The off-season is a great time for triathletes to fit in some strength training before clocking up the mileage in the pool and on the road. We talked to IRONMAN certified coach Wendy Mader to learn more about strength training for triathletes and injury prevention.
Strength Training for Triathletes
Due to the repetitive nature of triathlon training, a triathlete’s dominant muscle groups are the pecs, lats, quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Every time you head out for a swim, bike, or run, you are building up these muscles.
Whilst strengthening these key muscle groups is essential for building power and strength, it is also important not to neglect your smaller stabilizer muscles which are responsible for core stability.
Why A Strong Core Is Important
Triathlon training consists of only a few movements that are repeated over and over. When you focus your training on strengthening only the dominant muscle groups, you are allowing the 26 smaller stabiliser muscles that make up your core, to become weak.
Your core muscles are a complex series of muscles which extend far beyond just your abs. At the front, they go from the base of your ribs all the way down through your abs, pelvic girdle, to the upper quad. At the back, they extend from your upper hamstrings and glutes, to your lower and middle back.
Your core also includes the areas around your hips that allow extension, flexion, and oblique rotation.
Core stability is what helps you to support your spine, allowing you to sit and stand tall instead of slouching. Strong core muscles will not only prevent injuries, it will also improve your triathlon performance by increasing flexibility and allowing you to generate power in a wider range of motions.
Having a strong core and hip stability also helps to lengthen your body and creates an ideal position for swimming, biking and running. This will allow you to complete each section of a triathlon more efficiently, so that you can finish races stronger. Typically, if your core strength or stability is lacking, it shows through near the end of races when running and even biking form breaks down.
Strength Training and Injury Prevention
I know from 25 years of experience that injuries are sometimes part of the deal when you train for endurance sports. During my first 17 years in the sport, I was always dealing with some sort of lower leg or hip related issue.
It was not until 2010 that I realized the missing component to my program was strength training. Most injuries occur either at the lower leg, hip, or the scapulo-thoracic region (shoulder/upper back). These injuries are often avoidable with proper use of strength training, mobility, and core stability movement patterns.
Since realizing the importance of strength training for triathletes, I continue to educate myself on the topic. This not only helps me as an athlete but also the athletes that I coach.
Starting A Strength Training Program
The off-season is the prime time to set the foundations and start creating muscle balance. You can then continue to maintain it while you start building base miles.
If you are already into your base training or race season, but have not done any consistent strength training, it is never too late to start a program. Incorporating some key movements that target your core can be introduced at any time.
A well-designed strength training for triathletes program should include the following components:
1) Warm Up & Dynamic Stretches
A good warm up will prepare the body for exercise and reduce the risk of injury. I like to warm up dynamically with running drills and a variety of jumping jacks. I use different arm motions during the jumping jacks to get the upper body loosened up.
2) Activation Movements
The activation movements extend the warm up and help muscle stabilization. They also increase neuromuscular proprioception.
These moves target the glutes, core, and shoulders to ensure the correct muscles are being recruited during the resistance exercises.
3) Main Set – Resistance Training (Primary Strength Movements)
Primary resistance exercises should progress from multi-joint movements involving large muscle group (requiring large amounts of energy), to smaller movements that are less fatiguing.
You may begin with resistance exercises that target muscles in the lower body, and then transition to upper body resistance exercises.
4) Auxiliary Exercises
After the main resistance training, as the cool down process begins, I like to include auxiliary exercises that target sport-specific movements and isolated underused muscles.
These moves are typically used to support and supplement primary exercises.
Primary movements occur during activation, the main set, and auxiliary exercises, but strength and conditioning sessions should conclude with three to four moves that target the various parts of the core.
6) Cool Down
Static stretching is a form of stretching used during this portion of the session to aid with relaxing muscles. Stretches should be held for 20–30 seconds.
My Injury Prevention Program
For endurance athletes, time is one of the most limiting factors and strength training tends to get skipped. However, everyone should prioritize at least one strength training session into their training plan each week that targets your core area.
Although there are many types of strength training programs available, many athletes find it difficult to find a program that fits into their overall training plan. Due to the importance of strength training for triathletes, I have created a program that is easy to incorporate into your training and focuses on what I believe are the most important aspects – a strength training program that does not take a lot of time and focuses on injury prevention.
My strength training program is a periodized program in which I vary the amount of weight, sets, reps and also the movements I perform. The main benefit of using the program that I have created, is that the routines target all groups of core muscles that are essential for triathletes.
1) Warm Up & Dynamic Stretches
Firstly perform 6 sets of:
- 30 seconds of butt kicks
- 30 seconds of jumping jacks (varying your arm patterns each 30 seconds)
Complete your warm up by performing the World’s Greatest Stretch:
Next, choose 1 – 4 of the below moves to complete during your session:
- Glute Bridge (with or without stability ball)
- Reverse Lunge (with or without weight)
- Monster Lateral Walk (with bands)
- Lateral Lunge (with or without weight)
3) Main Set – Resistance Training
During the main set, you will be targeting your larger muscle groups. Perform a range of exercises using body weight, the stability ball, dumbbells, or TRX movement patterns.
If you are limited on time, focus on choosing moves for your hamstring, glutes, chest and back. Pick one move that targets each of these groups.
- Stability Ball Hamstring Curl or TRX Leg Curl
- TRX Suspended Lunge or Split Lunge on Bench
- Push Ups or TRX Chest Press
- Reverse Step Ups on a Bench (without weight)
- Plank Dumbbell Row Kickback
- Single-leg Deadlift with Dumbbell
4) Auxiliary Exercises
Strengthen triathlon specific muscles by picking 1 – 3 of the below moves to perform during each session:
- Donkey Kicks
- Bird dog
- Single-leg Reaching Deadlift
- Scapula Row
- Single-leg Romanian Deadlift
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Single-leg V-ups
5) Core (pick 1-4 each session)
Now is the time to focus on your core. Pick 1 – 3 of the below moves to perform during each session:
- Russian Twists
- Planks (your choice of exercise)
- Swiss Ball Exercise (your choice of exercise)
- Reverse Back Extensions
Finally, the strength training for triathletes program concludes with the main cool down. Start by doing the Scorpion Stretch and then lie on your back with a band or rope and stretch your hamstring, adductors and abductors.
Remember that even the most well-developed strength training for triathletes routine requires adjustments. The best way to tweak your workout routine is to constantly monitor how you feel by recording performances and effort levels in your log.
After spending a period of time strengthening your core and improving balance, your smaller muscles will be strong enough to support your advanced power moves such as squat, lunge, plyometrics, and other exercises designed to improve speed and agility.
Related: Triathlon 101: A Beginner’s Guide
About the Author
MS, Ironman Certified Coach, TRX and ACE Certified Winner, 2008 Kona 1st Overall Amateur
Wendy is co-founder and owner of t2coaching and has made a lifelong commitment to fitness, sports, coaching, and triathlon.
From her youth as a competitive swimmer to her current career in the fitness industry, her dedication shines.
Wendy is a former collegiate swimmer and has 25 years experience in triathlon including 15 Ironmans.
She is the Head Coach of SASfit Team in Turkey and also Head Coach at Endurance House in Westminster Colorado.
To find out more about Wendy Mader, visit her coaching website t2coaching.com.