Resistance-style triathlon workouts build triathlon-specific strength while creating a sport-specific muscular firing pattern. By building these two elements together you gain speed through increased power, efficiency and muscular endurance, and reduce your chances of injury. Strength-building workouts are relatively simple to do and have a huge payoff.

Big Bike

Philip Graves, 2009 UK champion in  both Ironman and Ironman 70.3, uses big gear work to increase his bike power. His workouts aren’t complicated – he uses the longest hill he can find and pedals a big gear at a cadence as low as 40rpms, and he stays in the saddle. He also uses the turbo trainer to do one minute on, 30 seconds off, for a total of 20 repetitions.

At first you may want to start with 4x5 minutes at 55-60rpms, with a three-minute rest between intervals. This can be done either uphill or on a flat course, though it is typically easier when done on an incline. During these efforts, be careful not to let your heel drop too much, which can cause stress on the Achilles tendon. You should observe your heart rate during the workout, but it is not the main element. This is a muscular workout, not an aerobic one so you should feel fatigue in your legs, not your lungs.  

Staying seated will help with your hip and back stability as well as your leg strength while standing helps to build the quadriceps. A stable back and hips are needed to create a solid platform from which you can generate power. When standing to power the pedals you specifically work your quadriceps, the main leg muscle that powers you along during a time trial. Standing helps to build maximum power output and is a key to building pure power. As a rule, short-course athletes should do 20-25 per cent of their efforts standing, while long-course athletes should reduce that to 5-10 per cent.

As you become stronger you can add time to your interval and drop the cadence to 50-60rpms. Short-course athletes should focus on becoming more explosive, keeping their intervals to 10 minutes, while Ironman-focused athletes will want to extend their time turning over a big gear to 20 minutes or more. Each session should end with at least 10 minutes of easy pedalling at your normal cadence.

A side benefit to the slower pedalling cadence is that it can help you smooth out your stroke. By performing the motion slowly you can feel your foot pulling through the bottom and coming over the top. This allows you to be more conscious of how fluid your pedal stroke is at those two critical points. 

Fancy Foot Work

Increasing your run strength can be done simply by adding hill repeats and hilly runs to your schedule. Hill work gives you the ability to power over hills and will help you keep your form at the 35K mark of an Ironman. Ultramarathon star Dean Karnazes, who in 2006 ran 50 marathons in 50 days in the 50 US states, says the hilly runs near his home in San Fransicso helped develop his strength and stamina.

As with cycling, you need to build your efforts and make them specific for your type of racing. Intervals of 4x1 minute with two minutes’ rest work well to start and you can build from there. Short-course athletes should perform shorter bouts of hills, up to 8x3 minutes, while Ironman hopefuls should work up to using a hilly course for their long run.

A key with running is to keep your cadence high, 180 foot strikes per minute, to create a fast firing pattern and make sure your form stays strong. The treadmill has a tendency to slow down a runner’s cadence, which is hard to overcome once you begin running outside. With running it is better to do the hill workout outside if possible.

Water Work

In the pool you need to grab the pull buoy and paddles to do resistance training. Using paddles means you will be forced to move more water, thus creating resistance. By using a buoy, you take away any propulsion from the legs. Strength in the water is a key to effective open-water swimming. Unlike in a pool, the open water presents various challenges, such as waves, wind and other swimmers. Open-water swimming is therefore more about strength than pretty form. Some of the best swimmers in the sport have less-than-perfect form but thanks to their specific strength they are able to power through the water.

Long sets, 1,000 metres or more, are best to build swim power. A favorite set of mine is to do two to three rounds of 500m at race pace with the pull buoy, followed with 5x100m at race pace with 10 seconds’ rest in between each. Adding paddles to this set helps you build power and it also forces you to swim at race pace when tired. Again, a specific muscle-firing pattern is created so it translates directly into what will be needed on race day.

Make it work

These types of swim, bike and run workouts are most effective when done immediately after weight training. This is because the muscles are already fatigued and now have to perform the specific task of swimming, biking or running. Doing the strength workouts the same day will also work if you cannot do them back-to-back.

Plyometrics

In addition to doing weights and triathlon- specific workouts, plyometrics will build the power that will make you a better triathlete Plyometrics are explosive movements, such as jumping as high as you can for 10 repetitions or hopping onto a six-inch box with one leg. Again, the concept is to create a muscular firing pattern that is specific to triathlon.

Plyometrics help build explosive power while forcing you to use your stabilising muscles. An example is to perform a squat with heavy weights, then jump 10 times as high as you can, using both feet. Rest
for two minutes and do it again. Not only will you be working your legs in an explosive manner, you will also be engaging your core, hips and back to create stability as you land and jump back up.