Triathlon = Strength?

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Is strength training critical for a triathlete? How can strength training help an athlete improve performance? What are the downsides?

"Strength training improves your structural integrity and enables you to handle higher volumes of training with less risk of being sidelined with injuries.”
- Mark Allen

What is the role of strength training for triathletes? While most everyone agrees the ideal elite triathlete should incorporate the ideal strength workouts into his or her training program, the jury is out on how best for age group triathletes to incorporate strength exercises, if at all. Many age groupers are pushing the boundaries of their schedules just to fit in the minimum number of swim, bike and run workouts.

Some have learned of muscle imbalances and weaknesses the hard way—they are incorporating strength exercises on the advice of a physical therapist after an injury. In fact, 18 percent of poll respondents at said they strength train to prevent injury, to stabilize muscles and joints, or on the advice of a doctor.

Some equate strength training with bodybuilding or powerlifting—which in men can build the kind of mass that is nice to look at, but requires more work to move around on the bike and run.

Jorge Martinez' Top Three Strength Exercises:

Squats with Elastic Band: Place an elastic band around your knees to create tension, and then do squats. The tension activates weak muscles. This exercise can also be done with a medicine ball between your back and the wall. Repeat as many times as you can. Triathlete focus: This exercise helps your brain activate weaker muscles during cycling and running.

Plank: Hold the plank position as long as possible, focusing on keeping your pelvis in line with your spine and legs. Triathlete focus: Helps you to be mindful of a strong pelvic position while running, despite the pelvic position being weakened on the bike due to cycling posture.

Single leg balance: Perform a half-squat or half-lunge on one leg by bending one leg next to you and squatting with the other leg to a maximum of 90 degrees. Most people can't get there. Triathlete focus: This is a motion that is repeated during running, but the exercise allows the triathlete to focus (in a controlled setting) on the part of the stride where the stabilizer muscles are taxed.

For women, strength training (even with heavy weights) has fewer drawbacks, but women are less likely to do it, often because they didn’t learn to feel comfortable in the weight room as teens or have misguided worries about “bulking up.” Building big muscles is nearly impossible for most women—especially those engaged in endurance sports.

These misconceptions that keep women from the weight room are unfortunate because women have more to gain from strength training. They are prone to weak bones as they age, and strength training is one way to ward off osteoporosis.

Modern triathlon coaches value strength training, but they are often working with professional athletes who have time to add strength, if it is carefully worked into the training schedule so as not to fatigue muscles needed for a key workout in another sport.

Mark Allen, professional triathlon coach and six-time Ironman World Champion, values strength training for its role in speed, power output and injury prevention.

“If you gain strength and then hone that strength through your swim, bike and run workouts you will perform better. This is especially true if you are over about your mid-30s,” says Allen.  “Strength training improves your structural integrity and enables you to handle higher volumes of training with less risk of being sidelined with injuries.”

Amateur triathletes have differing experiences with strength training. Some use it to combat injury or aging. Others avoid it to squeeze in enough swim, bike and run workouts. For other amateurs, triathlon success is not the goal, but a means to a healthy lifestyle and/or fabulous body—and strength training plays a big role in that lifestyle or body shape.

Age group triathlete Elaine Kratz of Tucson, Ariz., sums it up well.

“I believe that time spent strength training instead of swimming, biking and running is not great. However, time spent doing strength training in addition to swimming, biking and running is excellent,” she says.

“I believe that it is a supplement, not a replacement, to triathlon training, unless you are injured or injury-prone,” says Kratz (Bt user ratherbeswimming).

“Every minute I spend doing strength training on my knee to keep IT band problems at bay is well spent. I’d sacrifice 10 minutes of running for 10 minutes of strength training in that case.”

Functional Strength for Triathlon

Many coaches recommend “functional strength” over the kind of weightlifting one would see in the free weight room, where barbells and lead plates are lifted in strict planes of motion to isolate individual muscles.

But not everyone means the same thing by “functional strength.”

Some mean that if you are trying to become a stronger cyclist, you should focus on cycling-specific strength exercises, such as hill work on the bike, speed work on the bike, and resistance exercises that work your muscles in the same motions you make when you are pedaling your bike.

Others mean building the kind of strength that keeps you functioning even though you are using your muscles repetitively in the same plane, which can lead to weaknesses in the other muscles. When the muscles that move you side-to-side are weak in comparison to your “triathlon muscles,” that can cause joint problems. Your “triathlon muscles” will yank on your knees if your non-triathlon muscles aren’t strong enough to yank back in the other direction.

