by Chris Bagg, photos courtesy of Dylan Haskin

Ed. Note—Last month, we began our new series called "Ask an Endurance Coach," where we feature questions from the Wattie Ink. faithful about how they should set up their endurance year. If we pick your question, we'll hook you up with a gift card to your favorite endurance apparel brand. This month we answer Tim M's question "What strength training exercises should triathletes add to their routine during the pre-season?" 

Most of you reading this prefer to go somewhere while exercising. Rather than heading to the gym, getting outside for a brisk run, ride, or swim provides you your daily dose of happiness and progress towards your chosen goal. For many endurance athletes, strength training ranks a distant fourth (even below swimming!) in terms of our priorities of enjoyment and development. You probably know, however, that you should include some kind of resistance work in your weekly routine, but how much? What kinds? How achieved without injury? Some athletes decide CrossFit is the answer, and end up badly hurt within a few months. Others duck the question altogether, issuing vague statements about "I'll do some big gear work on the bike" or "I'll just do more paddle work." Sadly, neither of these approaches will suffice. Today we'll endeavor to give you a simple menu of early-season movements that will drive your competitive season to new heights.

The Benefits of Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

First, though, what does strength training even do? Many endurance athletes voice a fear of bulking up through strength training and, as a result, never darken the door of a gym. Here is what you stand to improve when you begin lifting stuff:

  • Strength training will improve endurance performance if appropriate volume and intensity is administered
  • Maximal strength (ability to generate force—like pushing on pedals, exerting force on the water, or pushing off while running)
  • Greater coordination between nervous system and muscles
  • More glycogen storage in muscles (bigger fuel tanks for endurance)
  • Improved bone mineral density
  • Higher connective tissue stiffness

That's a good list of things! For those of you worried about bulk, yes, strength training can increase size, but it's actually quite unlikely for endurance athletes, and we'll get into why later. 

What Strength Training WON'T Do

We'd be remiss to not point out the following. Strength training hasn't been linked to a direct improvement in the main arbiters of endurance performance: VO2max (oxygen uptake) or Lactate Threshold. That doesn't mean, though, that you shouldn't do it! The improvements listed above will make you improve your body's ability to generate force, and that will allow you to work at a higher rate. Eventually your cardiovascular system will catch up and then your endurance capabilities will improve.

Movements for Improved Endurance Performance

So what should go in your strength program, now that you're convinced this is a good idea? Any strength plan should touch the muscles you're going to use in your primary activities, along with a focus on the systems and areas of your body that will keep you healthy and functional for your whole life. For triathlon, we need a fairly extensive list of push/pull movements, coupled with core work, so that we can support the full-body requirements of our sport. Those movements should include:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Calf raises
  • Pull-ups/pull-downs
  • Classic push-ups/bench press
  • Rows
  • Leg presses
  • Hamstring curls (not on the machine!)
  • Back extension/superman
  • Dying bug
  • Ab/core brace
  • Planks in several positions
  • Anti-rotation exercises (medicine ball rotations, landmines, Pallof press)

How Often Should I Strength Train During the Early Season?

The early season offers an opportunity to set yourself up for later success. The real benefits of strength training occur later in the year, when you're able to lift heavier weights at lower repetitions. Heading straight for heavy weight, though, will only result in injury and burnout. The early season provides the time to build the connective tissue around your muscles and bones, and to improve bone density. Since that is the goal, you're going to aim for lower weights, higher reps, and more time under tension. What does that actually look like?

Ideally, you're doing resistance training twice per week, and each movement will feature three to four sets of at least 15 reps. That means a pretty light weight! In order to hit the "more time under tension" requirement, aim to to spend at least four seconds on each rep, so each set takes more than a minute. In between sets you only get around 30 seconds of rest. We're aiming to induce a mild lactate response in our peripheral system (the muscles, separate from the nervous system or cardiovascular systems), and that means not much rest in between. Let's take some movements from above and apply this programming:

  • 1x20 unweighted squats to warm up, and then 3x15 squats, spending 60-75 seconds on each set, lifting a weight you can easily lift 15 times.
  • 1x20 unweighted deadlifts (hold a dowel or broom along your spine to make sure you're hingeing at the hip), and then 3x15 deadlifts, spending 60-75 seconds on each set, lifting a weight you can easily lift 15 times.
  • 3x15 assisted pull-ups (use bands or the pull-up machine) or pull-downs, spending 60-75 seconds on each set
  • 3x15 hamstring curls on a stability ball, spending 60-75 seconds on each set
  • 3x15 supermans, spending 60-75 seconds on each set 
  • 50 calf raises on each leg
  • Several sets of core exercises chosen from the list above, aiming for more than 60 seconds for each movement

Lift Later in the Day, and Eat Afterward

Research suggests that endurance training will interfere with the developments associated with your strength training (the fancy word here is "attenuate"). So park these sessions at the end of the day, and maybe put them on a day where you don't have a heavy load of endurance work. For the athletes we work with at CBCG, we tend to program strength work on Mondays and Fridays, when our athletes tend to have swim workouts. Hit the gym at the end of your day, and then go home and make sure you get in at least 30 grams of protein to make sure you're supplying your muscles with the fuel necessary to actually support the stimulus you just provided your body.

Here's where we'll allay your fears about bulking up. In order to actually build muscle, rather than simply reinforcing connective tissue and improving stiffness, you need to eat a lot. Ever hang out with someone who is actively trying to get bigger? They eat all the time. Like, literally all the time. At this point in the year, when you're not yet concerned with strength, there isn't enough stimulus to generate muscle growth, and your endurance training will take care of the rest.

What Next?

Your early season strength training should take six to eight weeks, before you move on to the next phase of general strength training, which we'll cover another day. In the meantime, however, let us know how you're getting on with the suggested movements, and leave us a comment! Happy lifting—strength training may actually become a looked-forward-to component of your multisport life.