Presumably, the majority of us triathletes have taken up triathlon because we enjoy swimming, cycling and running, or at least two of these activities.
People who, on the other hand, enjoy lifting weights more than they do swimming, cycling and running, generally don't come any closer to doing a triathlon than spending a perfunctory 20 minutes on the StairMaster after a good pec session at Bally's. And this is as it should be.
But while few triathletes feel any real pull toward the weight room, the fact that most triathletes want to race as fast as possible—and not just noodle around at an elevated heart rate for its own sake six days a week—is enough to get us to the gym right alongside those pec-session people. Infrequently. With a bad attitude. Which is not as it should be.
A great many tri-geeks are kinda convinced that strength training helps with triathlon and are therefore kinda committed to doing it. Can you blame us? There's little enough time already for the pool, the road and the trail, and like we said, dumbbells just aren't very exciting for birds of our feather. Trouble is, a half-assed approach to strength training does about as much good as going for a 10-mile run every 10 days, doing nothing in between.
As always, when in doubt, look at your heroes. The three individuals who together account for 20 Hawaii Ironman victories—Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser—all made strength training an important element of their triathlon training. All got exactly what you and I can get out of a proper strength-training program: enhanced strength, muscular endurance and power, and a higher resistance to injury.
"Weight training was the missing link for me," says Allen, who began serious iron-pumping only in the latter stages of his triathlon journey. "I reached a point in my career where it didn't matter how much I swam, biked or ran, I couldn't increase my strength above a certain level. High-volume training and longer races break down your muscle fibers, and it really helped me to have a little extra reserve to draw on."
Research proves it in the laboratory, and Ironman champions prove it in the proverbial pudding: Strength training is truly and rightfully triathlon's fourth event. But you have to know what you're doing. Keep reading.
I'll Have What They're Having
Of the three heroes just named, two, Allen and Newby-Fraser, received their strength coaching from the same source: Diane Buchta. If there is a strength training guru for triathlon, Buchta is she. Diane is a genius in her field, says Allen.
Buchta, the first strength coach of the United States Triathlon Team, taught strength training for 12 years at the University of California at San Diego, created the video Strength Training for Triathletes (featuring Allen and Newby-Fraser) and coaches at the Multisport School of Champions in Solana Beach, California.
One of her training legacies has been the development of a periodized strength training model whose five phases correspond to five specific sport-training stages in the triathlete's calendar. The basic philosophy behind the model is to flexibly and unobtrusively support the triathlete's swimming, cycling and running schedule.
When it was developed back in the 1980s, the model's variability represented a major departure from strength training methods used by most triathletes. Each phase had its own goal, its own training method and distinct exercises. Even the speed of execution of exercises varied, explains Buchta.
The five phases of Buchta's strength training program cover the whole year, save the one month you take off at the end of the season to focus on eggnog and napping. Phase I begins when you resume your event sport training around the New Year.
Phase V is reached shortly before your first race and is maintained (ideally) throughout the competitive season, except when you have a long layoff between races, in which case you can cycle through phases III and IV again. Buchta recommends that you cease weight training at least two weeks before any important race.
Each phase is distinct from the others in many ways, but the constant is a proper warm-up and cool-down book-ending each gym session. Buchta's trademark warm-up exercise for triathletes is running arms, which involves simulating a running movement with your arms while holding light dumbbells (see full description below), and which we still see Mark Allen faithfully performing every time he pops into Powerhouse Gym in Cardiff, Cailfornia, for a workout.
Due to space considerations, we detail the correct execution of only half a dozen core exercises at the end of this article. Otherwise, the sample workouts offered here give you no more than the names of suggested exercises and guidelines for resistance, speed and number of sets and repetitions. Consult an experienced trainer to learn the correct execution for every exercise you incorporate into your training.
Phase I: Base/Acclimation (4 to 5 Weeks)
The Buchta method picks up where you do. "In December or January most triathletes want to get back into the weight room," she says. During these first four to five weeks, the athlete is concerned with building a fresh endurance base, and the strength training component shares this goal.
"They need to retrain the neuromuscular system, relearn the skills and techniques, and develop a muscular strength and endurance base," Buchta explains. You start off slow.