A comprehensive approach to strength training for triathletes

The key to a successful season is proper strength training.
With the season winding down and winter rolling in, it's time to shift gears and start preparing for a good off-season. With our beat up bodies and worn out minds, it's time to take some time off and transition into a rebuilding phase for next year.

If we did things right, then we should only need a few weeks off before starting to work on our base, enjoying some cross-training and heading into the gym.

It's no secret that proper strength and conditioning work can be what separates the winner from the runner-up and a successful athletic career from one of disappointment -- or worse, pain and injury. Research supports this as does the experience of many a successful endurance athlete. In a sport that involves repetitive, cyclic movement, and three sports to boot, a scientifically-designed conditioning program is the key to a successful season.

Most of us participate in some kind of strength and conditioning program in the off-season, but are we doing it for the right reasons? Maybe. Many athletes think they're doing the right things, but when asked why they're doing them, their reasoning may be a little shaky. The primary reasons for employing a conditioning program in the gym include:

  1. Improving functional flexibility and sport-specific range of motion
  2. Stabilizing and strengthening of the core to prevent injury and create a solid foundation for biomechanical efficiency
  3. Strengthening tendons, ligaments and stabilizing musculature to improve joint integrity
  4. Strengthening the weakened, long muscles to rectify muscular imbalances that result from overuse, thus improving posture
  5. Increasing movement-specific lean muscle mass that has been broken down over the course of the season
Stretching what's tight
Flexibility training is often neglected in an athlete's hurry to move on to more intense training. This can be a big mistake -- flexibility is the foundation of your fitness and the rest of your training will built on this.

Since you're performing repetitive movements during swimming, cycling and running, it's no surprise that many muscles and joints become overused. In addition, through all this movement the rest of your body is maintaining a fixed position, so you wind up with imbalances -- overused, tight musculature and underused, weak musculature.

Stretching these tight areas using a variety of approaches is the key to correcting these imbalances. Stretching only what's tight is the first step in eliminating aches and pains, correcting posture and improving performance-enhancing range of motion.

The core
The core is another often neglected or poorly addressed part of the performance and injury-prevention equation. Too many athletes skip this step entirely, moving on to more traditional weight lifting programs that only work the prime movers; this only increases muscle imbalances and leaves out critical links in the chain. Our core musculature is crucial for stability, strength and movement efficiency and necessary to offset faulty movement patterns that lead to injury.

Strengthening tendons, ligaments and stabilizing musculature
Preparing the body for the heavier workloads to come is the key to preventing injury, so strengthening our tendons, ligaments and stabilizing the musculature is crucial. How does strength training prevent injury? By incorporating multi-joint, multi-planar movements using lighter loads and higher repetitions, we train the stabilizers of the joints and prepare the body for the rigors of training and competition.

Strengthening what's weak
Strengthening what's weak is important in order to start building performance-enhancing muscle, but also key in injury prevention. Note which muscles have been underused and start there. There's no need to strengthen what's already tight and overused, or muscles and muscle groups that don't contribute to performance in our sport. Starting with the weak links is an important part of a performance-enhancement program. The result? Improved posture, which translates into more effective breathing, increased longevity, and reduced incidence of chronic injury.

Increasing muscle mass
Increasing muscle mass is the most popular response when asked why strength training is important. It's a good reason though. After a long season, our lean muscle has been all but eaten away from the high volume and intensity of our training and racing.

Reduced lean muscle mass can slow the metabolism and impair immune function, so recovery and rebuilding is necessary. An intelligent dose of strength and flexibility training and rest can be just what the doctor ordered and will improve all of these areas across the board.

For a complete strength training program for endurance athletes, check out The Next Level: Strength Training for Endurance Athletes DVD at www.endurofit.com.

Jeb Stewart, M.S., C.S.C.S., is a USA Cycling Elite and USA Triathlon Level 1 coach and is certified by the ACSM, NSCA and NASM. He has a master's in exercise science and health promotion and is co-owner and head coach of Endurofit, LLC. For more information, visit www.endurofit.com or contact Jeb at jstewart@endurofit.com or 813-230-2900.

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