When most triathletes think of strength training, their first thought is running or biking uphill. This type of sport-specific strength training is definitely the most efficient and effective way to increase your watts, but there are additional applications that you can use in season to give you an edge on your competition. Incorporating functional strength into your swim-bike-run routine, especially mid-season, needs to be carefully periodized, especially around race schedules. But if implemented correctly, functional training can be used to fine-tune your swim, bike and run, and provide some much-needed durability to help your body last through the long race season.Assuming that you’ve wisely used your off-season to hammer down your strength routine, mastered the nitty gritty of injury prevention and correcting muscle imbalances, mid-season periodization dictates that strength maintenance and sport-specific strength is now your focus. In the same way that your triathlon training starts off with base building in the pre-season, then becomes more specific to each race, functional training should be in the more “specific” phase while you are in-season. It’s primary purpose becomes durability of the musculoskeletal system and calibration of the prime movers.
While an in-season functional strength program should be individualized and multifaceted, one aspect of the program that any triathlete can use to gain an edge on their competition is the incorporation of single-leg strength. While a typical squat or leg press is a great exercise for improving general strength of the lower body (think pre-season), in triathlon we are never put in a position where we get to use both of our legs to generate power at once. Running, for example, is essentially a series of single leg bounds, where each foot is never in contact with the ground at the same time as the other. So what happens when you do a single leg squat, rather than using both legs, is that your body is forced to use and strengthen the stabilizing muscles around your joints. Performing a single leg squat is also a good way to figure out if you have imbalances between your hip abductors and adductors. Many triathletes might notice that their knee collapses medially, which is a sign that they need to strengthen their hip abductors. Single leg strength is also important for making sure that one leg isn’t stronger than the other, which can lead to an injury down the road.
To get you started, here are a few single-leg strength exercises that you can use to increase your power and durability throughout the season:
1. Single-leg squats: I like to start with squatting back onto something (chair, platform, etc) in order to teach your body to bring your hips back and not allow your knee to come forward over your toes. Ideally, just tap your glutes onto the platform without putting much weight down onto it, so that you keep your glutes engaged throughout the exercise. Once you are able to eliminate most of the lateral movement of the knee, a more advanced movement is to perform the single leg squat with your back leg suspended in a TRX strap or onto a stability ball.
2. Single-leg, stiff-leg deadlifts: The majority of exercises, in general, work your muscles concentrically, which means the muscle is contracted during the shortening phase. In running, however, the hamstrings work eccentrically to provide forward momentum, which means the hamstrings are contracted during the lengthening phase. Performing single-leg deadlifts, while focusing on the down-phase of the movement, mimics the hamstring activation that occurs during running. I like to do this exercise with the weight held in the opposite hand, from the leg that is performing the exercise, in order to best maintain balance in the hips and eliminate your hips from opening up to the side.
3. Single-leg bounding: Once you have built a solid base of strength and stability around your joints, single-leg bounding is the next step towards adding power on top of your single-leg strength. Use your arms like you are running, and bound on one leg at a time for a given distance. Your focus for this exercise should be hip and core stability, thus your opposite hip should not be dropping when you land. If you can train your body to maximize hip and core stability during this exercise, it will not only lead to increased power, but you will have less impact on each foot strike while you are running, which increases speed and decreases the chance of injury by lessening the force and impact to the ground.