The best preventive measure? Understanding what causes triathlon-related injuries—and what doesn’t. Plus: How to structure your strength routine for real results.
Most injuries occur when training load exceeds what the athlete’s musculoskeletal system can handle. Strain something too much, it will break—pretty obvious. Adding strength and conditioning work is often considered the cure-all for injury risk, but that is just one tool in the arsenal of prevention or performance improvement. No amount of strength and conditioning work will single-handedly decrease injury risk if we don’t understand (and address) the broader contributors to injury risk and occurrence.
The real root of injury
Some of the common pitfalls I see in both the pro and amateur ranks:
Flawed training plan:
Follow a poorly designed plan (or one inappropriate for you), and your risk for injury will increase.
Plan execution: Often it isn’t the plan that is the issue—it’s how the plan is executed. A prime example is going too hard during sessions that are designed to be lower stress—perhaps the greatest mistake made by endurance athletes.
Inadequate recovery: How consistent are you with post-workout refueling? Are you consuming enough (and the right kind of) calories to support the training? What is the quality and quantity of your sleep?
Life stress: Integration of training into real life is an ongoing challenge for most athletes, yet many fail to recognize the fluctuating stress that can impact recovery.
A savvy approach to strength work
A smart, ongoing strength and conditioning program does serve a purpose when it comes to injury prevention, but consider these individual circumstances before you get started:
Athletic history: As athletes come into triathlon, activities from a “former life” can certainly add to the risk of overuse injury. For example, swimmers will typically have very mobile ankles, which is ideal for swimming but less so for running. Strengthening ankles will be important, as will a careful progression when upping the running mileage.
General weaknesses: Some athletes have simple biomechanics limitations, genetically compromised musculoskeletal integrity and other weaknesses and imbalances. This makes posture and form harder to maintain when fatigued and likely contributes to the occurrence of injury.
Time constraints: How long do you typically have to apply to this supplemental training? If the athlete is busy, it is critical to build a program that addresses the key limitations, such as mobility or muscle weakness, as well as target exercises that will yield the highest impact on performance. Time availability can create compromise, but less of a good thing is better than nothing.
Attention to the bigger picture: Aim for a strong platform of health and general improved power, coordination and strength. Not every exercise or movement pattern should relate directly to swim, bike or running movements. Developing improved ability to move—in all directions, with more power and coordination—is a smart path for the vast majority of amateur triathletes.
Your relationship with strength
Any strength and conditioning regimen should run in parallel and harmony with the other components of your training. This is a common failure of so many programs. In the same way that random endurance training may help you improve initially, you will plateau after a couple of months. Strength and conditioning is similar—if I told you to repeat exactly the same endurance training program, week after week, with the same intervals and next to no progression, you would call me crazy. Despite this, I see so many athletes who simply go to the gym or a CrossFit class and expect season-long progression. Beyond the random strength training choices, I also see many begin with great enthusiasm in the off-season (or post-season as I call it), but peter out well before racing season begins. This adds up to a complete waste of time.
Mapping out your strength program
Here is a simple framework to map out your own strength training progression. I have first highlighted a typical series of phases that one of my athletes would go through.
Post-season (October to Jan 1)
Considered the “off-season” for many, this is a critical phase of season-long progression. Emphasis is on technical improvement, foundational fitness as well as some “building block”-type training which includes very high-intensity and high-rest, neurological training. This is the phase in which we prepare the body for the heavy training load ahead.
Strength phase: Foundational
This is all about developing proper posture and movement patterns, and gradually progressing to more complex and dynamic exercises. There is also a heavy focus on coordination, synchronization and gradual strength gains.
Preseason (January to April 1)
This is a heavy phase of training but less specific to race simulations or skills. Plenty of high-intensity speed (with long rest) and foundational endurance work. We build a platform of resilience in this phase, which may include early-
season races toward the end of the phase.
Strength phase: Foundational part two
We now increase load, with much greater emphasis on real strength gains (with more strenuous strength challenges), progressing to power later in the phase.
Power and speed (April to May)
Perhaps “sharpening” would be a more suitable name, but this shorter phase is focused on maximal steady state and more threshold work. It includes a transition to early-season racing, and total weekly duration may drop in lieu of a speed focus.
Strength phase: Power
More explosive exercises (and fewer of them) dominate this phase, but we also increase emphasis on joint health and mobility as endurance training load continues to climb.
Race-specific (June onward)
While the phases prior were about developing physiology, this phase is about getting ready to race. Much of the season focuses around race-specific skills and intensity to develop the readiness to perform. Athletes retain some very low- and very high-intensity training, but the key sessions are about race simulation and readiness.
Strength phase: Race season
We are not looking for central strength gains now; instead, the focus becomes sharpening, joint health and therapeutic work to assist with remaining healthy despite the demands of heavy racing. These sessions are short but effective, and they’re important to maintain the gains made in the preparatory phases.
Key points to remember
Your emphasis should evolve: In post-season, your endurance training load will be lower and will allow more capacity to emphasize mobility and strength. Compare this to the rigors and demands of race season, when the emphasis on strength should drop, but convert to a more therapeutic set of goals, as well as explosive sharpening work. This may mean that a strength session in post-season takes 60 minutes, but only 15 to 20 minutes by the time it is race season.
Reduce appropriately: Any smart program will build from the ground up and focus on more micro-movements around single joints, as well as a single focus such as strength or mobility. As the weeks and phases progress, the number of movement patterns and exercises will reduce, as the focus becomes more total-body, multi-joint and sport-specific.
Be prepared to get tired: If you want to get stronger, you need to load the muscles. This means that, at some periods of the year, the strength program produces additional fatigue. For my athletes, it happens in January to March, when strength load is greatest. Don’t panic or lose reality—know this is a part of the process and monitor your state of recovery.
It is only a supplement: Your strength program is important, but your primary performance gains will come from specific swim, bike and run training.
To reduce your injury risk, you must make smart decisions about all areas of your approach—and realize that strength and conditioning is a year-long activity to develop in your arsenal of weapons. Shift your lens from prevention to performance—I promise it is invigorating.
Matt Dixon is founder and head coach of Purplepatch Fitness. He holds a master’s degree in clinical and exercise physiology and is coach to a number of top pros, including Jesse Thomas and Sarah Piampiano.
A more in-depth dive into the specific exercises that accompany each phase of training can be found in Dixon’s book, The Well-Built Triathlete ($25, Velopress.com).