strength training triathlon

Five key benefits of strength training for triathletes

Strength training is a powerful tool to enhance sporting performance and promote athletic development for all ages and abilities. After initially developing the fundamentals of coordination and basic movement patterns, a periodised strength program can develop a more complete athlete. This can then allow for sports specific improvements in speed, power, agility, balance, mobility and reduce injuries in amateur and competitive athletes alike.

Benefits of exercise for triathletes

There are many benefits associated with regular strength training for triathletes. Let’s take a look at some one the big ones.

1. Improve musculoskeletal strength and bone density

Through structured training the human body can adapt to specific stressors allowing us to develop many positive physiological attributes. By performing strength training regularly and placing the body under progressive load, muscles, tendons and ligaments can all adapt and grow to become stronger. Similarly, bones can adapt to appropriate forces by also becoming stronger and denser through increases in bone mineral density. By completing specific movement patterns effectively, improvements may also be seen in flexibility and joint mobility leading to a more functional musculoskeletal system that is stronger, more mobile and more resilient.

Youth and adolescents can also gain positive benefits from strength programs by improving general physical activity levels, developing foundational strength and stability, promoting healthy bone development and encouraging healthy exercise habits for life. In contrast, masters’ athletes can also gain positive performance outcomes by maintaining strength and muscle mass, strengthening bones, improving joint mobility and preventing injury throughout the aging process.

2. Increase neuromuscular coordination and movement efficiency

One of the first physiological adaptations to occur when commencing regular strength training will be improved neuromuscular function, meaning the nervous system will recruit the appropriate muscle fibres at a faster rate and more efficiently whilst exercising. This is especially beneficial to endurance athletes whereby movement efficiency and coordination can be improved to delay the onset of fatigue and reduce the rate of perceived exertion during training and competition. For example, strength training protocols have been shown to improve running economy which leads to a lower energy cost at a specific effort or pace.

3. Improve power and rate of force development

Power production is a combination of force x velocity. As muscles become stronger through strength training our body has a greater capacity to produce force and combined with an improvement in neuromuscular recruitment (as described above), we are able to apply more force at a greater speed of contraction leading to improved power and explosiveness. This increase in rate of force development can be beneficial to endurance and multisport athletes alike.

4. Develop optimal body composition

Strength training is one of the best forms of exercise to promote fat loss and achieve optimal body composition due to the fact that strength exercises targeting the major muscle groups will increase metabolism post-exercise for up to 72hrs. Through specific hypertrophy training protocols both Type 1 and Type 2 muscles fibres can increase in size with greater growth in Type 2 muscles fibres, leading to greater muscle mass and a further increase the resting metabolic rate. For certain athletes this muscle mass can be beneficial to their performance and may benefit from a stronger, leaner physique.

5. Reduce injury risk and correct imbalances

Strength training can be an effective protocol for reducing risk of injuries by strengthening major muscle groups and the supportive muscles that are essential for the demands of endurance sport. This strength is important to reduce the prevalence of overuse injuries or imbalances that can accumulate with repetitive endurance training loads. Given the fact that regular strength training can improve musculoskeletal strength and improve efficiency of movement, the athlete will be able to tolerate greater loads more efficiently, lowering the risk of injury. With specific exercise selection we can train to correct certain imbalances or weakness that may occur as part of our regular training habits.

Periodised strength training can also form an integral part of the rehab process in the return from injury, by progressively exposing the athlete to appropriate loads and tasks that are specific to the demands of the sport. Throughout the rehab process the athlete will benefit from developing all the attributes listed above, which can all play an important role in the rehab and return to performance pathway.

What kinds of exercises and how regularly?

All triathletes should aim to integrate strength training into their weekly program to develop a healthier and more balanced athlete, to improve sports performance and prevent injuries. When starting strength training it is best to be conservative and focus on developing safe and efficient movement patterns and posture that will translate to ongoing strength and performance benefits.

As the athlete progresses in competency, the best way to improve absolute and relative strength is through a specific periodised strength program using moderate-heavy loads (75-95% of 1RM) with moderate-low repetitions in a variety of complex multi-joint exercises (eg. squat, deadlift, lunge, push, pull). Initial recommendations may involve 2-3 sessions per week for most triathletes, with a minimum of 30 minutes being beneficial for time-crunched athletes.

Where to get the right advice

If you want an individualized strength training program, get in touch with your local accredited exercise professional. If you’re recovering from injury, chatting to an exercise physiologist will help you to recover safely and get back to training effectively.

To find an accredited exercise professional near you, click here.

Written by Aaron Ashdown. Aaron is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Strength & Conditioning Coach (ASCA L2) at A+ Health & Performance.