Most triathlon coaches will agree, strength training for triathletes requires a unique approach compared to athletes who rely on explosive strength and fast-twitch power. In this post, we cover fundamental best practices to help you get the most from endurance-specific strength training.
Do Triathletes Need to Lift Weights & Strength Train?
Like most endurance events, triathlon is an incredibly repetitive sport. For many triathletes, constant training and racing can often lead to muscle weaknesses and imbalances over time.
A fourth discipline to achieving longevity and success in triathlon is strength training. When properly executed for a targeted distance event(1), strength training can improve sport-specific mechanics, race day performance, and injury resistance.
A general framework for triathletes is to plan 12-16 weeks of consistent strength training starting in the off-season and later shifting to strength maintenance during the competitive season.
The Goal of Strength Training for Triathletes
The primary goal of strength training for triathletes should be two-fold: injury prevention; and a positive transfer of strength, power, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance to the sports themselves.
Because movement patterns of swimming, cycling, and running are highly repetitive, it’s critical to address any impairments early on with targeted strengthening of under-active muscle groups to prevent injury effectively. For performance, athletes can benefit from strength exercises that are highly specific in terms of both movement patterns and velocity.
Many periodized strength training(2) programs progress athletes from general to specific exercises. Particularly with endurance sports, exercises should move from general to more specific to avoid conflicting peripheral adaptations. For swimming, cycling, and running, this means eventually performing a portion of the strength training within the targeted sports (see #6 below).
Although strength work has been shown effective in all phases of an annual plan, it makes the most sense to start strength training during the off-season to avoid overtraining.
Suppose you can invest a solid 12-16 weeks of structured strength training at the start of the off-season. In that case, there is a long-lasting training effect and a long-term delayed training effect of strength preparation that can yield great results during the competitive season.
This means that you might not experience performance gains immediately, and in some cases, performance can see a small decline. However, in the long term, investing in strength training can be highly beneficial. This is especially the case for athletes training for Ironman or long-distance(3) triathlon distances.
Here are some guidelines and fundamentals to help you execute a safe and effective off-season strength routine.
1. Embrace Strength Training Fresh and Avoid Maladaptations
Strength training is high-intensity work, so it’s especially important to perform these exercises when you are fresh. A strength athlete would never do a long endurance session before training strength, and that same standard goes for endurance athletes.
A short ride or run is okay, but it’s vital not to start strength training in a fatigued state. Similarly, you can significantly destroy the benefits of your strength session by doing a long, exhausting endurance workout immediately after.
A short-to-medium distance workout shortly after strength training can help transfer some performance adaptations to your sport. But if you go too long or hard before or after a strength workout, you can encounter issues with maladaptation.
2. Focus on Functional Movements
A balanced strength session becomes much easier to assemble and perform when you think in terms of movements and planes of motion versus individual muscle groups.
To put this into perspective, avoid single-joint isolation unless your goal is targeted injury prevention and activating an under-active muscle group. Focus your lower body strengthening on ground-based, multi-joint exercises. For example, when you perform a squat or a lunge, you are recruiting muscles in the proper ratios compared to hamstring curls or leg extension.
As for other functional movements that are great for endurance athletes, incorporate exercises in a single leg stance, such as a single leg squat, single-leg RDL, or step-up to balance. The movements work exceptionally well in building greater stability and injury resilience.
3. Don’t Overlap Endurance with Strength Training
Always keep in mind that strength training is supplemental to endurance training. Keep strength training at high intensities, but avoid high-repetition, short rest programs like CrossFit and other boot camp-style circuit training.
Your primary goal is to build strength and power without accumulating unnecessary fatigue. In doing so, make more rest between sets and work more intensely for short amounts of time.
Your body uses three fundamental energy systems: A-lactic (ATP-PC), anaerobic, and aerobic. If you keep most of your exercises A-lactic (10-15 second periods with adequate rest), then your strength work won’t interfere as much with the rest of your training.
4. Incorporate Plyometrics
Plyometrics are essentially high-intensity jumping exercises with short ground contact time. The underlying goal of plyometric exercises is to increase power.
