Is strength training for endurance athletes necessary?
Many endurance athletes figure if they want to build strength they hit the gym and push weights. Whilst this is somewhat true, it is very important to do specific exercises which target muscles in a way which they will be utilised during your event, otherwise known as functional exercises like the one picture above. As a triathlon coach, I place large importance on loading the muscles the same way they would be during swim, bike and run. Therefore pushing a heavy bench press or completing super sets of squats is not necessarily going to make you swim, bike or run faster. In reality for an age group triathlete, this may cause you to race slower as more muscle mass will make you heavier and immobile. If you cant apply the strength developed to your particular sporting movements then it is not functional.
A reasonable technique for each of the disciplines is key. If technique is poor, this extra strength will simply not be transferred to your swim, bike and/or run. Recreational endurance athletes are generally all very time poor and strength training quite often gets overlooked or never properly completed. We need to be honest with ourselves in this instance and realise that swim, bike and run strength specific drills and workouts can actually be sufficient in ensuring we significantly decrease your chance of injury, and provide the foundation for harder sessions to follow. Below is some examples of how you can build your strength without actually hitting the gym.
Swimming Strength Progressions
1. Technique and flexibility takes priority over strength specific exercises. If your underwater technique is not sufficient, then drills are the perfect way to improve this (which will also strengthen up your muscles, tendons and ligaments). If you have an inefficient technique or limited flexibility, it is highly likely you will find the most basic of drills tough and open yourself up to injury.
2. Once Technique and flexibility are sufficient, Strength Specific drills can then be utilised in order to produce greater feel and catch on the water whilst improving strength. Such drills include single arm freestyle and polo swimming (head out of the water). These specific drills will place a large load on the shoulders as the second phase of strength development
3. Phase 3 will see the use of tools to assist in building strength. Paddles and pull buoys are a fantastic way of developing swim specific strength as they increase the surface area of the hand, which will place greater pressure on our key swimming muscles. Paddles need to be used carefully as they can cause injury if underwater technique is not sufficient and overuse may cause you to lose the feel of the water. In saying this they are the most common exercise we use in the pool to develop our strength. Bands will be also used in the program in order to sacrifice your body position in order to place a greater load on the upper body.
4. Phase 4 is where we begin to add specific strength dry land exercises into a swimming program.Thera bands are the most effective way to imitate the freestyle stroke and build swim specific strength. Unless you are completing 3+ swim sessions a week you should be concentrating on building strength in the water and through Thera bands and NOT pushing weights.
Building bike specific strength can be achieved through the use of a stationary cycling trainer where you can control the resistance and variables. This is done best through low cadence strength endurance work where you will push a big gear for intervals ranging from 3-10 mins. Your cadence during these strength efforts should be around 55-60rpm . The use of one legged drills is also very useful for becoming stronger and is also best done on your stationary trainer.
Hill climbing is the other fantastic way to build your strength endurance. Climbs of more than 10km are very useful to practice your climbing technique where you want to aim to drive your heels through the cranks. When hill climbing you want to sit back on your saddle so the power transfer is maximal through your pedals. Likewise adding greater resistance (lower gear) and climbing out of the saddle will enable you to further your strength development.
Like cycling, running up hills will enable you to become stronger. Undulating trail runs with uneven surfaces will strengthen muscles, tendons and ligaments to allow you to avoid injury when harder speed sessions arrive. Likewise this can be done by sand running however be careful not to do too much as this will also bring a different technique with it. When running up hills ensure you lean into the hill whilst activating your core and glutes which are a very powerful muscle when hill running. Shortening your stride length will also enable you to maintain a higher cadence and efficiency whilst using your arms to provide drive forwards. If you live in a geographic location where you do not have hills then imitating this style of session on a treadmill is also sufficient.
Running drills are also a great way to make sure you are activating the major muscle groups used when running. If you are pulling up sore after completing running drills then it is important to make sure you are doing the drill correctly firstly and secondly recognise that your technique may not be sufficient. Drills will lengthen the muscles out and enable you to be properly warmed up before a speed or threshold session is commenced
Having a strong core is critical for all sports and will reduce the risk of injury and enable your body to train for prolonged durations. If you are new to triathlon and do not understand this term of ‘switching on your core’ it is recommended you seek the advice of a health care professional and think about adding a core session to your program.
Finally, I would suggest if you are injured or returning to training after some time off, then you seek an assessment from a professional before commencing strength work. If your are weak and/or injury prone in a particular area then you may need additional strength work in the gym.