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Getting Started Strength Training for Triathlons

Ben Rotherham

How much weight training triathletes should do, when, and how to do it?

You already have three sports to train for, but the benefits of adding strength training for triathlons are worth the time investment. A well-designed triathlon strength training program will make you a stronger, more efficient athlete, reduce injuries, promote healthy hormones, and help you maintain your muscle tissue as you get older. Make the time to strength train for a triathlon and you’ll swim, bike, and run faster while using less energy.

The goal here is to help you build a successful strength training routine that won’t add to your fatigue or chew up the remainder of your free time.

You’ll be surprised to learn how little time is needed to be able to swim longer, ride stronger, and run faster. You may be surprised, too, at how simple it can be to accomplish this right from home without any equipment. By the end of this article, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to properly:

  • Phase your strength training throughout the year;
  • Perform exercises safely and effectively; and
  • Build strength and endurance to make you faster on race day.

How to create your annual strength training program for triathlon 

To get stronger and build endurance you must continually force your muscles to work harder than they’re used to. If you search the internet for ‘free strength training programs’ the best ones will have limited variety and will increase in difficulty and intensity over time. 

Repeating the same movements consistently allows you to become comfortable and confident with each workout. Also, as the difficulty and intensity of the sessions increases you get stronger, this is commonly referred to as progressive overload or phasing a strength program. 

If you’re constantly changing up the routine and repeatedly doing unfamiliar movements, you’ll never become proficient with proper form and likely will increase the risk of injury. It’s also true if you don’t progress or “phase” your programming, you’ll be stuck in a perpetual cycle of maintaining fitness while never building it.

Instead of “constantly confusing the body” a better training plan has similar exercises performed in a sequential manner with progressive difficulty so you can adapt and improve as you progress through the training plan.

Your strength training for triathlons works the same way your swim, bike, and run training does. Off-season, base phase, build phase, peak phase. Depending on your coach or training plan the names of the phases might vary, but you get the idea. You wouldn’t do a workout with peak intensity during your general fitness building base phase. 

How much strength training you need for triathlon

A quality strength training for triathlons routine should include two to three sessions per week for 20 to 30 minutes each. The benefits of strength training for triathlons is maximized when it’s incorporated year-round. Below, there’s an explanation of how and when to do certain workouts throughout your training. 

If you have access to a gym or weights at home, this article will help you run faster, avoid Injury, bike better, lose weight and look better.

Does triathlon training build muscle?

Yes, triathlon training does build muscle but not in the way you may think. You don’t see many triathletes with body builder-type muscles. That’s because strength training for triathlons isn’t designed for adding massive amounts of muscle.

A 2010 clinical trial saw 20 well-trained cyclists incorporate a heavy strength routine, in addition to their traditional cycling work, over a 12 week period. Researchers found that adding strength training to usual endurance training improved cycling performance and. Additionally, the added strength training  increased thigh muscles  without causing an increase in body mass(1).

Adding a pound or two of muscle over the course of your training is going to give you a better frame, a better structure, and help bring about the health benefits mentioned earlier. It’s very rare that in your first long distance triathlon that you’ll start walking as a result of a taxed aerobics system. You're probably going to start walking because your muscles are tired, which is why building muscle and maintaining it throughout your training is beneficial.

You’ll know that you’re building strength and muscle iIf you’re able to increase the weight and decrease the reps week over week.

How does strength training improve your ability to bike and run?

Strength training was incorrectly shunned for endurance athletes for decades leading to injuries and inefficient swimming, cycling, and running. In reality, strength training makes athletes more efficient so they use less energy to perform the same task. 

It also reduces the likelihood of injury, and strength training helps with the hormonal changes and muscle loss that age-group endurance athletes face as we get older.

A 2014 study examined the effect of a short-term plyometric training program on explosive strength and endurance performance in highly competitive middle- and long-distance runners. Researchers concluded that properly programmed concurrent explosive strength and endurance training could be advantageous for middle- and long-distance runners in their competitive performance(2).

How to prevent muscle loss while triathlon training

Once you’ve built the muscle, there are two main things you can do to prevent muscle loss while triathlon training: continue to strength train and eat enough protein. Your ability to maintain that muscle will be crucial for race day success.

Here’s how to do it. You should continue to strength train throughout the week but reduce the intensity of those sessions. You don’t want it to be overly fatiguing, which will negatively affect your ability to recover between workouts. That continued muscle stimulus, along with a protein-rich diet will help maintain lean tissue.

If you’re wondering how much protein a triathlete needs, general guidelines suggest a minimum of 0.55 grams to 0.65 grams per pound of body weight. So, for example, if you weigh 175 pounds you need to eat roughly 96 to 114 grams of protein per day. Adequate protein intake, as mentioned, helps maintain lean muscle tissue and also aids in the recovery process. 

Strength training for triathlons at home without equipment

Your own body weight is oftentimes more than enough resistance to help you get noticeably stronger. Bodyweight workout routines should be built around exercises such as push-ups, squats, and lunges.

So, if you’re not a fan of the gym or don’t have access to strength training equipment there’s still plenty you can do right at home or during your triathlon workouts to build muscle and strength.