Triathlete and chiropractor Kathy Coutinho of Positively Chiropractic provides another example: Those huge muscles in your back and shoulders that you use to swim? They are balanced out (or “opposed” as one would say in anatomy class) by tiny little muscles on the front side of your shoulder.

Kathy Coutinho’s Top Three Strength Exercises

External rotation: Lie on your right side with your left arm bent at 90 degrees, holding a very light weight. Your elbow is fixed to your ribs. Slowly externally rotate your arm so you are contracting the small muscles that  oppose the lats and pecs. Repeat on opposite side. Triathlete focus: Running, biking and swimming roll your shoulders forward. External rotation brings your shoulders back.

Plank Challenge:
Begin in a traditional plank position, and shift your weight to your right arm and right leg. Stretch your left arm straight up ahead of you. Then attempt to lift your left leg up. At first you may be only able to keep your leg up for a second. Shoot for a minute on one side and a minute for the other and one minute traditional plank while alternating your legs up behind you for count of 10 then switching. Don’t let your hips sag! Triathlete focus: These muscles are sagging after the bike and need to be tight for the run.

Wall squats: Place your back against the wall. Your head should touch the wall. Put your hands at your sides, touching the wall. Knees shoulder width apart. Toes up. Feet just ahead of knees. Shoulders relaxed.

Try to hold for three minutes, but start with 30 seconds. Triathlete focus: The stabilizer muscles in your knees must be strong to avoid injury while running.


Still other coaches define functional strength as the strength you use to function as a human being in everyday life, whether that is picking up your kids, carrying things around or doing manual labor. Ironically, most of the people who can afford to pursue triathlon as a hobby or sport can do so because they have good jobs. In today’s world that usually means they sit in a chair for eight or ten hours a day.

Dr. Phil Maffetone, famed for his pioneering work with heart rate training, still coaches triathletes, but spends much of his time growing his own food and keeping his working farm in order.

He advocates the kind of “exercise” that has helped humans thrive since the dawn of man: building rock walls, splitting wood, working the soil, etc. This kind of work—which most of us avoid thanks to work safety warnings to “lift with your legs and not your back”—builds a strong core and works multiple muscles at the same time in many planes of movement.

Remember earlier last century when men were prized for having a “strong back” and being able to lift things? We didn’t have so many people walking around with back injuries, because using our back muscles wasn’t a once-a-month or once-a-year activity that exposed us to injury.

Still, most of us don’t have farms to work, and if we have a garden, we hardly have enough time to keep it watered.

This article will provide some simple exercises that can strengthen your body so triathlons are not such a strain. Most can be done wherever you are, and without much equipment.

Does stronger equal faster?

It seems to depend on your starting point, as well as your weight. Many larger triathletes are naturally stronger and more muscular, which can translate to more power. For them, building endurance and decreasing body mass is a more strategic use of time.

For smaller, leaner triathletes, there comes a point when all the endurance in the world can’t increase your run pace or cycling speed.

For example, my husband is a big guy who has completed four Ironman races. He can outsprint me any day of the week at any sport. I am a petite and do not bring a big base of muscle power to the table. For one thing, my legs don’t really work that hard moving me around in everyday activities because I weigh only about 60 percent of what my husband weighs. As the distances of the races become longer, I can usually outlast many other racers. But if I can’t ever get my bike speed up to 19 mph, I’m still at a disadvantage.

So in our case, my husband is better served by creating a training plan that helps him keep weight off and increase his endurance. I am better served by focusing on speed and power, so that my endurance advantage allows me to keep trucking along at a higher speed, instead of continuing to chug along at the same slow pace I have always managed.

And indeed, the seasons when I have incorporated plyometrics or speedwork, I’ve had better performance.

“The only way to get faster is to get stronger and more stable,” says triathlon coach Al Lyman, who is the co-owner of Pursuit Athletic Performance, a gait analysis lab located in Old Saybrook, CT.

Lyman says people saw Lance Armstrong spinning at a faster cadence than other cyclists and thought the cadence was the key, and if we could all spin faster, we would all be faster.

“But high-cadence spin doesn’t produce power. Instead it’s power that allows high cadence,” Lyman says. “Most sports come down to strength. It’s resisting fatigue, and fatigue occurs when you’re not strong.”