Jumping is not for everyone, but it’s important to remember that a little bit goes a long way. Start with lower intensity exercises(4) such as ankle hops or running drills and progress to higher intensity movements like box jumps, squat jumps, and bounding. Plyometrics can be stressful on the body, so pay attention to how many jumps you do in a session.
There are studies that show plyometric training(5) improves running economy. This means that for a given running speed, oxygen cost is actually lower. Incorporating plyometric training as part of a structured program is proven to improve fitness. Not only can athletes reduce heart rate at a given running speed, but reduced oxygen consumption further indicates improved running economy.
5. Emphasize Power in Addition to Strength
Work is defined as force multiplied by distance. Power is defined as force multiplied by distance/time. When you add speed to a given movement, power increases. In particular, heavy strength training has demonstrated excellent results in studies because there’s both high muscle fiber recruitment and high power. However, increases in power can be achieved by moving lighter weights more quickly.
Interestingly, there are ample studies that support heavy weight lifting to be effective strength training for endurance athletes. Similarly, there are studies that show light to moderate weight training to also be effective.
With lighter weights, it is possible to move at a faster speed that might replicate the sport, similar to plyometrics. However, with heavy weights the speed of movement is slow but still increases power. They discovered that the intent to move quickly is as important as actually moving quickly.
Regardless of how much weight you are lifting, it is important to have the intent to move that weight quickly to increase the power output.
6. Transition Your Strength Training to Actual Sports
Transfer of training is the ultimate goal of concurrent training. If you increase your one-repetition max on the squat by 30%, you will not see the same 30% improvement in watts on the bike.
One solution is to mimic some of the motions of your sport and the velocity. But at some point, you should actually perform strength training within the actual sports.
As an example, swimmers can swim with drag or do tethered swimming. Although a popular tool, be careful with paddles as there’s a greater risk of a shoulder injury. Runners can perform sessions that involve strides or short hill reps. Likewise, cyclists can perform short, A-lactic stomps, which are 10-15 second max sprints with full recovery.
7. Strength Training Should Replace a Portion of Total Training Volume
The addition of strength training to endurance training, known as concurrent training, is almost always effective as long as an athlete doesn’t add strength training on top of an already maxed-out training plan.
If you are just adding strength training on top of your schedule, then maladaptation can occur, or you can be more prone to overtraining. This is why the off-season or pre-season is a good time to add strength training when the overall volume is lower.
Endurance athletes are typically well-trained aerobically but may be under-trained muscularly. So always be sure to begin a strength training program conservatively.
Remember, strength training is supplemental to endurance and triathlon training. Don’t get side-tracked with your desire for a better physique or bigger biceps. A little bit of strength work can go a long way, and more is not always better.
Most athletes embrace endurance training and strength training as two separate disciplines. While this very common, especially among triathletes, there are specific movements that can provide value in both regards.
Triathlon Weight Training Exercises
In the case of strength training for triathlon, there are certain exercises that can significantly improve power, increase speed, and prevent injury. Below we’ve distilled three of the best exercises that deliver the optimum ROI for your time and energy.
The beauty behind lunges is that they can be performed in a number of ways, which makes them a highly versatile movement. They also directly translate into a running and cycling motion, as many of the same muscle groups are used when lunging.
When lunging for both strength and endurance, your focus should be doing upwards of 10 to 20 repetitions per side (that’s 20 to 40 repetitions total). Depending on how fast you perform each lunge, this will likely take over a minute to complete a set.
If you’re adding weight to your lunges, keep the load light. I personally have fairly strong legs and good endurance and will use no more than 30 to 40 pounds (i.e. holding 15 or 20-pound dumbbells in each hand.) At about the 30 total repetition mark, my glutes and thighs are burning strong.
To add variance to your lunges, below are several types of lunges that can you do.
- Walking lunges. This is probably my favorite, endurance-centric approach to lunges. Here you perform lunges in a fluid movement without stopping, as if you were simply walking but taking long lunging steps.
- Overhead plate lunges. Often best when combined with walking lunges, use a barbell plate ranging from 10-45 pounds which you’ll hold over your head. This will increase the stability required in your midsection and shoulders. As a result, it’s a solid core activating variation.
