Most triathletes focus determinedly on aerobic fitness, leaving everyone else to toil in the gym. But could some gym work – particularly now that the weather is on the turn – be beneficial for your performance in 2011? Tawnee Prazak looks at the benefits of weights, and what kind of exercises you should be doing.
Written By Tawnee Prazak
Lois Marquart won silver in her age group at Xterra Triathlon Worlds last October. She’s 61 years old. She attributes her success in part to strength training: “If it weren’t for a periodised strength training schedule, I could not perform Xterra triathlons,” she says. “It works. And do I look 61?”
A growing amount of research supports Marquart’s view. While pumping iron won’t increase VO2max, studies involving endurance runners, cyclists and triathletes show improved time-trial performance, increased maximal power output, enhanced movement economy and decreased fatigue when the training routine is periodically changed up.
“Thinking that the best way to get faster is to swim, bike and run more will only take you so far,” says sports physical therapist and triathlon coach Mick Larrabee. He recommends having a professional assessment to check for biomechanical inefficiencies and imbalances, such as flat feet or over-pronation, before starting a strength program. “Deficiencies must be identified and addressed first,” he says. “Once you have good biomechanics, then get into strength training.”
The performance benefits of strength training twice a week for 30 to 45 minutes can be greater than spending that time doing aerobic activity. In a study led by Leena Paavolainen of the University of Jyväskylä, elite distance runners substituted 32 per cent of their endurance training with explosive strength exercises and significantly improved their 5K times after nine weeks.
As for the fear of “bulking up,” studies show strength training won’t cause significant weight gain via hypertrophy, or muscle growth, even if 20 per cent of endurance training is replaced with strength work. The goal in a tri-specific strength plan is to enhance neuromuscular adaptations, meaning the brain-muscle relationship improves, allowing you to recruit the muscles you need to maintain the speed and power for longer durations. This is different from training to increase muscle mass.
Putting it into Practice
Here are some basic guidelines for incorporating strength training into your training program.
1. Substitute. Instead of adding strength training to the endurance training you’re already doing, replace a portion of your endurance training with strength work. “A good time to do this is during the non-competitive phase,” Larrabee says. “As you get closer to base training and competition preparation, focus more on the three disciplines.”
2. Keep ’em separated. It’s best to separate endurance and strength sessions, and it’s especially important to avoid strength training right after heavy endurance exercise because hormonal responses from long-distance aerobic work may inhibit strength gains—that is, you could be wasting your time.
3. Go heavy. For weight exercises, doing tons of repetitions until fatigue won’t translate into better endurance. “High reps are not good use of your time,” Larrabee says. Do three sets of 10-15 reps with weight that has you feeling “maxed out” on the last rep. For plyometric exercises, repetitions can be higher. In one session, choose exercises that result in 80 to 140 “contacts,” meaning four sets of 20 box jumps (80 total), four sets of 30 squat jumps (120 reps), etc.
4. Be specific. Blindly jumping on a weight machine is not wise. Exercises must be specific to the sport with motions that mimic the activity, as in the examples below. This could involve everything from back squats to weight resisted sprints to box jumps. In one session, combine eight to 12 exercises that focus on different muscles. Start with the hard exercises and end with the easiest.
Explosive plyometrics: Box jumps, horizontal jumps, depth jumps, single-leg jumps, running with a weighted vest, scissor jumps and box step-up/step-down. Heavy resistance exercises: back squats, hamstring curls, leg presses, knee extension/flexion, calf raises and lunges.
Upper-body exercises: Rotator cuff exercises, such as lateral/front arm raises, external/internal rotations with dumbbells or tubing, pull-ups, tricep pushdowns, pressups, back extensions, lat pulldowns, seated and/or bent-over row and shoulder presses. Explosive plyos: medicine ball throws from different angles such as overhead, side-to-side, single-arm throw and power drop.
Core: Isometric plank, trunk rotation with or without weight, split-leg sit-ups, bicycle sit-ups and supine leg lifts.
Tawnee Prazak is a certified coach, personal trainer, kinesiology graduate student and triathlete based in Orange County, Calif.