Functional Strength Training for the Modern Triathlete: Part 2

author : Andy Sloan
comments : 2

This article looks into the types of exercises triathletes need to be utilizing, and why traditional methods are of little use.

So you’ve now had an insight into the benefits of appropriate and functional strength training for the endurance athlete, and now it’s time to give you an idea on exactly what it is that should/needs to be trained in order to maximize specific functional strength and power output for your sport.

It’s first necessary to take a quick look at what is written in training books for the endurance athlete. I’m sitting here with my 4 favorite ones, and just recapping on exactly what they recommend in terms of exercises and programming. Now, before I say anything at all, it’s important to mention that I am by no means slating any of these authors, as they are all experts in their chosen fields, have given and continue to give huge amounts of fantastic information to the sport and I respect them all very much for their contribution to the endurance sports world, and my own personal knowledge also. That said, here are my thoughts:

What is prevalent in all these books is single joint isolation exercises, fixed path machines, bilateral (2 legged) exercises, a few stability ball and resistance band exercises.

What largely isn’t present is multi-planar movement (the body works in three planes of motion; side to side, forward/backward, rotating), uni-lateral (single legged) exercises, any emphasis on exercises that work on your opposite shoulder to hip relationship through integrated core training, or any real bodyweight training.

The above are a few of the very basic things that MUST be in your strength program to achieve the performance results you are after, yet for some reason are neglected in just about every book out there that covers strength training for the endurance athlete. Here’s why they’re so key:

Multi-planar movement

As stated, the body works in three planes of motion. The frontal plane, which works side to side, the saggital plane, which works forwards and backwards, and the transverse plane, that works rotation. These planes are all prevalent in endurance sports and so must be trained. Running was initially thought of as a purely saggital movement (you’re moving forwards). However, all 3 planes of motion are present. To pinpoint a couple, in addition to the obvious saggital movement, there is the frontal plane movement of the weight shifting from one side to the other, and the transverse movement through the torso as your shoulder and opposite hip link up. Even in cycling there is an element of transverse and frontal plane motion, for instance as you turn corners, and shift your weight side to side to climb a hill respectively.

Single legged movement

This is an easy one. One of the biggest endurance sports out there is running. How often in a run are both feet firmly planted on the floor? So why should you train for running, with two feet on the floor, or even worse, with your legs strapped into a leg curl or extension machine? It makes no sense. In order to improve running strength, economy and power output, you need to be strong and stable on a single leg. You get a lot of ground reaction forces with running, and it’s important to ensure that your ankle, knee and hip joints are all working efficiently and well enough to cope with the demands without injury. Any exercise you can do on two legs or sat down, you can do on one (or an equivalent exercise at least). These are a few very basic and general exercises that this can be applied to: If you’re doing seated bicep curls, get up on one leg and do them. If you’re squatting, do them on one leg. If you’re doing bench press, get up and do it on 1 leg using a band or cable. Now I’m not saying that every exercise needs to be on one leg, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t be. However, it IS important to have an ELEMENT of single legged work in your program. Exercises like single leg reaches are great for improving running mechanics as well as working on hamstring and glute strength, and single legged, single arm band presses will give a great workout for your spinal rotators as well as providing shoulder stability work, and again, looking at that shoulder to hip relationship.

Integrated core training

Core training and core stability is something that has gotten a lot of emphasis over recent years, and rightly so. Ensuring you have a healthy, strong core is necessary to remain injury free and for top performance in sports. However, many people seem to think that core training is all about doing all your exercises standing on a BOSU or stability ball, laying in a plank position, throwing in a pile of sit-ups, and maybe a few hyperextensions on the mat. It’s so much more than this, and half the exercises I see people doing in the gym environment every day for ‘core stability’ are doing precious little of anything.

Without going into big detail, your core is pretty much all the muscles from your ribs to your knees, and is the thing that connects your upper to lower body. From the big externally visible muscles to the smaller hidden muscles, all your major muscles attach to the core in one way or another, either directly or indirectly. If the core is weak, then the link between upper and lower body is weak, so your power output will be weak, your movement patterns will be less than efficient, and you stand a bigger risk of injury.

Your core affects every big movement you make in endurance sports, from pulling your arm through the water, to spinning your pedals, to running in a straight line, and has big implications on, to name a few, stride length and frequency, pulling power, and out of the saddle hill climbing.

In terms of integrating core training, your body doesn’t work in isolation, it works in integration, so train that way. I have nothing against sit-ups, hyperextensions, or any other valid exercise, but it’s about using the right tool for the right job. How is banging a load of sit-ups going to help your running? And why would doing biceps curls on a BOSU ball help you run better?

Core training needs to focus on a few things such as strengthening the diagonal force production and transfer (exercises such as diagonal chops, single arm-single leg presses/pulls are great for this), opening up the hips to help counteract seated positions (posterior reaches, staggered stance reverse band flys, and ensuring your midsection is able to cope with what you ask it to. If the core is not strong enough, is not stable enough, and is not stiff enough when required, when you go to push it harder in the swim, hammer it up hill on the bike, or quickly slowing yourself down to turn a corner on a run, it’s like you’re shooting a cannon from a canoe. Integrate your core training by ensuring all your exercises require it to be working. Push-ups and recline rows rather than fixed machine chest presses and rows, squatting rather than leg pressing, cable chops instead of sit ups, the list goes on.

