Incorporate Strength Training Into Your Regimen
By Matt Fitzgerald • Triathlete magazine
Presumably, the majority of us triathletes have taken up triathlon because we enjoy swimming, cycling and running, or at least two of these activities.
People who, on the other hand, enjoy lifting weights more than they do swimming, cycling and running, generally don’t come any closer to doing a triathlon than spending a perfunctory 20 minutes on the StairMaster after a good pec session at Bally’s. And this is as it should be.
But while few triathletes feel any real pull toward the weight room, the fact that most triathletes want to race as fast as possible—and not just noodle around at an elevated heart rate for its own sake six days a week—is enough to get us to the gym right alongside those pec-session people. Infrequently. With a bad attitude. Which is not as it should be.
A great many tri-geeks are kinda convinced that strength training helps with triathlon and are therefore kinda committed to doing it. Can you blame us? There’s little enough time already for the pool, the road and the trail, and like we said, dumbbells just aren’t very exciting for birds of our feather. Trouble is, a half-assed approach to strength training does about as much good as going for a 10-mile run every 10 days, doing nothing in between.
As always, when in doubt, look at your heroes. The three individuals who together account for 20 Hawaii Ironman victories—Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser—all made strength training an important element of their triathlon training. All got exactly what you and I can get out of a proper strength-training program: enhanced strength, muscular endurance and power, and a higher resistance to injury.
“Weight training was the missing link for me,” says Allen, who began serious iron-pumping only in the latter stages of his triathlon journey. “I reached a point in my career where it didn’t matter how much I swam, biked or ran, I couldn’t increase my strength above a certain level. High-volume training and longer races break down your muscle fibers, and it really helped me to have a little extra reserve to draw on.”
Research proves it in the laboratory, and Ironman champions prove it in the proverbial pudding: Strength training is truly and rightfully triathlon’s fourth event. But you have to know what you’re doing. Keep reading.
I’ll Have What They’re Having
Of the three heroes just named, two, Allen and Newby-Fraser, received their strength coaching from the same source: Diane Buchta. If there is a strength training guru for triathlon, Buchta is she. Diane is a genius in her field, says Allen.
Buchta, the first strength coach of the United States Triathlon Team, taught strength training for 12 years at the University of California at San Diego, created the video Strength Training for Triathletes (featuring Allen and Newby-Fraser) and coaches at the Multisport School of Champions in Solana Beach, California.
One of her training legacies has been the development of a periodized strength training model whose five phases correspond to five specific sport-training stages in the triathlete’s calendar. The basic philosophy behind the model is to flexibly and unobtrusively support the triathlete’s swimming, cycling and running schedule.
When it was developed back in the 1980s, the model’s variability represented a major departure from strength training methods used by most triathletes. Each phase had its own goal, its own training method and distinct exercises. Even the speed of execution of exercises varied, explains Buchta.
The five phases of Buchta’s strength training program cover the whole year, save the one month you take off at the end of the season to focus on eggnog and napping. Phase I begins when you resume your event sport training around the New Year.
Phase V is reached shortly before your first race and is maintained (ideally) throughout the competitive season, except when you have a long layoff between races, in which case you can cycle through phases III and IV again. Buchta recommends that you cease weight training at least two weeks before any important race.
Each phase is distinct from the others in many ways, but the constant is a proper warm-up and cool-down book-ending each gym session. Buchta’s trademark warm-up exercise for triathletes is running arms, which involves simulating a running movement with your arms while holding light dumbbells (see full description below), and which we still see Mark Allen faithfully performing every time he pops into Powerhouse Gym in Cardiff, Cailfornia, for a workout.
Due to space considerations, we detail the correct execution of only half a dozen core exercises at the end of this article. Otherwise, the sample workouts offered here give you no more than the names of suggested exercises and guidelines for resistance, speed and number of sets and repetitions. Consult an experienced trainer to learn the correct execution for every exercise you incorporate into your training.
Phase I: Base/Acclimation (4 to 5 Weeks)
The Buchta method picks up where you do. “In December or January most triathletes want to get back into the weight room,” she says. During these first four to five weeks, the athlete is concerned with building a fresh endurance base, and the strength training component shares this goal.
“They need to retrain the neuromuscular system, relearn the skills and techniques, and develop a muscular strength and endurance base,” Buchta explains. You start off slow.
Begin by doing just one set of 12 repetitions (1 x 12) of each exercise, using 55 to 65 percent of your one-repetition maximum resistance (RM). Concentrate on maintaining good form and on taking a full two seconds on the concentric movement (lifting the weight) and four seconds on the eccentric movement (lowering the weight). Rest 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Build toward doing 3 x 12 and increase resistance for each exercise as necessary. Do three sessions per week.
Flat dumbbell bench press
Incline dumbell press
Abdominals (curl-up, reverse & oblique curl, crunch)
In week three, add:
Side/lateral shoulder raise
Phase II: Strength/Endurance Phase (4 to 5 weeks)
As you ramp up the aerobic mileage, your strength training goes with it. “What you’re trying to do in the second phase is go after the slow-twitch, endurance muscles fibers,” says Buchta. “The athlete tries to deal with higher blood lactate levels.”
