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How to Use Strength & Mobility Training to Prevent Injury

strength and mobility training for injury prevention

Triathlete’s Guide to Injury Prevention: Part II

Series written by Becky Arturo, doctor of physical therapy, certified strength & conditioning specialist, USAT triathlon coach, and RRCA running coach, in collaboration with Nick Fischer, board-certified sports dietitian, both of Weights and Plates Endurance

See other posts in this series on optimizing your training planproper form and technique, and nutrition and daily habits to prevent injury.

When thinking about injury prevention as an endurance athlete, strength training and mobility work are extremely important pieces of the puzzle. 

Not only should it be included in your training program, but it should be done so efficiently and effectively. You only have so many matches to burn, so make sure you are using them wisely.

While the training plan discussed in part 1 of this article is my bread and butter as an endurance coach, strength and mobility training is my bread and butter as a physical therapist and strength coach. 

Purpose of Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Strength Training Triathlon Fundamentals

The two main purposes of strength training for endurance athletes are to improve outcomes and to decrease injury risk

I think most endurance athletes understand the importance of strength training, but I do still experience some stigma against it in the endurance training world. 

When used appropriately as an adjunct to your endurance training, strength training does NOT have negative effects on maximal oxygen uptake, blood lactate parameters, or body composition.[1] 

Resistance training, in addition to sport-specific endurance training [5] improves outcomes in middle and long-distance athletes of all abilities.[1] Improvements can be seen in:

  • Running economy [1,2,3,4,5,6]
  • Cycling economy [2,4,7]
  • Running speed and power at VO2max [2] 
  • Time to exhaustion at VO2max [2]
  • Energy cost of locomotion during middle and long-distance running, cycling, swimming, XC skiing [7]
  • Muscular force and power [2,4,7]
  • Time trial performance [1,4,5]

So hopefully with that, I have convinced you that you should include strength training in your training routine. But, there is a little more to injury prevention than random gym days. 

First of all, don’t be afraid to lift heavy. Understand that while running, your knees take up to 5x your body weight in force, and your calves take up to 8.7x your body weight. If you are afraid of heavy squatting because you don’t want to hurt your knees, you are doing your running a disservice. 

If you are asking your body to endure more force than it’s able to tolerate by logging long and hard miles, then injury risk increases greatly. One of the best ways to develop that tolerance, along with sport-specific training, is to hit the weight room.

Strength for Runners

Strength for Runners

Running requires a combination of eccentric, lengthening, and concentric, or shortening contractions of all of the muscles in your lower extremities. So, you should be training all of those muscle groups similarly. 

Some example exercises would be those such as squats and deadlifts in many forms, as well as lunges, step-ups, hip thrusters, leg extensions, hamstring curls (nordic for the advanced athlete), etc.

Furthermore, your running gait is all on one leg or in the flight phase, so single-leg strength and stability are very important. A lot of that stability comes from glute strength as well as the strength and stability of your feet and ankles. Therefore, single-leg and asymmetric strength training is an important component of your strength work. 

Some examples would include Bulgarian split squats, single-leg RDLs, lunge circuits, step-ups, single-arm deadlifts, suitcase carries, and your basic resistance band hip work. Balance can also be trained with unstable surfaces such as BOSU balls, foam pads, etc., but the above exercises should not be replaced with unstable surface training.

Core strength and postural stability will also help to protect your back and the entire lower extremity chain. Core stability includes exercises such as planks, side planks, suitcase carries, bird dogs (add a row for increased challenge), basic resistance band work, etc. 

Recent studies have also shown that there is equal or more deep core activation with your traditional barbell lifts as there is with traditional core-type exercises. So, if you are getting under a barbell, you are probably already in pretty good core shape. Postural stability includes training the core and hips as well as the upper back with exercises such as rows, reverse flies, and ITYs.

Mobility for Runners

Running ankle mobility

Mobility for runners should address the hips, knees, ankles, and upper back. Decreased hip extension mobility is a common finding in runners with low back pain, so make sure to include some hip extension stretching and mobility work

Decreased ankle mobility can also lead to faulty mechanics and potential overuse injuries up the chain. On that note, while running requires adequate dorsiflexion mobility, swimming requires your ankle to be able to go in the opposite direction or plantar flexion. 

Triathletes sometimes have excessive ankle motion in one direction while lacking mobility in the other. While we don’t want you to have hyper-flexible ankles, motion is important in both directions.

