Ask a Trainer: What Should Strength Training Look Like With No Racing?

Now is a great time to experiment with your strength training routine because... why not?

Photo: provided by The Run Experience

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The early summer always contains fond memories of my early years as a triathlete. By this time of year, I would have already raced 70.3 Oceanside in late March, Wildflower (when it still existed, and when it still had a lake to swim in) in May, and—with luck—Ironman Coeur d’Alene in late June. With the increasing hours it took to prepare for those events and the mental energy and focus it took to get through hard workouts, there was little left for focusing on strength training.

In this racing cycle, my strength training would be two modest weekly sessions. They were designed to keep the lights on and to prevent a full slide to athletic dysfunction that can result from increasingly poor mobility and glutes that won’t fire. I’d be skinny, I’d be fit, and my glutes could kinda work (with effort). But I wouldn’t be what I’d call strong at this moment.

But now, in a year without races, do we need to play the same game of chicken with our bodies? Do we need to push our bodies to the breaking point for as long as possible? Hope that nothing bad happens in our training while doing as little strength as possible to slow the decline? Or do we shift our efforts and energy into different areas to serve us by turning this model on its head?

First, let’s talk about what strength training is with a semi non-geeky definition. Strength training is the day(s) of the week that triathletes dedicate to maintaining or building a general athletic foundation. This time is spent moving through a greater range of motion than one normally would in swim/bike/run, handling greater loads than an 18-pound bike, moving in different directions, building competency in different positions, and even stressing specific skill sets to improve balance, agility, and coordination. Done well, this training sets us up to be strong, mobile, agile humans who can swim, bike, and run better. It also helps us move a friend’s couch, re-mulch a garden, or (dare I say it) do something other than swim, bike, run with grace. Done well, it should be fun, exploratory, and skill-building.

Strength training doesn’t have to be tied specifically to any phase of training. It doesn’t have to be three sets of 15 hamstring curls. It doesn’t even have to be in a gym, especially as much of the country has limited or no access to facilities or equipment in the current climate. It can be more aggressive than what you’ve traditionally done this time of season in the past, because… why not?

Here are a few more things to think about. Do you have access to gym equipment? If so, this is a great time to explore heavier lifting. I’d start with the back squat, deadlift, and pull-up to name three. Work in 3-5 sets of no more than five reps. Warm-up at 50% of what you think your max is, and do your main set for a few weeks in the 65 to 80% range. No clue what your max is? Work at a weight that feels like a 7 or 8 out of 10. Then after five to six weeks, move to sets of one to three reps at 80 to 90%  of your max. Rest for at least 2 to 3 minutes between sets. Same for pull-ups. Work with a band to assist you if you don’t have a full pull-up yet. Or if you do, experiment holding a dumbbell between your ankles. Prioritize range of motion and good mechanics, but don’t be afraid to load it up either.

These sessions are incredible for muscle recruitment, joint stability, core engagement, and force production. You’ll leave feeling tired… in a different way. They also require 100% of your focus and provide pretty immediate feedback if your form is off. So while heavy lifting has its risks, this corrective feedback loop builds better movement patterns, which can significantly cut down on the overuse injuries most of us are already experiencing, usually a result of the ugly motor patterns we don’t see our bodies doing. Plus, the ability to produce more force is a key ingredient to developing greater power output. Want to bone up on your mechanics? Start with this video: Why Every Runner Needs to Squat. And of course, if you have the ability to work with a trainer or experienced friend, jump on it.

Don’t have access to a gym or to equipment like myself? Your strength training could look more like doing goblet squats and shoulder presses in your backyard with a log that you found. (Here are some of my at-home workouts that require no equipment.) It could be doing handstands against your door combined with lunges in your kitchen. It could be doing burpees and wall sits till your legs shake.

Either way, treat this time as an opportunity to be an athlete, not just a swim-bike-runner. Focus on two and dare I say even three weekly strength sessions of 45 to 60 minutes. Spend 10-15 minutes actively warming up with dynamic movements for the session ahead. Focus on one to two heavy lifts for strength, or a 15-20 min. bodyweight set focusing on higher volume quality reps for some conditioning. Finish with some core work and time on a foam roller.

Be safe and ease into more aggressive training. Start with 30 reps total of bodyweight movements like pushups and work to 50 to 75 reps. Be familiar and comfortable with movements before you load them up. Practice new skills in your warm-ups to push your comfort level and to have some fun. Be smart, but don’t be afraid to try something that might make you sore the next few days. There are plenty of great programs out there if you’re looking for more structure. (If you want to join me, you can download The Run Experience app.) Stick with it a few weeks and you’ll adapt and improve. Stick with it all year and you’ll finish 2020 on a different level than when you came in.

About Nate:
San Francisco-based Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He has helped athletes finish their first races, conquer new distances, overcome pre-existing injuries, set new PRs, reach the podium, and qualify for national and world level events. 

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