Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a triathlon coaching clinic hosted by USAT. Although the course was comprehensive and I learned a great deal, very little time was spent going over strength training. What was more surprising was that throughout the weekend, I discovered that few of the attendees I spoke with (mostly triathletes) had any idea about the strength demands of their sport or current strength training methods. Furthermore, after reviewing several texts on triathlon training, it was apparent that the recommended strength training protocols fall way short of current research and methods. After talking to many triathletes about this, we have found the answers are invariably the same.
- If they have some free time, they need to be swimming/biking/running.
- The additional pounds added from strength training will decrease performance (the thought of gaining a few extra pounds of lean tissue is enough to send them on a 50/10 brick!)
- They just don’t know what to do!
I have been a fitness professional for over 10 years now and an endurance athlete/triathlete for six of those years. I still consider myself a “newbie,” but if I have learned anything in that time, it is that I still have a lot to learn! What I can tell you is that from a strength and conditioning perspective, I can speak intelligently. What we know for sure is there is no doubt that a comprehensive strength training program can benefit an athlete to no end. But what exactly is a “strength training program?” For many, this conjures up visions of large men in tank tops lifting ungodly amounts of weight, grunting and groaning all the way. Although this form of strength training is valid for some, it is not for the triathlete. The type of strength training I am talking about here is functional strength training. Let’s define “function” and “functional training.”
- Function: Performing a duty for which a person/thing is intended; a normal or characteristic action of anything; a duty, utility or purpose.
- Functional Training (FT): A comprehensive approach to training or rehabilitation that addresses ALL performance components necessary to achieve success in any target activity.
We now have a definition but before we can look at what FT is for the triathlete, we must first look at the physical demands and environment of the sport.
The physical demands of the triathlete can vary a great deal, depending on the distances involved. However, there are some defining characteristics.
- All three events require a strong core, defined for our purposes, as the area between the sternum and the knees (every one of these muscles attaches to the pelvis).
- Swimming is not a ground based activity. Therefore, the core and rotation become the genesis of movement.
- Biking and running are dominated by single leg movement as well as a large rotational component.
- Balance and stability are two more components used in all three events. Remember that balance and stability drive strength.
Optimal performance enhancement training also has to be specific to the target activity. Specificity says you get what you train for, so if one wants to bike faster, then one should be out biking faster. This is true. However, increasing volume and intensity without structural integrity is the best way to get injured. If the efficiency with which one pedals can be improved or the power output increased, then one can easily see the importance of incorporating a strength training program or strength training in a more functional manner. Triathlon involves ground contact, multiple planes of motion, multiple planes of stabilization and integrated movements and utilizes gravity to load and unload muscle systems and involves the expression of power. The operational environment for triathlon is dominated by gravity, momentum, inertia, impulse, ground reaction forces and 360 degrees of freedom of movement. Therefore, the training for triathlon should encompass all of these components. What we are talking about here is training movements not muscles or training in a functional manner for triathlon. The human body works as an integrated unit and thus should be trained that way. We like to say “train the way you live and live the way you train.”
Looking at strength training through our “new eyes,” we now have to ask the following questions:
- Is my training dynamic: A training environment that allows us to dynamically load multiple muscle systems to create powerful movement?
- Is my training multi-planar: A training approach that prepares us to optimally stabilize multiple muscle and joint systems in a 360 degree fashion?
- Is my training proprioceptively enriched: Training in an environment that teaches the Central Nervous System how to communicate more efficiently with the rest of the body?
- Is my training systematic: Training with a plan to get us from point A to point B?
- Is my training progressive: Basic conditioning and skill acquisition before advanced conditioning and skill execution? Slow and controlled to fast and chaotic.
- Is my training specific: Mimic the target activity? This includes all of the appropriate joints as well as the speed and amplitude of movements. The principle of specificity dictates that you “train like you play/live.”
If the answer is “yes” to all of the above questions, then we are well on our way to an effective functional strength training program. If the answer is “no,” then we need to come to some common ground. This means we have to make a paradigm shift. Let’s look at the past. Traditional strength training is usually performed along a single plane. This is where the fixed plane machines have become popular. The use of fixed plane machines further restricts the movement of the body the way it is designed and often puts us in a seated or lying position in an effort to isolate a muscle. On the other hand, stabilization limited training (SLT) is training that trains prime movers only to the strength that the stabilizing structures will support. This approach to training usually takes place in a standing position, engaging the entire kinetic chain and results in greater neuromuscular efficiency and therefore greater force transfer. Training with stability balls, bands, medicine balls, dumbbells and training in unstable training environment are some of the effective methods used to train the endurance athlete more functionally. This does not mean that strength training becomes a circus act. No! The risk versus benefit ratio must always be taken into account. We must always go back to our checklist and ask ourselves, "What is the reason for this exercise?"
The following exercises are an example of what functional strength training for the triathlete looks like.
|Diagonal Woodchop - 1
||Diagonal Woodchop - 2
|Single Leg Squat - 1
||Single Leg Squat - 2
|Single Leg Anterior Reach - 1
||Single Leg Anterior Reach - 2
As you can see, this is not your father's (or mother's) workout! The above exercises provide single leg power, stability and balance. They also train the core of the body to generate more force production through more efficient and economical movement, thereby transferring more power to the target activity.
This thought process highlights the need to re-evaluate current training methods. Use the FT checklist and ask the six questions to ensure that your endurance athletes’ strength training will be specific and effective. The inevitable outcome of using FT and working integrated movements, instead of isolated muscles, is optimal performance enhancement.