Training for a triathlete is both an art and a science. Sorry to disappoint but there is no magic formula guaranteeing results or a one-size-fits-all approach towards preparation for a triathlon. Fortunately, we have the philosophical positions of empiricism (knowledge derived from our five senses) and rationalism (intuitive deduction and induction) to come to our aid.
Training triad: Head, heart and gut.
If these three components work in sync, you will be well on your way towards making some serious progress in your triathlon preparation and race performance. Abstraction aside, let us delve deeper into the concrete and more tangible aspects outlining best training practices and possible insights on what may be considered “Gold Standard” triathlon training.
High performing triathletes typically incorporate strength training and good nutrition into their race preparation. For us just starting out in an endurance sport, finding the right combination of nutrition and strength training given that no two human beings are identical in terms of phenotype (physical attributes), biomechanics (how our bodies are structured and our movement) or even psychological composition, may seem like a daunting task.
Even top performing triathletes needed to start somewhere – some of them are more conservative and risk averse whilst others a little bolder and risk-seeking. Regardless, nothing beats taking ACTION. Baby steps regardless of whether they take us forward, wayward or backward are still better than succumbing to the dreaded analysis paralysis. Action is key. With action, we can reflect on what works and what does not work and revise and refine our approaches.
Of course, we will endeavour to start off on the right footing to establish a firm foundation for progress. It may seem like purely common sense but think again. It is important that we know what we are doing and do not go in blindly. For those among us who tend to have our heads stuck in the clouds and struggle coming back down to Mother Earth (which I am guilty of at times), perhaps the logical first step would be to seek guidance from a qualified sports nutritionist, triathlete coach or personal trainer specialising in endurance sport preparation.
Tapping into the knowledge and expertise and experience of these professionals will help us put things into perspective and give us a little confidence in our training.
Would 100 repetitions of bicep curls, 500 crunches or chugging down 5 protein shakes a day improve your running, cycling or swimming performance? ‘Pasta Party’ or Caveman… uhm ‘Paleo Diet’?
A few questions to ponder over before you engage the expertise of an expert on sport-specific strength training and conditioning:
When should I begin strength training?
What type of exercises should I incorporate into my training programme and which muscle groups should I target?
How often should I strength train and condition my body?
How much time should I give my body to recover in between strength training sessions?
How much muscle should I pack on for maximum performance?
5 reasons for strength training and conditioning for triathletes
1. Correcting muscular imbalances and injury prevention
Triathlons consist of running, cycling and swimming and are incredibly taxing on the body as is the case with most endurance sports. It tests one’s ability to withstand fatigue, stress and sometimes pain. It is not uncommon for distance runners to have underdeveloped glutes (buttocks) and cyclists to have overdeveloped quadriceps and underdeveloped hamstrings. Don’t even get me started on the hip flexors. These tend to be tight in distance cyclists and runners – and even people with sedentary lifestyles.
So what happens when we have some muscles stronger than others – be it front versus rear, right versus left or inner versus outer? We will be more susceptible to injury! Running is not simply putting one foot in front of the other. It requires balance and coordination. Compared to cycling or swimming, running generates the highest impact force with each foot strike. Therefore, strength training exercises aimed at improving running form and performance are usually a combination of bilateral and unilateral movements and multi-joint compound rather than single-joint isolation exercises.
All of this has been incorporated into the strength training program that is in my 90 Day Transformation for triathletes, an intensive 3 month program designed to ingrain the fitness and nutrition habits triathletes need to reach an elite level of performance, which you can learn more about here.
2. Proper posture and deep breathing
In this modern era where we spend hours crouched behind our desks, it is not uncommon for more people to spot forward poking chins, droopy rounded shoulders, protruding bellies, exaggerated lower back arches and buttocks sticking out like Donald Duck when they stand, walk or run. Upper Crossed Syndrome. Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Or to avoid the scientific mambo jumbo, we have a crisis situation. BATTLE AGAINST THE SLOUCH. Strength training helps us balance tight/ overtight muscles and weak/ inhibited muscles which impede proper postural alignment.
Sure. You may think posture is overrated but the spine is designed to help absorb shock and keep us balanced. If the postural alignment changes, this ability becomes compromised and our swimming, cycling and running performance will be negatively impacted. Poor posture also increases the risk of sore muscles, back, shoulder, neck pain and fatigue! If left untreated, it can lead to nerve constriction and blood vessel constriction which induce numbness as they cut off blood (nutrient and oxygen) supply to the cells of the muscles.
Triathletes understand that to neglect proper postural alignment is to risk blood and oxygen flow restrictions which would impede the ability of their ribcages to expand properly to allow their lungs and diaphragm to function optimally throughout the entire duration of the event. Deep abdominal breathing is indispensable to the endurance athlete who needs to maintain their performance at submaximal intensity for prolonged periods of time. Hence, there is simply no room for shallow breathing for peak performance.
3. Bone and connective tissue health: enhances longevity to keep you racing at your peak longer
I think it is safe to say that most elite athletes’ careers are intense and brief due to the demanding nature of their sports. Triathletes who engage in strength training reap the additional benefits of reducing their risk of soft tissue injuries such as muscle tears and strains and damage to connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons. Healthy and strong ligaments and tendons maintain joint integrity, significantly reducing the risk of injury which could put a triathlete out of a race, season or the sport all together.
