HOW MANY TIMES A WEEK SHOULD TRIATHLETES BE STRENGTH TRAINING?
In the grand scheme of things strength training is still a small percentage of your total training time as triathletes. Quality over quantity is key - the same theory that should apply to your swim, bike and run sessions. But you may have a "coffee shop ride" planned into your week that could actually be replaced with a 30 minutes strength session - no, it's probably not as fun, but neither is missing out on training altogether because you did nothing to support your body, and it's now given in to injury.
To experience any significant benefits from strength training you need to be training 2-3 times a week. But before you wonder when on earth you will fit that in, you need to remember we aren't talking about 3 long, time consuming sessions.
How to integrate specific strength work into a triathlete’s training program, is a question that is often asked, with the main concerns surrounding time constraints and compromised recovery. We understand that the time spent commuting to a gym often makes strength session difficult to incorporate, especially once your main sessions are done and you’re juggling work, kids and daily life, but a quality home workout can be just as effective and will cause a lot less stress on your time and relationships.
Where ever you choose to train here are a few guidelines triathletes can use when planning strength sessions throughout the training week:
First or Second?
It is highly likely that you will be performing your strength session on the same day as another training session. But is it best to do the strength first or last?
This will really depend on the intensity and the goal of the other session/s that day. Your swim, bike and run still need to remain the main focus of training, so any demanding or new strength exercises that could fatigue you may not be ideal if you have a race simulation or time trial session later that day. However if you just have a steady aerobic ride, run or swim, the order won't matter as much so is really down to what is better for you.
Keeping your strength sessions at around 30-45minutes (1 hour max) in duration is also important. Due to the neurological demand of strength work, any longer and you will greatly reduce the effectiveness of both the strength work and your other sessions.
The main thing to remember to be adaptable. Your workouts aren't set in stone, if you are tired or not in the right frame of mind, make some changes such as re-ordering the exercises, reducing the load or just focusing on mobility.
Rest days are perfect for including a short, but vital mobility sessions. It's common for athletes to have an element of active recovery on these days, such as a walk or a massage, but why not try an 10 minute easy dynamic mobility session. It'll help keep things moving but won't put any additional stress on the body that'll take away from your recovery.
Including this will not only help to develop your flexibility and mobility but also prepare you for training and racing. This work aims to improve joint mobility by targeting "trouble spots" such as the glutes, hips, and lower back. It also prepares the body for movement by stimulating the central nervous system which will increase you body awareness. Use it as an “early warning system” to detect any minor niggles or tight spots that might need specific attention.
Double it up
Tagging your strength work onto the beginning or end of a session is also a great way to be time efficient, not to mention the added bonus of 'activating' key areas if done before the session.
By including a couple of pre-session exercises you are forcing the body to engage all of its available musculature instead of just the most dominate. You have to remember that your body is very efficient; it will always look to conduct given work in the easiest way possible and by using the least amount of energy. Applying these types of small range exercises before we train will ‘prime’ the muscles that we generally do not use enough when we train. The realisation of an athletes glutes firing on the bike and run, leads to an athlete feeling stronger and more stable.
By getting up 10 minutes earlier before you morning ride or getting to the track 10 minutes before isn't too much to ask when the benefits are so valuable.
Race season or off season?
The old school belief is that strength training is just for the off season, but with more and more athletes training and racing all year round, few actually follow this annual schedule and what's more this mentally could actually see you under performing come race day.
To some degree there is a level of periodisation that needs to occur or at least be aware of. However due to the injury prevention benefits and associated performance effects, strength training should be maintained all year round, provided you follow some basic guidelines. First and foremost, every athlete is different, what works for one person may not work for another, so you need to find out what works for you.
Winter is the perfect time to introduce strength training into the mix if you haven't already. With less of a race schedule and more of a focus on building a base, getting to grips with the foundations of strength work that are going to help build resilience and prevent injury is key.
Race season is a period of time where the aim is to maintain current strength levels and not a time for setting new personal bests. Doing this will only detract you from your training and racing and increase the risk of overtraining and injury.
Especially coming up to a race, around taper week, the goal is to simply maintain your neuromuscular activation and coordination with a very light or no weight policy during race week. Instead these sessions should look to include mobility and activation exercises achieved through the use of bodyweight, which reduces the load on joints. These strength sessions should produce no muscle soreness or muscle failure, but still include a sufficient amount of muscle stimulation.
When considering getting back into the gym post race, your strength sessions are largely dependent on the intensity and duration of the event, e.g. the recovery time will be significantly different from a sprint to an ironman event. With someone doing a sprint or olympic distance race something similar to a taper week, with very light or no weight policy and a focus on just getting the body moving through mobility sessions. For full or half iron distance athletes, the neurological demands of the event require a much longer rest period, with a slow and reserved progression when returning to training. This length of time is relative to the specific athlete and one that should not be rushed and should certainly be discussed with your coach.