Lyman says even running—where top endurance runners appear to have almost no muscle mass in their legs—comes down to the amount of force pressed into the ground, and how the body translates that force into forward motion.

A mushy core that absorbs the force instead of propelling the body forward is part of that equation.
“You’ve got to make sure your body is ready to deal with those forces,” says Lyman.

New to triathlon or trying a new distance?

Dr. Jordan Metzl's Top Three Strength Exercises

Plyometric jump squats

With hands outstretched, feet spread and toes turned outward, squat down so your butt is below your knees. Jump up, land softly and return to the squat position several times. Video demonstration.

Triathlete focus: Weak butt muscles lead to poor running form.

Core Superset – Mountain Climbers and Legs Down

Set a timer for five minutes.

Do 15 mountain climbers (right leg and left leg counts as one). Then lie on your back with arms at your sides. With legs straight, pull your legs up over your head, aimed toward the ceiling, and keep pushing upward until your butt and hips are off the ground. Lower to starting position. Do 15 times. Continue rotating between Mountain Climbers and Legs Down until the five minutes expires. Video.

Triathlete focus: These exercises relate core strength and balance to leg extension, which is what happens when you run well.

Overhead Superset – Deadlift High Pulls, Overhead Presses and Curls

Set a timer for five minutes.

Using light dumbbells, bend forward into the deadlift position until the dumbbells are in front of your knees. Pull quickly upward while standing straight up and lift the dumbbells to your ears. Return to the starting position. Do 15 of these deadlift high pulls.

Then balance on your left leg and hold the dumbbells near your ears. Press dumbbells up to the ceiling until arms are straight. Return to start. Do 15 of these Overhead Presses.

Then balance on your right leg and do 15 bicep curls with the same light dumbbells. Video.

Triathlete focus: Overhead strength is key for swimming and for maintaining an aero position on the bike.

Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine doctor and nine-time Ironman finisher, says strength training is critical and indispensable for triathletes who are new to the sport or moving up to a new distance.

It may require an extra hour or two per week, but that’s nothing compared to the time spent recovering from an injury. And injuries are nearly inevitable for new athletes.

“The injury level in new triathletes and marathon runners is very high,” says Metzl. “Half to three-quarters of those injuries happen on the run.”

Metzl says he became an advocate for strength training as he began sending more and more of his sports medicine patients to physical therapy, where they used strength exercises to repair and prevent injuries.

“I’m convinced as a doctor and an athlete that strength training is beneficial.”

Metzl says studies have shown that the loading forces placed on joints are decreased in athletes with stronger muscles, and the amount of power they can generate is increased.

He says not having enough time to strength train is a myth, because you can make bigger gains doing a little strength than you can spending hours biking or running.

“I think people who are saying just get the training on the bike and run are just behind the times,” says Metzl. “Yes you can get stronger by being on the bike, but unless you have limitless time to spend on the bike, you can build some of that strength in a much shorter time doing plyometrics.”

Masters triathletes and older triathletes

Mark Allen says triathletes over the age of 35 benefit the most from strength training.

“One of the things that strength training does is to cause the release of human growth hormone. This hormone increases the speed of recovery and helps build new muscle,” says Allen.  “You can get HGH release also through speedwork. However, speedwork is high stress on the body, strength training is low stress. And in the Masters athlete, overall stress management is key to great performance.”

“As we age, stress generally builds up in the body making it tougher to load on even more training. So a young athlete may get faster from doing lots of fast training because they can handle that physiological stress. A Masters athlete will burn out with lots of speedwork, but they can still get fast via low stress strength training coupled with more aerobic training in their swim bike and run workouts—that means training at moderate heart rates rather than super high ones.”

BT member Mark Usher of Sarasota, Fla., says weight training helps him push back against the ticking clock of aging.

"I'm turning 59 this month and also view weight training as important for slowing down muscle mass loss as I age, an opinion that is shared by my primary care physician," says Usher (BT username Red Corvette).

"My primary incentive for triathlon training is fitness, but I also enjoy doing three to four triathlons per year.  From my personal perspective, weight training has a positive effect on my triathlon performance," says Usher. "It has certainly helped me deal with my chronic patella tendonitis and the Achilles injury I suffered in 2010."