Bodyweight training

I won’t spend long on this at all, but for some reason, and I don’t know why, this is often massively neglected. It seems that most peoples perceptions of what is functional and beneficial, involves the use of some bit of kit. BOSU balls, stability balls, dumbbells, benches, barbells, power plates, body blades, balance boards and whatever else is out there. But what ever happened to bodyweight training? It seems as though it’s mostly been lost somewhere along the way. The importance of bodyweight training can be summed up in the answer to this question - What is it you carry around with you in every workout, every practice, every race, all day every day? Your body. So why would you not train your body, with just your body? In order to master your performance in a sport, surely you need to have total control of your body, how it moves, and how it performs. Functional strength training for the endurance athlete must start with bodyweight work, or at least the vast majority of it must be bodyweight based.

Importance of knowing your sport

One of the key aspects of training for functional strength is making it specific to the environment and demands of your sport, as well as the movements and forces that are present within that sport.

Take swimming for example. This of course takes place in water, and so ground reaction forces, gravity and momentum don’t play a big part as they would in other disciplines such as running. We (usually) swim in a prone position, and so the force we generate comes not from the ground, but is largely generated by our core musculature. Every movement comes from the core, as each body part involved in swimming is anchored at the spine and hips, and so core stiffness and strength is a major factor in efficient and powerful swimming. With the swim, you must also realize the rotational forces transferred through the body, with every kick and every arm movement causing your body to rotate in the water. Stability within the shoulder and hip joints is also essential for the swimmer. If these joints are strong and stable, combined with a strong core, incorrect muscle firing and movement patterns will significantly decrease, leading to increased economy and power output and a decreased risk of injury.

I was recently speaking with a runner friend of mine who religiously completes a ‘run specific’ strength training routine that was given to him by a fellow runner, 2-3 times per week, though he doesn’t really feel any real benefits from the program. He’s kindly let me have a look at it, and I’ll share it with you now:

Bench press: 4 x 6-12
Machine leg press 3 x 10
Machine hamstring curls 3 x 10
Lat pull down 3 x 10-15
Dumbbell ‘arm running’ 3 x 30 seconds
Biceps curls 4 x 6-12
Tricep dips 3 x 6-12
Twisting sit-ups 3 x 20

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this isn’t in any way run specific at all. As with most peoples training programs, it follows more of a traditional, ‘bodybuilding’ type workout, and it’s easy to see why he hasn’t been getting the gains he hoped for. After all, what has heavy bench press or curls got to do with running? What I did for the guy is completely revamp his workout into a much more run specific session. I’ll explain the exercise selection a little as we go:

Bench press --> swapped for push ups: The push up is a fantastic full body exercise, and not only does it hit the pecs, triceps and shoulders, but also works on providing core strength during deceleration.

Leg press --> has been changed for a single leg squat: The single leg squat is much more run specific than a heavy leg press. By using this exercise, he is now getting a great workout for not only his quads, glutes and hamstrings, but also for the strength, stability and integrity of the knee, hip and ankle joints, while also causing a much more specific core workout at the same time, as the body stabilizes itself on the single leg.

Machine hamstring curls --> swapped for stability ball hip lifts: The position I’ve got him using during the hip lift simulates the point at which the leg is pulling back against the ground to propel the runner forward, and is giving the hamstrings and glutes the specific strength they require to do this effectively, powerfully, and efficiently.

Lat pull down --> swapped for a recline row: The recline row allows him to target his lats, biceps and rear deltoids, while also helping to open up the hips in order to counteract poor postures, as well as being able play around with various leg and foot positions to increase/alter the core demands of the exercise.

Dumbbell arm running --> replaced with band resisted single leg step ups: Driving your arms forward and backward with some light dumbbells does nothing to improve your endurance running! The exercise I replaced this with provides a beast of a workout through the entire leg, which also providing single leg stability training and some good core work too, while also allowing the runner to work on arm mechanics for running.

Bicep curls --> replaced with dumbbell single leg reach-curl-press: Hitting the beach weights won’t help any endurance runner to get faster or better. SO what I’ve done here is incorporate the curl into a run specific exercise that targets the ankle, knee and hip joints and their surrounding muscles, while also hitting the shoulder-hip relationship, but still allowing him to bang out some curls!

Tricep dips --> has been replaced with a slit stance overhead band triceps extension: The position we adopt here actually stretches the hip flexors and opens up the hips, while also providing some great deceleration training through the core, as well as enabling him to hit some triceps at the same time.

Twisting sit ups --> were replace with a high to low cable chop: The chop is a great way to work on the shoulder-hip relationship, and also provides a great workout for the spinal rotators and stabilizers, much more so than any sit up can ever do.

So that’s what we did with his workout. In the eight weeks it’s been since I changed his program, he has put a poor start to the season behind him and has smashed his previous personal best’s in both 5k and 10k races. Is it all to do with the strength training? No. Did it have a good effect? Clearly.

I hope that this article has given you some food for thought, and will cause you to think seriously about integrating an appropriate strength training program into your regime. You WILL feel and see the differences, in the way you look, feel, and most importantly, in your race times.

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


Click on star to vote
32574 Total Views  |  51 Views last 30 days  |  5 Views last 7 days
date: May 22, 2012

Andy Sloan