Strength for Cyclists

Strength Training for Triathlete Cycling

When cycling, force production comes from a combination of all of your lower extremity muscle groups. While cycling presents a much lower risk for overuse injuries of the lower extremities as compared to running, strengthening will only help to improve performance and further decrease your injury risk. 

Core strength and stability increase efficiency in your pedal stroke to allow as much force as possible to be translated directly into speed. Postural strength is also very important for cyclists to decrease the risk of upper back, shoulder, and neck injuries. 

Whether you are spending hours on your hoods, drops, or in the aero position, you are asking your core to maintain stability and your upper body to maintain weight bearing for a long time. Exercises such as plank holds, inchworm walks and a push-up “plus” (serratus anterior activation) are important for cyclists.

Mobility for Cyclists

Hip, knee, and ankle mobility is also important for cyclists. Limited mobility in one joint will lead to compensation from another area, which could cause injury anywhere along the ankle, knee, hip, or spine chain.

Strength and Mobility for Swimmers

Swim strength and mobility training

While running and cycling have a lot of similarities in terms of strength and mobility needs, swimming presents additional considerations. 

For similarities, core strength is equally, or arguably more important in swimmers for efficient transfer of energy through your swim stroke. Not only will a weak core lead to an inefficient stroke, but it will also create faulty stroke mechanics that can lead to increased pressure on the shoulders. 

When we think of swimming-related injuries, the shoulder is the region most people think of, and rightfully so. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the shoulder complex consists of more than just the ball and socket, or glenohumeral joint. 

The shoulder complex also consists of the shoulder blade along the upper back, or the scapulothoracic joint, as well as the joints connecting the collarbone to the shoulder and the upper chest. So, swimmers need to make sure they have adequate strength and mobility of both the ball and socket joint of the shoulder as well as the shoulder blade on the upper back. 

Lacking adequate shoulder blade movement will lead to compensation somewhere else in the swim stroke, again increasing the risk of injury. Likewise, lacking end-range mobility of the ball and socket joint would mean pushing that joint to its very end range on repeat with every stroke. 

Strengthening the power-house muscles of the swim stroke with exercises like straight arm lat pull downs, regular lat pulls, chest presses, and flies. This will help to improve your swim power, strengthening the upper back musculature, rotator cuff, and deltoids will help protect the shoulder from injury.

Periodizing Your Strength Training

periodize your triathlon strength and mobility training

That’s a lot of information on what you should include for strength training and why. Now let’s address the how. The biggest overarching recommendation I have is to modify your stimulus, meaning don’t lift the same way every time you go to the weight room all year round. 

You probably follow some sort of a periodized training plan for your endurance training, even if you don’t know it. Why wouldn’t you do the same for your strength training? The off-season or transition period can be used for working on muscular endurance. 

As you fade into a base-building phase or preseason, you may begin to incorporate some power and/or basic strength. The strength work in your base-building training phase should then be focused on building base strength. Then, once you’ve reached your build phase of training, all you need to do is maintain the strength you’ve already built. 

Scientific References

  1. Blagrove RC, Howatson G, Hayes PR. Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2017;48(5):1117-1149.
  2. Rønnestad B, Mujika I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013;24(4):603-612.
  3. Manuel Alcaraz-Ibañez & Manuel Rodríguez-Pérez (2018) Effects of resistance training on performance in previously trained endurance runners: A systematic review, Journal of Sports Sciences, 36:6, 613-629. 
  4. Beattie K, Kenny I, Lyons M, Carson B. The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes. Sports Medicine. 2014;44(6):845-865.
  5. Yamamoto L, Lopez R, Klau J, Casa D, Kraemer W, Maresh C. The Effects of Resistance Training on Endurance Distance Running Performance Among Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(6):2036-2044.
  6. Denadai B, de Aguiar R, de Lima L, Greco C, Caputo F. Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. 2016;47(3):545-554.
  7. Berryman N, Mujika I, Arvisais D, Roubeix M, Binet C, Bosquet L. Strength Training for Middle- and Long-Distance Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018;13(1):57-63. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2017-0032
Becky Arturo
Becky Arturo
Endurance Coach, Physical Therapist at Weights and Plates Endurance | Website

Becky Arturo is the co-founder of Weights and Plates Endurance Coaching. Becky Arturo received her doctorate degree in physical therapy and started practicing as a sports and orthopedic physical therapist in 2019. She is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a USA Triathlon certified coach. Learn more about Becky