Triathletes and Strength Training

The Great Disconnect ?

Dr. Tudor O. Bompa, considered the father of modern periodization, was once asked about the biggest training mistakes that triathletes make.  He responded by stating that “The two biggest mistakes were not using evidence-based training methods and not implementing a year-round strength training program.”  With this endorsement, justifying the exclusion of strength training by any serious triathlete or coach would be difficult.

While there is some controversy regarding the benefits of strength training in elite male triathletes, strong research supports strength training for endurance performance for everyone else, specifically for female, junior, and masters athletes.

Many, if not most, triathletes probably see strength training as contrary to the training principle of specificity.  After all, gym-based strength training only superficially mimics the movement patterns of the triathlon disciplines, and triathlon is a steady-state sport where the triathlete will perform best with a constant and measured intensity that is consistent with the distance of the event.  Triathletes often regard strength training as stealing time from precious sport-specific training, or worse, as the cause of weight gain that leads to reduced economy and performance.

Misconception 1:  Aerobic-endurance-dominant sports don’t need strength training.

In most endurance sports, particularly running, cycling, and swimming, the force of the propulsion phase is considered the essential element for an improved performance.  This is demonstrated as pushing off against the ground (running), the force applied against the pedal (cycling), or the arm drive through the water (swimming).  Higher velocity is possible only as a result of superior force application against resistance (i.e.  gravity, snow, terrain profile, water).

For example, the only way to increase speed in endurance running is to increase some combination of stride length and stride frequency.  But, the only way to increase stride length and stride frequency is through increasing forward propulsive force and decreasing contact time with the ground.  Both of which are functions of strength. The same concept is also true in cycling and swimming.

Of course, a long-distance event requires much more than the improvement of force per stride using elements of maximum strength.  Athletes must convert the gain of maximum strength into muscular endurance of long duration so that increased force can be applied for the entire duration of the race.

Misconception 2:  Running (or cycling) uphill develops leg strength and power. 

When athletes and coaches are ask why they are doing uphill running or cycling, they typically answer, “to improve leg strength and power.”  Unfortunately, this has not been proven to occur.  Neither running uphill nor cycling uphill qualifies as a strength-power exercise.  For a training exercise to qualify as a strength-power exercise, it has to be performed fast and explosively.  For instance, in the case of running, the propulsion phase has to occur in approximately 200 milliseconds.  Uphill running is at best, around 300 milliseconds.  This time frame will not develop strength or power.  The development of strength requires loads that limit the number of repetitions an athlete can perform to a range of 10-12 reps/set in the general adaptation phase and 2-6 reps/set in the maximum strength phase. Maximum strength training requires a load corresponding to 85% of an athlete’s 1-repetition max., for a particular exercise.

For instance, running a mile requires approx. 1,500 repetitions (strides)… a marathon, 50,000.  Any load that can be repeated for 1,500, or 500, or 50 repetitions can’t possibly develop strength.  The adaptation stimulus just isn’t there, and it’s the same with cycling (pedal revolutions).

However, uphill running and cycling do provide major benefits for the cardiorespiratory system in that they both increase heart rate and stroke volume.

Many inexperienced and age-group endurance athletes mistake the sensation of ‘residual strength’ that often accompanies metabolic improvement, with true strength gains that can be converted to muscular endurance.  Residual strength feels good walking around the mall, but won’t do much for you in a long endurance race.

Misconception 3:  Strength training requires additional training time, beyond endurance training.

Time for training is always an issue.  Maybe that is because triathletes might be feeling that they can’t possibly add any more training time to their schedule.  But, the studies indicate that you don’t have to add additional training time to include strength training.  Many studies (Friel and Vance, 2013) show the resulting benefits of strength training even when athletes replaced as much as 32% of their endurance training time with strength training.

Bompa, in Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training (2009) states that, “Investigators who report enhancement of low intensity endurance exercise with concurrent strength and endurance training typically reduce endurance training volume to accommodate the strength training load.  It is likely that a 19% to 37% reduction in endurance training load is warranted when adding strength training to the overall training plan to stimulate performance gains.”

While there is some controversy regarding the benefits of strength training in elite male triathletes, strong research supports strength training for endurance performance for everyone else, specifically for female, junior, and masters athletes.

Frequently cited research indicates that the two primary benefits from strength training appear to be in both endurance and economy (Friel, J. and Vance, J. Triathlon Science, 2013).

  • Leg strength increases significantly, but thigh girth remains unchanged.  The first 20-weeks of strength training are primarily creating neurological strength gains, not gains attributed to muscle hypertrophy (an increase in mass).  In order for any athlete to increase mass, whether it is muscle or fat, the individual must be in a state of positive caloric balance.  This means they would have to take in more calories than they are burning off, on a daily basis, over a significant period of time.  Remember, it takes 3500 extra (not burned off) calories to gain a pound of fat.  Most triathletes exist in a negative caloric balance and lose excess weight.
  • Statics show a positive correlation between strength training and both cycling and running economy. Economy is measured as the relative oxygen cost to run or cycle at a given velocity.  Any improvement in economy is almost certain to improve endurance, especially at longer distances.  When economy improves, any concurrent increase in mass of the triathlete is immaterial.
  • Cycling time to exhaustion at 80% VO2max increased by 14%. Cycling time to exhaustion at 75% VO2max increased by 33% (an intensity particularly relevant to triathletes).
  • Adding strength training with run training significantly improved endurance running. Running economy improved by an impressive 5%.  This converts to a 21.3% improvement in time to exhaustion at maximum aerobic threshold.
  • At a metabolic level, strength training has been shown to result in remarkable changes including a 39% increase in phosphocreatine, a 37% decrease in lactate, and a 37% increase in glycogen levels after exercise, when compared with non-strength training. The 33% increase in economy at 75% VO2max cited above, was attributed to a 12% increase in lactate threshold.

Dave Warden, in Triathlon Science, 2013 concludes, “With the overwhelming endorsement and evidence supporting strength training for triathletes, strength training should be treated as the fourth discipline in triathlon!”

References

Bompa and Haff, Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training (2009)

Bompa and Carrera, Periodization Training for Sports (2005)

Friel and Vance, Triathlon Science (2013)

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