Most athletes embrace endurance training and strength training as two separate disciplines, which is perfectly fine and very common. As it pertains to endurance athletes, strength training can to build one’s explosive capacity and ability to generate higher power. In the case of triathlon, having greater leg strength can make climbing hills, going fast, and preventing injury all the more real.
As for endurance training, the objective is obvious: increase one’s capacity to maintain a consistent level of output over a period of time. What often goes overlooked is the relationship between strength and endurance training. For triathletes, without adequate endurance, strength doesn’t get you very far. And without adequate power output, one’s endurance never realizes its fullest potential.
The marriage between strength and endurance training is also evident on a more granular level when performing specific exercises. While certain movements like lunges and kettlebell swings seem solely strength focused, they can actually improve endurance as well. It all comes down to how each movement is performed. Often times the intention is to achieve a certain amount reps at a desired weight. When the reps are high and done at modest weight, this approach is known as “endurance lifting.”
So with the off-season a perfect time for triathletes to break away from conventional swim-bike-run training, here are three simple strength exercises for endurance athletes.
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 light weight (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 movements 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 helps 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 Endurance Athletes
The key takeaway is having clear intentions behind each 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 endurance and high-intensity cardiovascular benefits. Again, it usually comes down to achieving a higher volume of repetitions (rather than doing just 3-5 higher weight reps). In turn, as you near the top of a grueling climb, your body will be acclimated to the intense cardiovascular output and you’ll be able to power through with greater ease and confidence.