When it comes to taking your triathlon performance to new heights, incorporating strength training into your regimen is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, many triathletes overlook this aspect of their training, not realizing its immense benefits. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into 15 essential points that will aid you in developing a robust and effective core strength program. Let’s embark on this transformative journey!
Regardless of your familiarity with triathlon, you have likely come across the name Lucy Charles-Barclay. Perhaps you recognize her as the three-time runner-up in the Ironman World Championship or as the “fastest swimmer in triathlon.” In 2021, Lucy’s accomplishments grew even further as she showcased her versatility by competing in super-sprint to long-course races, ultimately becoming the Ironman 70.3 World Champion with a remarkable performance in Utah. Her outstanding achievements continued with a memorable debut at the Leeds World Series, an impressive display at the GB Olympic trials, and explosive performances in Super League triathlon events, both indoors and outdoors.
However, what many fans of the sport may not know is that Lucy narrowly missed out on Olympic selection in 2012 as an open-water swimmer. Following those Games, Lucy and her then-boyfriend, now husband, Reece, both became personal trainers, nurturing a deep understanding of the significance of strength and conditioning in triathlon, as well as a year-round dedication to fitness. “The biggest thing is injury prevention,” Lucy emphasizes. “Triathletes are prone to injuries due to the strain we put on our bodies. But I also believe that the extra percentage you can gain in performance comes more from the gym than from a run session.” As we delve deeper into the off-season in the UK, Lucy shares her top 15 strength and conditioning tips for triathlon.
- Concentrate on Your Core Every Day
When it comes to swimming, your core is the cornerstone of your physique. Strong arms and legs are futile without a solid core to hold everything together. Observe how the best swimmers move through the water in a streamlined position. A significant portion of their success can be attributed to years of developing and maintaining core strength. Include core exercises in your routine as frequently as possible. Just 5-10 minutes of planks, side planks, press-ups, V-sits, and Russian twists every day will yield noticeable improvements.
- Retain Shoulder Stability
Shoulder injuries are among the most common afflictions for swimmers. The repetitive nature of the strokes makes them prone to overuse injuries. Shoulder stability is paramount, and targeted exercises for the various shoulder and back muscles (such as lats, delts, traps, serratus, rhomboids, and teres) are essential. Utilize a TheraBand for a pre-swim warm-up, spending around 5 minutes to engage and strengthen the muscles. This practice will also enhance the pulling phase of your stroke.
- No Need to Lift Heavy
In swimming, the focus should be on executing correct movement patterns rather than lifting heavy weights. Key exercises to prioritize include lat pull-downs, low rows, cable exercises for the upper body, and dumbbell shoulder presses. Pay close attention to the scapula’s movement, ensuring that you draw it down and together. For example, during a press-up, concentrate on squeezing the shoulder blades tightly before relaxing. The goal is not to achieve maximum speed or repetitions but to perfect your form.
- Work on Your Weak Leg
Most individuals have a slightly stronger or dominant leg. At the beginning of your strength and conditioning program, take the time to identify any discrepancies and work towards balancing your power output. You can perform a maximal one-rep leg test using exercises like single leg presses, single leg extensions, or single leg hamstring curls. Another approach is to incorporate a single leg drill on the bike and measure your power output. Technology that measures power through each pedal stroke and detects asymmetries can also be utilized.
- Match Weight and Reps to Distance
Adapt your strength and conditioning exercises to suit the distance you are training for. For sprint races, focus on slightly heavier weights and lower repetitions. In contrast, for Ironman events, lift lower weights for a higher number of repetitions to build muscular endurance. This principle extends beyond specific events. For example, during a power phase for cycling, when the aim is to increase wattage generation, incorporate lower repetition, higher weight exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, and snatches (e.g., 5 sets of 5 reps at around 60kg). For endurance, opt for 3 sets of 15 to 25 reps, using a weight of approximately 30kg while squatting.
- Protect Your Lower Back
Extended periods of keeping your hip flexors contracted during swimming can result in a tight lower back when transitioning to the running phase. Properly executed bodyweight exercises can help alleviate this issue. In the gym, consider using a glute-ham machine that allows you to position yourself face down with your lower body supported and your torso free. Hinge slowly from your hips until your body is horizontal, being careful not to overextend your lower back. Alternatively, a training partner can hold your legs on a bench to achieve a similar effect.
