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Strength Training for New Triathletes

By Morgan Johnson

Many times, triathletes are unsure about resistance or strength training, outside of running or riding up hills repeatedly. New athletes particularly seem to be unsure about how or why to include strength training in their training — understandably because they are already learning to balance three sports when before they likely only trained for one, perhaps none. It can be intimidating to think about adding more on top of what can already seem like a lot.

strengthHowever, strength training is one of the most beneficial and efficient ways for triathletes, especially age group triathletes, to supplement their training and get the most out of the work they are putting in.

First, strength training, contrary to its name, isn’t just about increasing strength. Good strength training works to improve flexibility, mobility, stability and balance. Improving these factors increases efficiency and aids in increasing speed — mobility in the ankles helps us to swim more efficiently, stability in the core helps us produce more power on the bike, flexible hip flexors can make us faster runners, etc.

Additionally, swimming, biking and running, while great for cardiovascular health, have the potential to cause overuse injuries, such as IT Band Syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, etc., and proper strength training can prevent these injuries, and, in cases when they have already occurred, can also help with treatment by improving the attributes listed above.

Of course, strength training also helps build our muscles — and this is essential for age group athletes (especially those new to the sport) who are short on time and attempting to juggle training with jobs, and family commitments. When done correctly, strength training can develop muscles and neuromuscular activation (the body’s ability to take advantage of existing muscle fibers) much more quickly than simply performing the primary activities of the sport. For example, an hour of cycling-specific strength training can give us the same muscular benefits as a four-hour hill repeat workout on the bike without requiring the prolonged recovery such a workout would normally entail. Increased muscle strength and activation allows us to maintain better form and technique, and hold up longer against fatigue — this means we can go faster and longer both in our races and our training!

So, how do you make strength training a part of your plan for this season?

Like anything else, strength training should be targeted to improve your weaknesses and help you reach your goals – this means, unfortunately, there is no one plan that is perfect for everybody. However, regardless of their focus, triathletes should always strive to incorporate whole body exercises into their strength training, in order to get the biggest benefits from the work they are putting in. Here are some basic whole body exercises get you started:

Bosu Ball Squats
Need: Bosu ball, free weights

Stand on the flat side of the Bosu ball with feet a little more than shoulder’s width apart, feet pointing directly forward, back straight, arms at your sides. Squat down by dropping the glute muscles back, looking forward and up to avoid hunching over. Do 10 continuous squats, followed by a rest. Repeat this three times.

Once you have the balance to do the squats correctly and continuously, you can add a dumbbell to each hand to increase the load, increasing the weight as you get stronger (start small when it comes to weights, and always make minor increases to avoid injury).

Forward Lunges
Need: Free weights

Start standing straight up, back straight, arms at your sides, feet pointing straight forward. Take a wide step forward, landing with the whole foot with the forward heel directly below or slightly in front of the knee on that same leg. Do not intentionally bend the back leg — focus instead on getting a big step, and proper foot placement. Pay attention to your feet during this exercise, and make sure that your feet stay pointing forward; many athletes have a tendency to turn their feet out unconsciously to maintain balance, but this is incorrect technique. When you step back, bring the foot all the way back; your back should remain straight up and down throughout the exercise. Do 15 lunges with one leg, then switch and do 15 lunges with the other leg, followed by a rest. Repeat this three times.

As you get more confident with this exercise, you can increase the challenge by adding a dumbbell to each hand, and increasing the weight as you get stronger.

Pull-Ins and Push-Ups
Need: Stability ball

Start with your shins balanced on the ball and the hands on the ground, arms and body straight. Keeping your shins on the ball, pull your knees in towards your chest, so that the ball rolls forward with your legs. In a continuous motion, push the ball back out so that the legs are straight again. Once the legs are straight, do a push-up, hands pointing forward, elbows bending out. Repeat this combination 10 times, then rest. Repeat three times.

As the exercise gets easier, move the ball further and further back until only the feet are resting on the ball.

Start out with 15-20 minutes of strength training 1-2 times a week, and increase the amount by 10 percent every week, cutting it back every three weeks or so for recovery. As you discover your weaknesses in the sport, find a certified USAT coach who can help you develop exercises to address your limiters and give you a better shot at reaching your goals!

Morgan Johnson is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and the Lead Developmental Coach at the Playtri Performance Center in Dallas, TX. You can reach her at morgan@playtri.com, or at the Playtri Performance Center at (214) 370-9010.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach. 

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