Rethinking the Discipline behind the Disciplines: Strength Training

Cross country skier going uphill
January 30, 2017

D3 Staff


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Chances are you're starting to climb out of the depths of winter and getting back into a regular training program – those Spring races are right around the corner! But, as you bid farewell to the trainer, the treadmill, and those dark mornings at the pool, I challenge you to re-evaluate the one part of your training that so often gets overlooked, left behind, or devalued as warmer weather starts to beckon: your resistance training program. While it is absolutely true that triathletes are challenged with practicing three disciplines all at the same time, we won't nearly see our full potential in the swim, bike, or run without spending some good quality time in the gym.

That's right – the gym is no substitute for good weather, and it's not a workout replacement for possible skipped sessions; it is part of your overall training program and should be taken as seriously as cardiovascular development and base building. Weaving focused weight-bearing exercises into your training plan will improve your athleticism and performance in ways that time spent on the three disciplines alone cannot. And, this work is about so much more than just building big strong muscles; improving joint flexibility, developing tendon and core strength, stabilizing key muscles, and correcting postural asymmetries that come along with spending long hours swimming, biking, and running in succession are all benefits to be reaped from a robust strength training program. In simple terms, working with weights can help reduce the likelihood of injury, build speed, improve muscle memory, and turn your body into the well-oiled competitive machine you imagine it to be!

This being said, it's not enough to just pick up weights; your strength training work should be designed as a periodized program within your larger training program. As the phases of your training change, so too should the exercises, intensities, and loads that you use in those exercises. High volume, low-intensity work (lots of reps with less weight) tends to be the triathlete favorite, but low volume, high intensity (low reps, heavy weights) work can also be of benefit. If you're not working to lift more weight, you aren't getting stronger, more flexible, or more efficient at moving your body in the ways intrinsic to our sport. The bottom line is this; with your resistance and cardiovascular programs synced, you'll start to see your training take hold all the faster.

So, how to know if your weight program is working for you? Do you always do the same exercise circuit? In the same order? Do you always do the same number of sets/reps? And do you use the same weights each time you go to the gym? If you can answer any of these questions with a YES, you're a great candidate to take a closer look at your strength training program (or to think long and hard about the program your coach is giving you and how you're executing it!) Be honest with yourself; if you're not noticing little milestones in the weight room, you're likely not getting the most out of your time spent there.

If it is time for a revamp, where do you start to tweak your routine to get the most out of your swim, bike, and run? While your coach should be tasked with designing the specific workload (volume and intensity) of your resistance training program, there are a few things that you – the athlete – can keep in mind to keep challenged:

**Respect the Program:** Dynamic warm-ups, rest intervals, and changes in intensity and weights all have a purpose just as heart rates and watts have in our other disciplines. Appreciate these elements, and your resistance training program will work for you.
**Become a Student of Your Technique:** Using a mirror, a friend, a video camera, get feedback on how your body is performing each exercise in your routine. This will give you a better understanding of your program, your body (strengths + weaknesses), and will allow you and your coach to note marked improvements in your total strength, and continue to adjust your routine to suit your body's adaptations and your performance goals.
**Seek to Understand Your Movements:** Rather than executing exercises blindly, or just checking them off the list, work to understand how each exercise is performed by your body, what primary and secondary muscles it works, and you'll find that there are a myriad of ways to dilute or intensify each exercise without ever adding or subtracting weight. For example, if push-ups are too intense for you at this time, drop your knees to the ground. If push-ups are a cakewalk for you, try lifting one leg off the ground, or maybe one hand off the floor. In simple terms, challenging your body reasonably in the weight room will require your muscles to adapt dynamically on a regular basis.

Chances are that all of your hard work and training as a triathlete are done as you are balancing work and life as well. Having a surplus of time to get it all in is an unlikely scenario, but there is no reason not to use the time you have as wisely as possible. So get out there and swim, bike, run... and LIFT!

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