Busting the Strength Training Myths That Mislead Triathletes

Not all athletes are fans of strength and conditioning training. For endurance athletes, it’s mainly due to the fear of putting on too much muscle weight and getting slower. 

In this article, we will debunk many myths and misconceptions around strength training, and dispel the misconceptions and malpractices which leave them vulnerable to injury and cause them to miss out on enhancing their performance.

We will also include an overview of the strength training program endurance athletes can do during the base period (pre-season).

5 Strength Training Myths that Mislead Endurance Athletes

Myth #1: I don’t need to be strong.

Being strong allows people to persevere through tough challenges, which is an important skill to have no matter what somebody is trying to accomplish.

Although strength is measured in Newtons, there is more to it than just being able to lift heavy weights.

The more you think about something, the more complicated it can become. It is not only about how much your muscle fibres can contract but how much muscle you can gain is determined by several factors, including the number of muscle fibres you have, how thick they are, how long they are, and what type they are.

One way of telling whether you are getting stronger is by lifting progressively heavier weights, however, this does not show the entire picture because of the complexity of everything involved.

-Improve Health

By far the most important reason you need to incorporate strength work into your weekly routine is for your overall health and well-being. The benefits of resistance training go far beyond building muscle, here are a few of the benefits strength training can provide:

Bone mineral density – sustained endurance training reduces the hardness of your bones making them more brittle and easier to break.

Metabolic rate – burn fat faster.

Mobility and flexibility – moving through large ranges of movement improve the health of your joints.

Mental health – setting goals and seeing the improvements you can make is amazing for your confidence and self-esteem.

-Reduce Injury

One of the disadvantages of endurance sports is that it repeats the same cyclical movements over and over again. If you have even the smallest flaw in your technique, or (in the case of cycling for example) the movement places the stress on one area (say, quads), with less on another (hamstrings) you will develop imbalances. Exercising more will make the problem worse rather than fixing it.

Strength training allows you to highlight these areas of imbalance and utilize specific exercises to loosen tight areas and strengthen weak ones.

Get Faster

Training with resistance leads to better communication between your brain and your muscles, meaning you are more likely to contract the right amount of muscle fibres, at the right time and in the right order. The muscles (and surrounding tissue) will then be able to transfer more force. Studies have shown that replacing some aerobic sessions with strength training leads to lower rates of exertion as well as higher power outputs after prolonged activity.

  • Power output – Power = force x velocity (or torque x cadence in the case of cycling). Improved force, therefore, leads to improved power.
  • Efficiency & coordination – Save energy by contracting the right muscles at the right time so you’re not fighting against yourself.
  • Exercise economy – Producing more force means that the relative effort at the same absolute intensity decreases.

Myth #2: It makes you heavy.

Studies have shown that combining strength with endurance training for up to 16 weeks didn’t increase body mass or negatively affect VO2 max in a variety of endurance athletes including cyclists and runners, duathletes and skiers. This could be because many of the strength-training adaptations, especially at the beginning, are neural and not muscular. (for those who don’t already know Duathlon is an athletic event that consists of a running leg, followed by a cycling leg and then another running leg in a format similar to triathlons. The International Triathlon Union governs the sport internationally.)

The goals of strength training aren’t to put on weight, they’re to move better, correct imbalances and improve power. This may mean that you increase muscle mass in specific areas as a by-product of lifting weights and getting stronger but no increase in total body mass. 

Myth  #3: It causes you to be injured. 

When you remove poor coaching practices, inappropriate exercise selection and ridiculous methods from the equation, resistance training itself is a very safe thing to do, however, it’s not a panacea and it’s difficult to prevent falling off and breaking your collarbone – accidents and injuries do still happen.

But, it’s clear that once injured, being stronger will both minimize the severity of any given injury and allow athletes to recover quicker once injured.

Myth #4: It makes you slow. 

Why would the fastest athletes in the world utilize strength and power development as a core component of their training arsenal?

The style and type of training largely dictate the outcome; programming relevant exercises with large ranges of movement, with progressively and appropriately increasing loads, will lead to better joint health, improved neural drive and enhanced movement literacy. All of this means less stiff, more mobile athletes who can move freely and with better control.:

Even if you are competent enough to be able to safely lift large weights you’ll still be moving it with some velocity. Optimal loads for any given movement don’t exist, so training with a variety of loads across the spectrum is important for developing a broader strength base.

Intent is Key

Regardless of the load lifted, what determines power seems to be the INTENT to move quickly, rather than actually moving fast. In other words, the intention to move an object explosively, even if the actual movement is slow (or even stationary) leads to specific neural adaptations that are required during powerful actions.

 Myth #5: I don’t have time to go to the gym.

This is probably the most irritating reason anyone gives for not incorporating strength training into their weekly program. It’s basically an excuse people give when they don’t WANT to do it because scientific studies clearly show that doing some strength work is time-efficient in the long run.

As we’ve already mentioned, being stronger reduces the number of injuries an athlete will pick up and, once injured, will reduce the amount of time it takes to recover from them. Add all these time savings up over a year or more, and then it’s not difficult to see that lifting some weights can actually INCREASE the time on the bike, not reduce it.

We believe the problem comes when athletes simply add strength work to an already-packed training schedule.

It’s akin to pushing all the sliders on a graphic equalizer to the top – it won’t produce a good sound. A much smarter approach would be to (gasp!!!) replace some endurance sessions with strength ones.

Here’s the rationale.

