November 19, 2014

The Secret to Running Across the Finish Line

After participating in and watching hundreds of triathlons, I’ve seen athletes reduced to a slow, painful death march on the run leg. This isn’t an endurance issue; the culprit is lack of strength. In fact, this is the single biggest thing that prevents a powerful triathlon finish.

How Strength Training Powers Performance

  • The first and probably most important reason to strength train is to minimize the risk of injury.  A targeted strength training program not only builds muscle but also strengthens tendons and ligaments that you’re sure to stress as you step up your training.  Simply put, strength training gets you ready faster and reduces the chances of injury.
  • The second reason is to improve your performance.  Increased strength helps you become more economical in your movement patterns, especially for running and biking, so you can resist fatigue longer (versus slowing down toward the end of the race).  Maintaining the same or a faster pace while expending less energy sounds like a pretty good plan to me.
  • Third, it offsets the detrimental effect endurance training has on your strength. This is probably the most overlooked aspect of strength training for endurance athletes. And it’s the most often cited reason to avoid endurance exercise by the anti-endurance training crowd. The simple fact is that long, slow, distance training diminishes your muscle strength. Without strength training to offset this decline you risk what is termed “muscle wasting.”

Wait:  I have to train MORE?

With all the other activities you must do to physically and mentally prepare for triathlon, strength training can often seem one step too far.  Fact is you’re not a bodybuilder so the focus is to get what you need from strength training in the shortest amount of time without impacting the hours you’ve reserved for swimming, biking, and running.

The secret is to focus your strength training to gain strength, power, and athleticism with exercises that specifically complement your sport.

Triathlon-Specific Strength Routine

Your strength training should match the training phase you’re in to maximize your results. In other words it needs to be periodized just like your other training and nutrition.  To keep it simple we’ll organize strength training into three progressive, overlapping phases.

Note:  If you’ve never lifted or you haven’t lifted for a while then it’s a very good idea to meet with a certified strength trainer before you jump into strength training.  A strength trainer can help you evaluate any weak areas, review form and technique, and establish key training benchmarks, such as your one rep maximum, so you progress in a safe, effective manner.

Phase I – Preparation

First is the preparation (prep) phase, which is sometimes called the Anatomical Adaptation (AA) phase.  The main focus of this phase is to prepare your body to tackle more rigorous strength training in the next phase where you’ll make your real strength gains.

A typical prep strength phase consists of lifting two to three times a week for three to six weeks. Start with moderate weights and higher repetitions (1-3 sets x 20 reps) in order to get your muscles used to lifting weights.  Focus on multi-joint exercises (squats, single leg squats, leg presses, lat pull-downs, push-ups, seated rows) that specifically benefit triathlon training and racing.

You can also add some instability to improve your total body fitness and athleticism.  Single-leg body weight squats and lat pull-downs standing on a pillow or Bosu and push-ups with your hands on pillows or an inverted Bosu are just a couple of examples of how you can get more from your strength training without adding additional time.  Remember this is simply an adjustment period for your body! Progress gradually so you avoid injuring yourself.

Phase II – Strength and Power

Phase two is the maximum strength and power phase, which takes place during your early aerobic base building.  This is where you’ll make your biggest gains and it should last from six to twelve weeks.  The beginning of this phase is transitional because you need to progressively build toward lifting heavier weights.  It’s also important to understand that strength and power sessions are two different types of workouts; for best results you should do one of each during a normal week of training.

  • The goal of a strength workout, of course, is to increase your overall strength. In this session after a couple of warm-up sets you’ll push heavy weight (80%-85% of one rep max) for 2-3 sets x 5-6 reps; the speed of each repetition is slow to moderate.
  • A power workout differs in that it incorporates more speed into the lifting. After a couple of warm-up sets you’ll do 2-5 sets x 6-10 reps timed with a short rest.  The sets are performed at a lower weight (50%-60% of one Rep Max) and the speed of each rep is quick.

I suggest that you save the strength workout for the end of a day before your day off.  After such a rigorous strength session it’s tough to ride or run the next day. If you do it before your day off make sure your next non-strength training session is an active recovery day and don’t be afraid to reduce the duration in order to manage fatigue and minimize the risk of injury.

Note:  This phase should be incorporated into your training prior to your highest-volume base phase because it’s very difficult to maximize your strength gains in conjunction with high volume base training.

Phase III – Maintenance/Completion

Third is the maintenance/completion phase, which is focused on sustaining the strength gains you made in Phase II.  You’ll continue with this strength training until a week or two before your key race and ideally do one or two sessions a week.  Unlike the max strength phase you won’t be lifting to exhaustion because your focus is to translate your strength gains from the previous phase into higher power output in your swim, bike, and run.  A typical session will consist of 2-3 sets x 10 reps with the final set at 80% of your one rep max and the speed of each rep is moderate.

If you want to whiz by your peers and run across the finish line in your next triathlon, make strength training your new best buddy and get ready to make some real performance gains. You’ll be surprised and delighted by the results.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

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