Speed of execution remains the same in Phase II as in the previous phase, but each set should increase to 15 repetitions and there’s no rest between sets. At first do 2 x 15, then graduate to 3 x 15. Alternate between upper-body and lower-body exercises as in the sample workout below. You’ll probably have to decrease weights from the previous phase at first. Continue to do three sessions per week.
Barbell bench press
Incline dumbbell press
Rotated biceps curl
Side lateral shoulder raise
Phase III: Power/Endurance (4 to 5 weeks)
“There is a distinction between strength and power,” Buchta explains. “Strength applied quickly is the definition of power.”
Here, in Phase III, you begin to turn strength into power. This phase falls about two to three months out from your first race of the season, and involves the most intense and time-consuming strength training you will do all year. Buchta advises that you not combine hard event-training sessions and these heavy gym workouts on the same day.
Unlike the previous phase, the three weekly strength workouts of Phase III are different from one another. The first workout of the week is a swim-specific routine in which half the exercises are done for power and the other half for endurance. The power sets involve three sets of 8, 6, and 4 repetitions, performed with 85 to 90 percent of your 1-RM and performed to failure. Allow four seconds for the concentric movement and another four seconds for the eccentric movement. Cut these numbers in half for endurance sets, which consist of 15 reps each with no rest.
The second workout is a bike-specific routine involving the same structure. The third workout combines the exercises of the previous two routines in an all-endurance format.
Sample Workout (Swim)
Front lat pulldown
Dumbell pullover (power)
Triceps pushdown w/ strap or rope (power)
Sample Workout (Bike)
Leg curl (power)
Barbell bench press (power)
Phase IV: Peak Power (8 Weeks)
As the season approaches, you begin to incorporate high-intensity intervals into your event sport training. Accordingly, your strength training is modified to turn power into speed.
“I call this the Chisel Phase,” Buchta says. “All the exercises are dynamic. People love this phase, because finally they can feel the benefits of their strength work in their swimming, biking and running. Plus, they’re in and out of the gym in 20 to 30 minutes.”
Phase IV involves two workouts per week. Speed is the key. Do 2 x 12 sets at 55 to 65 percent 1-RM with no rest between sets.
Flat dumbbell bench press
Pectoral pullover (with EZ curl bar)
Supine triceps press
Alternating biceps curl
Phase V: Maintenance
Phase V is your in-season phase. It is optional in the sense that you can reap most of the benefits of your past work without doing it and, in fact, “The majority of the pros I work with give up weights during the season,” Buchta admits. Nevertheless, for those who have time, maintenance is still recommended.
Hit the gym every three to four days during the competitive season. These sessions are quick and non-strenuous. Do just 1 x 12 for each exercise at 65 percent 1-RM. Allow two seconds for the concentric movement and four seconds for the eccentric movement.
Barbell bench press
Pectoral pullover (with dumbbell)
Alternating biceps curl
Running Arms (warm-up): Stand in a runner’s lunge position: right foot one stride in front of the left, bending slightly forward at the waist, right knee slightly bent. Hold a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell in each hand and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Beginning slowly, pump your arms in a slightly exaggerated running motion. Reverse your lunge position halfway through the warm-up.
Barbell Squat (quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back): Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a wide overhand grip on a weighted barbell that’s resting on your upper shoulder (not your neck!). Looking forward and slightly upward, squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your back in a neutral position (maintaining its natural curve) and your knees over toes. Drive upright through your hips. Keep your weight on your heels.
Dumbbell Pullover (chest): Lie face-up on a bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the bench. Hold a single dumbbell by shaping your hands flat against the inside plate on either end of the dumbbell and allowing gravity to keep it snug. Do not bend your wrists during the movement. Hold the dumbbell directly above your upper chest. Slowly lower the dumbbell back behind your head, bending your elbows slightly. When the dumbbell is in line with the crown of your head, hoist it back to the start position. Avoid lowering the dumbbell too far behind your head.
Walking Lunge (quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back): Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a weighted barbell positioned as in the Barbell Squat (or, alternatively, hold a dumbbell in either hand at your sides). Take a large step forward with your right foot and bend that knee to 90 degrees, then drag your left leg forward to join the right. Now lunge forward with the left leg. Keep your back in a neutral position by looking straight ahead. If your left leg extends fully during the lunge, you’re stepping too far. If your forward knee gets in front of your toe, you’re either stepping too short or lunging too deep.
Lat Pulldown (upper back): Seat yourself at a high pulley station with your knees secured under the padded braces and get a wide overhand grip on the bar. Lean back 35 degrees at the waist and pull the bar to your upper chest, then smoothly extend back to the start position.
Supine Triceps Press (triceps): Lie supine on a flat bench with a narrow overhand grip on a short straight bar or EZ-curl bar. Your shoulders, elbows and hands are in a straight line. Keeping your upper arms locked, lower the bar until it’s just above your nose, then extend back to the start position. Keep your elbows in as you push up.
Reverse Stomach Curl: Lie face-up on a bench or mat with your legs together and bent so that your feet are flat on the surface. Interlace your fingers behind your head and curl your trunk up just slightly, until you feel tension in your stomach muscles. This is your start position. Smoothly draw your knees up toward your face, stopping just before your lower back leaves the mat, then return to your start position without letting your feet touch down.