Strength training

12 September 2017

Bring up strength training among a group of AG triathletes and you generally see a definite split in opinion. The majority tends to be along the lines of “Three sports isn’t enough? You want me to add a fourth? Where will I find the time for that?” while the minority believes strength training has an important role to play. There aren’t many people who are ambivalent.

When I started my own triathlon journey I subscribed to the majority opinion. I was busy learning to swim and ride a bike and going from thinking running 4 days a week was training hard to trying to fit in 3 sessions in 3 sports each week. Throwing some gym sessions into the mix was definitely not on the agenda. Now I make gym sessions a priority, but only at certain times of the year. This is what is known as ‘Periodization’. You do different things at different times of the season.

Following on from a break after your ‘A’ race (link to previous blog), most athletes will benefit from
including strength training sessions when they resume training. There are a number of reasons for

  1. For most of us, our off-season is in Winter and that generally means cold, wet and windy conditions. It’s much nicer to go and work out in the warm gym than brave the elements day after day.
  2. Gym work is different from slogging through the long rides and runs you have been doing. This gives a nice mental break so you are psychologically ready when it comes to putting in some serious kms again.
  3. Many studies have repeatedly shown that strength training has a better effect on body composition that cardio training.
  4. Endurance exercise has the tendency to be catabolic (breaks down muscle). Including strength training means that you start the season with stronger muscles which translates to more force through your swim stroke, more power on the bike and increased pace while running.
  5. Strength training helps correct the muscle imbalances that we all develop and therefore helps reduce the risk of injury.
  6. Strength training has been shown to cause Mitochondria (energy producing cells) to grow and multiply. Endurance training does the same thing, so we can to some extend build our aerobic fitness in the gym.

If you don’t have a gym membership, there are many exercises that you can do at home including many variations of squats and lunges (single and double leg), press ups, tricep dips, pull ups or assisted pull ups if you have a bar, crunches, sit ups and planks so this doesn’t need to be an excuse.

Prior to beginning targeted base training, I prioritise strength training with 2 to 3 sessions a week. I begin with relatively low weights and high reps (15-10) with the focus on performing the right movement patterns. I would then move to a strength building phase where reps decrease and weight increases. When starting base training, I drop to 2 gym sessions a week with the focus on maintaining strength gains and form. In the build period, I would drop to 1 gym session a week focusing on functional strength. I take a break completely from gym in the 2 weeks leading up to a major race.

Trying to do hard strength training alongside a heavy endurance training schedule can be counter-productive as you don’t recover from either sufficiently to make improvements, and it can have a tendency to lead to over-training syndrome. Strength training does have an important role to play in a structured, periodized plan for most AG Triathletes. If you aren’t sure of the exercises, getting together with some friends and employing a trainer or coach to get you going is a great way to start.