The forces exerted on the joints during strength training stress the connective tissue and tug at the bones, increasing bone formation. For running, the bones, particularly the triathlete’s leg bones and spinal column would become stronger and denser due to steady and frequent axial impact loading when their feet strike the ground.
However, triathletes who do not do as much running and centre their training on cycling and/or swimming would stand to gain from strength training to prevent osteopenia (reduced bone density) as compared to running, these do not provide the type of loading that induces significant bone remodelling or increased bone density.
4. Combining strength and power training enhance economy and speed
Conditioning or more specifically power training (strength applied quickly) aims to increase the triathlete’s anaerobic capacity and lactate threshold/ buffer lactate. Essentially, a conditioned triathlete can swim, cycle and run at higher speeds for longer distances.
Six-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion, Mark Allen who only began strength training in the latter stages of his triathlon career who swears by strength training, recounts “I reached a point in my career where it didn’t matter how much I swam, biked or ran, I couldn’t increase my strength above a certain level.” This champion will tell you that the muscular breakdown from high volume training and longer races can only be counteracted by a solid strength training programme which enhances strength, muscular endurance and power and overall resistance to injury.
Diane Buchta, the first strength coach of the United States Triathlon Team with 12 years of teaching experience at the University of California at San Diego, and pioneer of the video Strength Training for Triathletes developed a periodised strength training model with five distinct sport-training stages leading up to a triathlete’s race day. This strength training model is the foundation of the weight training program that I incorporate into my 90 Day Transformation for Triathletes.
Basics of Buchta’s 5-phase strength training programme for triathletes:
Phase 1: Base/ Acclimation (4-5 weeks)
Focuses on building a fresh endurance base and muscular strength (slow and easy)
Phase 2: Strength/ Endurance phase (4-5 weeks)
Increase aerobic mileage and volume of strength training (challenges triathlete to handle higher blood lactate levels)
Phase 3: Power/ Endurance (4-5 weeks)
Focuses on turning strength to power (high intensity and volume)
Phase 4: Peak Power (8 weeks)
Focuses on high-intensity intervals
Strength training is modified to turn power into speed
Phase 5: Maintenance (in-season phase)
Recommended but not mandatory
Cease strength training two weeks before race day
Concurrent strength training and cardio training
Shorter rest periods between sets
Fast-paced, high intensity strength training
Do not overwork muscles or muscle groups to and cross-train to prevent overuse. Remember you are a triathlete. You need to be good at all three: running, cycling, swimming
Hybrid exercises (combining multi-joint movements into a single rep)
Explosive movements (plyometrics)
5. Strength training ignites your metabolism and improves your body composition
Strength training helps convert energy stores into energy efficiently. It can also be used as a fat burner. More muscle mass raises your basal metabolism which means you burn more calories even at rest. More muscle mass means better body composition through a reduction of fat stores. So, you’d race strong and sexy.
Alas! Let’s not put NUTRITION on the backburner as it is critical for fat metabolism and improved body composition.
To achieve this, triathletes understand that failing to take nutrition seriously would undermine all of their hard work and decrease their level of training and race performance! One nutritional error could prove costly!
7 good reasons for triathletes to skip the parta party and go paleo!
No risk of gastric distress on race day or hitting the wall
Incredible surge in energy, body composition and improved race performance by consuming “real” food
Avoiding highly processed chemical laden foods and reducing reliance on refined grains, starches, dairy and refined sugars boosts recovery, performance and health
Avoiding high consumption of grains reduces the risk of systemic inflammation, body fat storage and tissue acidity which accelerate ageing, joint problems, delayed recovery from exercise and general fatigue.
Avoiding grains and legumes enables the body to absorb nutrients better as these have been implicated for intestinal permeability (leaky gut) whereby partially digested proteins can leak out into the bloodstream, over time resulting in IBS, Crohn’s Disease, autoimmune diseases, acne, chronic fatigue and joint pain.
Drinking milk may appear to boost calcium but dairy is also acidic. Without an alkali to neutralise the acidity, the body may turn to the calcium in our bones to find that balance. Other foods such as raw kale, spinach and broccoli contain more calcium than milk and are more alkaline-forming.
According to Joe Friel, world renowned triathlon coach from ‘Triathletes Training Bible’ and co-author of ‘The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance’, the Paleo diet is high in trace nutrients — vitamins and minerals that are vital for optimal performance and long-term recovery from exercise. He cited vegetables and seafood as the most nutrient dense foods.
Here’s the recommended list of things to eat when you’re following the Paleo diet:
In a nutshell…
Sorry but you would have to do away with the pasta, cereal, and candy and anything else that did not exist in the prehistoric times where Neanderthals, I mean cavemen walked this earth. Good nutrition and strength training are two sides of the same coin — just like if we train our quadriceps and biceps (mirror muscles), we mustn’t neglect our hamstrings and triceps.
If this feels overwhelming, don’t be discouraged.
Join me on my 90 Day Transformation, a 3 month program designed to reboot your your metabolism and build the strength and conditioning needed for ultimate performance.
Like Mark Allen, smart triathletes have realized that without proper nutrition and a strength & conditioning program you will never realize your full potential.
Written by Ali Watts - AliFitness founder and Kapuhala Brand Ambassador