- Dumbbell lunges. Probably the most popular form of weighted lunges is holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms down side by side. This helps to add load, but in a way that keeps concentration on the lower part of the body doing most of the work.
- High knee lunges. This simple variation of lifting your knee toward your chest during the movement can activate your abdominals.
- One-arm kettlebell lunges. By holding one light-to-medium weight kettlebell in shoulder press position, you can feel greater core activation on that side of your body. Just make sure to do this lunge variation on both sides. It’s a great way to correct muscular imbalances that are often very common with triathletes.
- Twisting lunges. Best when using a medicine ball as the weight, here you’ll twist to one side at the bottom of the lunge movement. This will activate key stabilizer muscles in the midsection.
Lastly, make sure while doing lunges to keep your midsection tight. This will help protect your back from swaying inward, putting yourself in a compromised and potentially-injurious position. Also, concentrate on your knee tracking and avoid letting your knee extended over the toes as well as caving inward. Focus on tracking your knee movement outward over the pinky toe.
2. Kettlebell Swings
Not only are kettlebell swings one of the best movements to train a full range of triathlon-specific muscle groups, but they’re fun! Kettlebell swings incorporate a deadlift-like squat with an explosive standing motion, all while swinging the weight up with straight arms so that it’s horizontal with your chin. This movement works thighs, glutes, low back/core, and shoulders. Below is a short video demonstrating proper form.
The nice thing about this particular lift is the amount of control you have over the weight, and thus the volume of repetitions you can do. I recommend starting with a very lightweight (especially if you’re new to kettlebell swings,) and performing at least 20 repetitions. As you become more proficient with the movement, you can work up to 50 repetitions or use a heavy kettlebell.
The primary purpose behind this classic lift is to strengthen a common problem area among triathletes. And that is the lower back. Having a strong low back is essential for any endurance athlete. It’s also one of the most challenging areas to strengthen, as most core and midsection movements focus on the front-facing abdominal muscles.
Unfortunately, deadlifts are rarely done by endurance athletes. It’s one movement that’s inadvertently viewed as a lift exclusive to powerlifters and bodybuilders. But in reality, it’s one of the most effective strength movements that help build a resilient low back, as well as stronger legs, glutes, and other bike-run muscle groups.
The difference in using deadlifts for endurance is the amount of weight being used. Unlike powerlifters who might perform just 3-5 repetitions at a high weight, triathletes should keep the weight low-to-moderate, and perform over 20 repetitions. Additionally, deadlifts should be performed with optimal form, keeping the weight and hips back, knees stable, and back straight. Below is a short video that demonstrates proper deadlift form.
In addition to using a barbell, you can also do deadlifts using a kettlebell, or try one arm deadlifts using a dumbbell. The latter variation can be done by crossing the arm over to the opposite two, helping to activate the obliques. The deadlift is one movement that should be a cross-training staple for almost any athlete, especially triathletes and endurance athletes. It’s highly effective for building a resilient, balanced system and overall injury prevention.
Strength Training for Triathletes
The key takeaway is having clear intentions behind each strength training session. It’s no question that triathletes need to invest hours doing steady-state endurance training to build aerobic capacity. But when it comes to strength training, there are ways to incorporate high-intensity and occasionally heavy-weight exercises for greater power.
1. Wallmann, H and Rosania, J. An introduction to periodization training for the triathlete. Strength Cond J 23(6): 55–64, 2001.
2. Britton, Andy MEd, CSCS Strength Training Periodization for Triathletes, Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2008 – Volume 30 – Issue 2 – p 65-66 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31816a8575
3. Baldwin, Kate & Badenhorst, Claire & Hoyne, Gerard & Cripps, Ashley & Landers, Grant & Merrells, Robert. (2018). Strength training improves cycling and running economy in long distance triathletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 21. S30. 10.1016/j.jsams.2018.09.070.
4. Le, Kevin J. “Strength Training for Triathletes: Blending Anecdotal and Empirical Evidence to Improve Triathlon Performance.” (2018).
5. Turner AM, Owings M, Schwane JA. Improvement in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Feb;17(1):60-7. doi: 10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0060:iireaw>2.0.co;2. PMID: 12580657.