A 2018 study found that whole-body high-intensity interval training (HIIT) led to similar cardio and muscle adaptations compared to traditional HIIT(3), which should reduce fear around not being able to maximize your effort without traditional weights.

Strength training for swimming

To improve your power in the water a strength training routine should focus on the posterior chain which will target your glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles. For example, a weak upper back makes it difficult to engage the lat muscles while swimming. Your strength training routine should focus on the posterior chain which will target your glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles. A strong core along with strong hips and shoulders will serve you well in the water too.

Swimming is a low-impact, full-body workout each time you’re in the pool or open water. It’s repetitive, which has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s predictable with very few variables. You don’t have to worry about random potholes or cracks in the sidewalk like you do with cycling and running. On the negative side, the repetitive nature of swimming can lead to increased physical and mental stress.

It’s for these reasons that a dry-land strength routine is beneficial if you want to get faster and go longer when you’re in the water. The constant overhead and front-of-body movement patterns can create muscle imbalances in the absence of a dedicated strength routine to counteract that repetitiveness.

If you simply cannot fit in strength training for triathlon during the week, you can focus on using paddles in the pool. This will help develop your sport-specific muscles to make you faster and more efficient in the water. 

Paddles help you gain strength by forcing you to engage your lat muscles, which allows you to generate more power through your stroke. In addition to a more powerful pull through the water, you’re also significantly reducing your risk of injury by removing unnecessary stress on the shoulders.

Strength training for cycling

Strength training that will increase your power on the bike will happen predominantly in your lower body, but that shouldn’t be the entirety of your focus. Your core muscles are essential as well for bike handling, hill climbing, and overall endurance capacity.

Cycling, much like swimming, is repetitive and that continuous motion is happening one leg at a time. Therefore it’s important to incorporate a variety of movements.

The most common way to develop and then maintain sport-specific muscles for cycling without the use of weights is through low-cadence interval workouts. “Big gear work” as you may have heard it referred to means having a cadence of about 50-60 RPM. This type of cycling strength will give you the strength to power over short, steep climbs and add some extra watts while accelerating away from your competition. 

Strength training for running

Run-specific strength training will help prevent injury, as running is most commonly where triathletes get injured. You’ll run faster and more efficiently. Within the context of a triathlon training program your legs will already be fatigued. That’s why it’s essential to incorporate a variety of movements with an emphasis on the core. This will allow you to get stronger without overloading your lower body muscles. 

One common misconception is that your core is simply your abdominal muscles between your belly button and sternum. The truth is that your core includes the abdominal muscles, chest, lower back, hips and pelvis. It’s uniquely tasked with providing stability and protection for your spine.  

Having a strong core will allow you to run more efficiently maintaining your best form throughout longer distances races. I’d assume you’ve seen the finish line of triathlons where athletes are hunched over at the end. That’s due in large part to having core muscles that weren’t able to withstand the stress they’d been placed under during the race.

You can also build strength and muscle through hill repetitions. These are an excellent way to develop sport-specific muscles and keep them strong throughout an entire triathlon race season. Hill reps will produce a more powerful and efficient stride. Another great benefit is that running uphill places less stress on the legs as it’s far less impact than running on flat or downhill surfaces.

Your annual strength training for triathlon program

Here’s a sample year long triathlon strength training plan to get you started. This strength program assumes your race season is in the northern hemisphere summer from May to October:

November - December Offseason Strength

  • Heavy weights
  • Low reps at 6 or less
  • Large compound movements like deadlifts, squats, leg presses, lunges
  • Focus on good form and safety over lifting as much as possible

January - April Power Building Strength

  • Lighter weights like kettlebells, dumbbells, or bodyweight
  • Powerful explosive movements trying to move the weight fast
  • Lower reps of 8 or less
  • Focus on slowly controlling the weights on the way down and exploding quickly on the way up to build power

May - October Race Season Strength

  • Intensity can be reduced to save energy for main swim, bike, run training
  • Light or heavy weights, but don’t work so hard you feel tired at the end of the workout
  • Lower reps of 8 or less
  • Focus is on activating the muscle not tiring it out
  • Incorporate sport-specific strength training: paddles while swimming, low cadence (low rpm) cycling, and hill running

If you perform this strength training routine for triathlons consistently and properly you’ll be more efficient so you’ll use less energy while swimming, biking, and running; allowing you to go faster with the same energy you’re using today or your current paces will feel easier.

You’ll also be less likely to get injured swimming, biking, and running if you incorporate strength training into your triathlon training plan.  

Most importantly however, you’ll help your hormones and maintain muscle mass or even grow muscle as you age. You’ll look good, feel strong, and stay healthy for any endurance sport you want to take on and life in general.
If you have access to a gym or weights at home, this FREE STRENGTH ROUTINE will help you run faster, avoid Injury, bike better, lose weight and look better.

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Ben Rotherham
Ben Rotherham

Ben is a four time Ironman finisher featuring a personal best of 8:20 at Ironman Louisville. He is a personal trainer and head coach and founder of Mission Multisport.

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