Experts in this Article:
Mark Allen triathlete
Mark Allen

Kathy Coutinho Triathlon

Kathy Coutinho

Coach Al Lyman triathlon

Al Lyman

Dr. Phil Maffetone triathlon

Dr. Phil Maffetone

Jorge Martinez triathlon coach

Jorge Martinez

Dr. Jordan Metzl triathlon

Dr. Jordan Metzl

Why wait until you're injured?

Many triathletes discover the importance of strength exercises only after they've suffered an injury and undergo physical therapy.

Jorge Martinez, owner and head coach at E3 Training Solutions in Boston, Mass., advocates addressing those weaknesses before the injury occurs.

“Even very active people, we train 10 or 12 hours per week, but still it’s a small percentage of our daily activities,” says Martinez. "We spend the rest of the day sitting down."

"Over time, we develop imbalances. Once we start crossing that threshold to move to the next level, a great majority of athletes end up experiencing injury--not because they are building up too fast, but because of imbalances.

Imbalances in the hip flexors, core and glutes lead to a variety of aches and injuries, such as IT band syndrome, runner's knee, Achilles tendonitis, he says.

The downsides of strength training

Dr. Maffetone advocates off-season strength training for professional triathletes, but he is well acquainted with the hazards of the age grouper lifestyle.

“I think strength training can be a disaster for a lot of triathletes because they don’t have time to do it,” Maffetone says. “They are working full time and they have a family and they have a house, and they’re going to squeeze in another three workouts?”

If you are going to strength train, Maffetone warns against the kind of traditional free weight training that can add bulk and produce stress hormones.

When Maffetone worked with pro triathlete Mike Pigg, he would make sure Pigg took some time to rest at the end of the season, and then would encourage him to chop wood and move stones.

“I do that personally,” Maffetone says. “I like dragging logs, building stone walls. Natural movement. Using my body. That’s the best thing a triathlete can do.”

“But if you add that kind of stuff to your schedule you might have to cut down your bike and run miles. The biggest mistake triathletes make is trying to squeeze all that stuff into a week. The first thing that happens is fat burning is reduced. It impairs the muscle fibers and you start storing body fat.”

Metzl agrees that doing too much too quickly will only result in soreness and an inability to complete key swim, bike and run workouts. The key is to build strength gradually and maintain it so you aren’t super sore after a strength workout.

Many age groupers realize that the kind of recovery they need after key workouts (a good meal and some rest) is not what they are likely to find as they rush off to work in the morning, or come home from a long Saturday run to a house full of kids demanding attention. Since the key to making gains is properly recovering from each workout, adding major strength workouts that require a lot of recovery is counter-productive.

Joe Corona, Jr., of Syracuse, NY, says he sees greater gains spending his time swimming, biking and running. Unless he has put in so much time on the three triathlon sports that he can't make further gains, Corona says he doesn't see the point in taking time away to lift weights.

"I know how my body responds and recovers after training," says Corona (BT username BooTri). "I am not about to add another day of rest/recovery because I lifted some weights. If I have time to strength train, than I have time to swim, bike and run; and that is what I would rather do.

Beyond Triathlon

Unlike the pros, most triathletes aren't in this sport to win races. Most age groupers are looking for a big challenge to inspire them to achieve broader fitness or weight loss goals.

In light of that, it's easy to see why strength training has a place in many triathletes' training schedules.

For some, triathlon training burns calories and builds endurance, but it just doesn't translate into a sculpted body on its own.

Mark Swan of Raleigh, NC, took up triathlon to improve his physique.

"I wanted a flat stomach--or at least one that sticks out less than my chest," jokes Swan (BT user DMarkSwan). Triathlon training and racing has been great fun, but hasn't succeeded in creating the body he was looking for, given the amount of time he has to train, and the intensity of training he is capable of at this point.

"This year I'm refocusing on shrinking my waist and expanding my chest, and strength training is a big part of that."

For others, overall health is the goal, and strength training is useful for burning calories, building bone density and being resistant to injuries that can occur in everyday life when lifting a heavy box, moving a ladder or even reaching into the back seat to soothe a crying baby.

For those athletes whose sole focus is triathlon success, it may be difficult to fit in strength training that doesn't take away from triathlon-specific training. But for athletes concerned about preventing injury or for those seeking broader fitness goals, it's easy to see why strength training deserves some time and attention during each training week.

Thanks to the experts interviewed for this article: Mark Allen, Kathy Coutinho, Al Lyman, Dr. Phil Maffetone, Jorge Martinez, and Dr. Jordan Metzl.


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date: July 7, 2012


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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