Functional Strength Training for the Modern Triathlete: Part 1

author : Andy Sloan
comments : 5

An insight into how to train strength and condition for triathlon and endurance sports success

Endurance athletes typically have a few things in common.
First, they love what they do, and knowing the fact that 99.9% of the population couldn’t imagine doing the sorts of races they do, whether its a Channel Swim, Ironman triathlon, mountain marathon, century ride or ultra distance run. Having the determination and dedication to complete and compete in these events is true testament to the human will, and something that only a small minority of people are capable of. The endurance athlete loves to push him/herself to the limit, overcoming barriers in training, and breaking down every wall that stands in their way on race day.
Second, they also love to train. Endurance athletes are quite happy to slog out 10, 20, 30 hours per week at their chosen sport, and make the sacrifice that is necessary to achieve their goal, whether it’s simply completing the course, or a top 5 finish. The training mindset of the endurance athlete is one that is strong, whatever the weather, against the odds, and willing to go the extra mile.
However, like everyone, endurance athletes have flaws. The biggest that I can determine is that they (not everyone, but the vast majority) neglect strength training, or at least don’t perform the correct type of exercises in the gym. It is this similarity that is the focus of this article.
Ask any endurance athlete out there why they aren’t performing strength and conditioning as an integral part of their plan, and I can guarantee that one or all of the following 3 points will come up:

Strength training will make me heavy, slow and inflexible...

First off is the thought that performing strength training will make them heavier, sluggish and inflexible, and so strength training should be excluded from their training plan. There are a couple of things to address with this misconception. First, it is the nature of the training that the athlete is associating with strength and conditioning. Often when people think of strength training, they think of traditional bodybuilding training, which is largely dysfunctional to the endurance athlete (although still seems to be advocated in a number of endurance sports training books). However, with a functional training program that has been designed in order to specifically enhance performance, you’re not going to get huge muscle mass gains, you won’t get any slower and you won’t get less flexible. In fact, you’ll actually become faster due to increases in strength, power, economy and movement patterns, you’ll get more flexible due to the integrated nature of the training, and as for getting bigger and slower? Nope. Regarding this, the first thing to mention is that the strength gains you’ll be getting are largely going to be down to improved neuromuscular performance, without a big increase in muscle size. Secondly, in general, endurance athletes are largely ectomorphs, who find it extremely hard to gain any significant muscle size. Those two things aside, the strength and power improvements you’ll gain will totally outweigh any added weight as you’ll be stronger, more powerful and more efficient at your event(s), thus making you a superior athlete and improving your performance greatly.

I don’t have the time to train strength...

The second point is one of time. The endurance athlete spends so much time each week actually out on the road, in the pool or on the trail, that they believe there is no time left to perform strength training. To be fair, in their current regime, they’re probably right. But they shouldn’t be. There is time, and plenty of it. More so, it is a case of not being willing to ‘sacrifice’ a little swim, bike or run time in favor of 45 minutes strength training 2-3 times per week. The philosophy of the vast majority of endurance athletes is that in order to get better at swimming, cycling and running (or whatever your sport entails) the only and best way is to do more swimming, cycling and running.
This is largely where overuse and overtraining injuries set in; that niggling hamstring injury that forces you to take a few days off every couple of weeks, that knee pain you get after mile 13 in your long run, the lower back ache when staying in the aero position on the bike for more than 5 minutes or when running up hill; the list goes on. In order to get better at your discipline, it’s NOT necessary to do it for longer, you just need to do it better. There’s no point rowing the boat harder if it’s pointing in the wrong direction. 

Strength and power training won’t help me as an endurance athlete...

My third point is the single greatest myth when it comes to training for the endurance athlete, and that is the fact that the endurance athlete feels that strength and power work will not improve performance in their endurance based event.
During my recent mentorship at the Institute of Human Performance in Florida, Juan Carlos Santana explained this beautifully. Basically, believe it or not, endurance sports are ALL about POWER. The equation for power is work/time, So if an athlete runs a 3h30m marathon one year, then runs the same race the next year in 3h flat, she has become more powerful, as she has performed the same amount of work, in less time. The more functional power you have, the greater your stride length, swim stroke and cadence will be. Another equation for power is force x speed. If you’re stronger, you can generate more force, and as the equation states, power is dependent on strength and speed. So, you can see that it is absolutely necessary to develop functional power (it’s no good working on a 1 rep max power clean) as well as working on strength in addition to speed.
By incorporating an appropriate and functional strength program into your training, you will improve your economy, meaning that movements require less effort, and so performance improves and injury risk reduces. Just think, in a 2 ½ hour run each foot will hit the ground around 13,000 times. If it’s planting incorrectly, then that’s 13,000 incorrect foot strikes in a single run. How many more times does your foot need to land poorly before your knee hurts, adductor pulls or achilles inflames? Not only this, but with incorrect movement patterns, comes power wastage, and if the body is not generating power from where it’s meant to, it’s got to find it from somewhere else. If however you’ve been (and still are) performing the right types of conditioning exercises, then you’ll minimize this and increase your power output and thus improve performance.
An appropriate functional strength training program will give you the following key benefits:

  • Improved economy

  • Reduced risk of injury

  • Improved power output

  • Improved neurological performance

  • Improved lactate threshold

  • Increased flexibility

  • Increased functional strength

  • Increased stride length

From this article, you should now be thinking differently about the need for training strength for endurance sports success, and in part 2, I’ll be going into a little depth regarding just what a truly functional strength training program involves.

Andy Sloan BA (Hons), MMA-CSCC graduated from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff with a First Class BA (Hons) Degree in Leisure and Sports Management. He is heavily involved in sports and training, and as an athlete competes in triathlon and running events, from 10 mile road runs, to full Ironman distance triathlons, racking up some fantastic times along the way.  You can find him at


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date: April 27, 2012

Andy Sloan