The potential window of adaptation to develop your aerobic characteristics are likely very small. That is, as an experienced endurance athlete, the work you need to do to improve aerobically will be very large. Whereas, as a gym novice, the amount of work you’ll need to do to develop will be very small (your window to adapt to strength work is large).

You will get a much bigger bang for your buck. Greater gains in 2x 45-minute sessions vs 2x 2-hour bike rides (90 minutes vs 4 hours per week).

As you become more experienced, your ability to adapt will diminish (you’ll have a smaller window). Here’s where strategic planning comes in.

Do more work in the darker months when you’re not racing or outside less often, and do less during periods of competition. This had many positive effects:

  • The athletes didn’t lose their strength levels.
  • They didn’t get the initial soreness after restarting gym work (meaning subsequent training wasn’t negatively affected). Injury rates dropped.
  • For these more experienced athletes, turning some sliders on the graphic equalizer up, and other ones down gave us the best of both worlds.

Triathlon Strength Training – Base Phase & Beyond

Strength training has a lot of benefits for triathletes. Among other things, it improves the ability to control and produce force, strengthens joints & stabilizers, and improves the neural function (the mind-to-muscle connection). All of that trains the body to be more resilient and efficient, fatigue less, as well as improve form and prevent injuries during extensive training.

Doing a form of resistance training recruits a lot of muscle fibres – more than a run or a bike session would. Using a variety of exercises or extra resistance engages more fast-twitch muscle fibres, which promotes the growth of mitochondria in them and makes them more efficient.

This is why well-executed triathlon strength training results in no aerobic fitness loss but instead improves it.

Exercises to Include in the Strength Training Plan for Triathletes

To provide maximum effect, triathlon strength training should be balanced across the following elements:

  • Movement quality ensures the body functions as a whole and can produce coordinated and efficient movements. Requires the use of compound movement exercises (pushups, box jumps, etc).
  • Flexibility and mobility to improve the Range Of Movement (ROM) of the joints and improve the ability to apply more force. Requires using full ROM during the exercise (i.e. deep squat)
  • Strength and power to produce more powerful movements. Requires more resistance or harder variation of the exercise.
  • Metabolic conditioning improves the ability to maintain power for longer. Requires increasing speed of execution.
  • Injury reduction to avoid being side-tracked during the hard training requires core and stabilizing exercises done at a slow speed, as well as stretching.

It doesn’t matter whether an athlete is a runner or a kayaker. He or she needs to build strength across their whole body – not in one particular area. All muscles in the body are interlinked, so we never activate only one specific group.

Even runners actively use their arms to balance and control the cadence and kayakers use their legs to turn their torso and produce a more powerful stroke.

So, the best strength and conditioning exercises are the ones from our childhood. Simple basic bodyweight movements that anyone can do.

Bodyweight Strength and Conditioning Workout for Triathletes in Base Phase

Our favourite strength and conditioning session is simple and doesn’t require any weights or gym access. The only thing you’ll probably need is some warm clothes to do it outside.

This session is organized in a circuit. Pick 3 exercises from each of the body groups above (9 in total) and spread them out so that none of the exercises from the same group goes one after the other. It’s best to do lower body, then upper body, then core and repeat.

One circuit is 9 exercises – do 20 to 30 repetitions of each exercise without any rest in between. Take 2-3 minutes of rest between each of the laps and complete 2-3 laps in total. Choose the speed of execution and the variation of exercise so that you can complete it with the energy left.

Use TRX and resistance bands as easier variations of hard exercises. For example, not many can complete 20 pull-ups with ease and are better off doing a TRX version of those.

  • Exercises – 9 in total, 2-3 laps.
  • Repetitions – 20 to 30, but not until exhaustion.
  • Execution time – moderate to fast.
  • Rest interval – none (or minimal) between repetitions, 2-3 minutes between laps.

The whole session should take around 20-30 minutes. You can include it at any time, but it’s best after an easy session (like an easy 30-60 minute run).

Don’t forget to do a solid warm-up before the session. As triathletes, we’re often tight in sensitive areas (shoulders, hips, etc.) and putting more weight on those will force poor posture and promote overuse.

Session Periodization

To adapt the session for the early base period use easier variations of exercises to complete 20 – 30 repetitions with ease (i.e. knee push-ups instead of regular ones).

During the late base period and competition phase, the body is more adapted and is not sore after every session, so you can use harder variations of exercises. Increase the speed of execution or include a plyometric version of exercise (like box jumps instead of regular squats) to add explosiveness. Add a long rest period (around 5 minutes) in between exercises and reduce the amount of them to 3-5.

To adapt the session for the build phase, instead of doing 20 – 30 repetitions, do 1 minute of intense work followed by 1 minute of rest. If the adaptation was good during early base, such short recovery between reps will be enough.

To adapt the session for the early base period use easier variations of exercises to complete 20 – 30 repetitions with ease (i.e. knee push-ups instead of regular ones).

During the late base period and competition phase, the body is more adapted and is not sore after every session, so you can use harder variations of exercises. Increase the speed of execution or include a plyometric version of exercise (like box jumps instead of regular squats) to add explosiveness. Add a long rest period (around 5 minutes) in between exercises and reduce the amount of them to 3-5.

To adapt the session for the build phase, instead of doing 20 – 30 repetitions, do 1 minute of intense work followed by 1 minute of rest. If the adaptation was good during early base, such short recovery between reps will be enough.

 

 

 

 

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button