- Get the Glutes Firing
Enhancing glute strength and stability is paramount for running. Previous physios had informed Lucy that her glutes were weak, but it turned out they were simply not firing correctly. Exercises such as lunges and squats on unstable platforms (e.g., BOSU balls) can help address this issue. Following a gym session focused on running, incorporate hill repeats while consciously engaging your glutes throughout the run. Hill running aids in improving running form, and the fatigue from earlier strength and conditioning work adds an additional stimulus.
- Don’t Forget the Ankles
The ankles and Achilles tendons are prone to injury for triathletes, particularly those with a swimming background characterized by significant aerobic training and ankle flexibility. The BOSU ball can be a valuable tool in strengthening the ankle muscles. You can also make it a fun exercise by partnering with a training companion and engaging in a game of throwing a weighted ball just out of reach, requiring ankle pivoting to catch it. Focusing on the lower leg, single-leg calf raises are effective for addressing issues related to the Achilles tendon and calf muscles, promoting resilience in running.
- Don’t Overcomplicate
Avoid the temptation to overcomplicate your strength and conditioning routine, which may lead to confusion. It doesn’t have to be extreme or rely on the latest equipment or unconventional exercises. Fundamental exercises like planks, lunges, squats, and calf raises, when performed consistently, can yield significant results. However, if you find yourself losing motivation at the gym, incorporating different types of exercises can be invigorating. Lucy occasionally draws inspiration from CrossFit, an example being the inclusion of single-leg deadlifts in her routine.
- Buddying Up
Training with a friend not only provides an added source of motivation and makes sessions fly by but also enables you to give each other cues for proper form. Using correct technique is essential to avoid injury and ensure the effectiveness of your workouts. You don’t have to be an expert in strength and conditioning, but understanding the key coaching points for each exercise can be a helpful checklist. If training alone, try recording yourself to receive feedback (it’s safer for your neck than using a mirror). If you lack confidence, investing in a few sessions with an expert to learn the correct technique can be worthwhile.
- Refuel Regardless of Hunger
Just as you wouldn’t complete a swim, bike, or run session without replenishing your energy, it’s important to nourish your body after a strength and conditioning workout. Although it may not feel as cardiovascularly demanding, these sessions still break down a significant amount of muscle fiber. Consuming protein through a shake or meal is an excellent choice for promoting proper recovery.
- Progression for Progression’s Sake
To ensure continuous improvement in strength and stability, avoid sticking to a static core conditioning routine. Similar to swimming, cycling, and running, you want to witness progress in these areas. Nearly every exercise can be progressed further. For instance, a plank can be advanced by lifting one limb off the floor and then another. To take it up a notch, consider adding ankle weights.
- Time-Pressed Shoulder Press
If you find yourself short on time but still eager to fit in a workout, prioritize compound exercises that target major muscle groups simultaneously. Deadlifts and squats are excellent choices that engage the posterior chain of muscles, providing substantial benefits in a single movement. You can include a shoulder press as part of the squat movement to optimize your time efficiency.
- No Gym? No Problem
In the absence of a gym or limited resources and space, you can still complete effective workouts at home with minimal equipment. Dumbbells prove invaluable and can be used for exercises such as squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and lunges. Furthermore, resistance bands are highly versatile and can expand your training possibilities. Lucy herself completed a full strength and conditioning program with dumbbells and a resistance band from her rented accommodation when she couldn’t access a gym due to COVID concerns during the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in St. George.
In conclusion, strength and conditioning play an indispensable role in triathlon training, yet many athletes overlook its importance. By incorporating a consistent routine, you can become stronger, more resilient, and less prone to injury. It doesn’t have to be complex or time-consuming, but it does require regularity. And remember to refuel adequately post-workout! By acknowledging the significance of strength training in triathlon, you are on your way to significant improvements in your race performance. Follow these simple tips to set yourself on the path to becoming a better and stronger triathlete. Thank you for reading!
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