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Ask a Trainer: What Should Strength Training Look Like During Triathlon Season?

When it comes to getting stronger while training for races, focus on mobility and balance.

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Every triathlete I work with is currently sitting in race purgatory (i.e. the waitlist). While this may be frustrating for some, it is a sure sign that we are trending in a positive direction. It’s time to double-down on nutrition and recovery, hone in on course recon, and hit your green boxes on Trainingpeaks. 

This plan from coach Ryan Bolton will help you ensure your swim, bike, and run are on point should you get the magical “You’re In” email notification. In addition to getting ready for the three sports, remember that strength training during triathlon season is a great way to fine-tune your top-end power and ensure that great mobility has you bounding injury-free down the finishing chute at your upcoming race.

But first, a key disclaimer: Playing catch-up with strength training is a risky in-season move. There is actually such a thing as the “Couch to Plyo” training program, but it’s better known by the alternate title, “My First Hamstring Injury.”

If you haven’t been doing any strength work (consistently) through 2020 and into 2021, start by working on mobility, tissue care, and basic, compound postural and lower body movements. Balance, stabilize, and gently activate your hips and upper back and focus on moving well. Becoming a durable athlete is a commitment to a series of small, but essential movements that will, with time, prove to only enhance your swim, bike, or run. Start now—it’s time.

If you have followed a solid off-season strength program, your already increased power, improved form and body mechanics, efficiency gains, and bulletproof durability does have yet another bonus silver lining: It doesn’t take a ton of work to maintain all that hard work. 

In fact, your gym time should decrease as your swim, bike, run specificity increases. Here’s how:

Strength Training During Triathlon Season

  • Keep working on mobility. More intensity on the swim, bike, and run means we’re only going to put more stress on a handful of very specific, forward-focused movement patterns. Some of my mobility faves include: Iron Crosses, Hip Openers, Hip Mobilization
  • Stay balanced. Speaking of those forward-focused movement patterns, continue to keep the “support staff” activated. The supporting muscles that are key to injury prevention include your glute med, rhomboids, and lower to mid-traps. 
  • Move big. That FinisherPix shot of your perfectly pumped quad might forever live on your mantle, but this is the time of year to steer clear of the leg extension machine (and arguably, always). Focus on multi-joint, coordinated movements instead of “isolation.” Triathlon is a total body sport that demands a chorus of neuromuscular harmonies, so streamline your strength to stay in sync. Try these: Push Pulls, Multiplanar Lunges, Overhead Steps.
  • Carefully dose the “poppy stuff.” Plyometrics and agility are powerful (pun intended) pre-race tools. Feeling light, connected, and responsive is every athlete’s starting line dream, but be thoughtful and deliberate with these movements. They are not a triathlete’s tool for aerobic development—that’s what your swim, bike, and run are for. Keep these efforts small, precise and very specific. I’m a big fan of these: Plyo Steps, Plyo Deadlifts, Box Hops.

Kate Ligler has specialized in endurance training in both functional strength and conditioning, as well as technical program creation for cyclists, runners, triathletes, and multi-sport endurance athletes for well over a decade. She is a NASM cPT in addition to a NASM CES (corrective) and PES (performance) specialist.