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Triathletes thrive on purposeful training. Having a purpose—like working on swim speed, or shoulder strength—helps us get up in the morning and endure long, hard workouts. So it’s no surprise that having a purpose in the off-season is important, too. Rather than checking out completely, now’s a great time to recover from nagging injuries and to recharge the body and mind.
“It’s the time to find your weaknesses and make them stronger” says Dr. Cherie Miner, a sports medicine physician at the Andrews Sports Medicine Institute and triathlete. Below, she outlines five common issues triathletes face, and how to fix them now so you’ll be strong and fresh come spring.
1. The Problem: You think rest is rehab
A season of early morning swims, track intervals, and aerobars have taken their toll on muscles, tendons, and joints. Athletes that have battled either nagging or serious injury during a competitive season often try and use time-off, or at least time-off from serious training, as a means to rehab or “cure” an injury. However, to make rest effective, triathletes have to address the biomechanical deficits and weaknesses that underlie injury or the problem will likely reoccur when serious training resumes.
Even injuries that are relatively minor can cause changes in strength, balance, and range of motion that then lead to shifts in triathlon-specific movement. (i.e. a sore Achilles may lead to less calf push off). These altered mechanics during activity can persist even after the original problem has resolved and can be associated with a heightened risk of reinjury.
First, have a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist evaluate any injuries or chronic pain. To avoid future problems, the muscles around the injury need to be reconditioned and strengthened (e.g. to fix knee pain, work on your hips, quads, hamstrings, calfs; for shoulder pain, work on the rotator cuff, shoulder blade/back). Any changes in joint range of motion or muscle flexibility should also be addressed.
2. The Problem: Strong heart, weak legs
Let’s face it: most people are drawn to triathlons because they like to spend time outside, not pushing weights around a gym. But while months or years of training may result in a strong cardiovascular system, it won’t necessarily lead to strong muscles. Research has shown that strength training, especially in masters triathletes, can improve performance and reduce the chance of injury. One such study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport, determined that “strength training can lead to enhanced long-term and short-term endurance capacity both in well-trained individuals and highly trained top-level endurance athletes.”
With a decreased emphasis on endurance training, the off-season is an ideal time to start a strengthening program. Dr. Miner recommends starting with controlled, body weight strength training, emphasizing the glutes, hamstrings, hips and quads, including squats, lunges, leg press, single-leg squats and bench press/push-ups.
3. The Problem: Asymmetry
Given the number of strokes, strides, and revolutions that performed during training and racing, symmetry (right to left) is a critical piece of avoiding overuse injury. As running, cycling and swimming use one leg/arm at a time, small differences in strength, flexibility, joint range of motion and muscle function can put undue stress on one side of the body.
Try to achieve left to right symmetry in muscle flexibility by incorporating single leg and arm exercises into an off-season strengthening/stretching program. For example, instead of doing bench presses with a barbell, use dumbbells. Try a single-leg press instead of a squat or two-legged press, and single-leg calf raises vs. two-legged calf raises.
4. The Problem: Poor running technique
Don’t just get help with swim technique—get help on the run, too. While we may all be born to run, most runners have small (or large) biomechanical flaws that can be improved upon with a thorough gait analysis. A biomechanics expert can also help determine which running style – forefoot, midfoot, high cadence – is the most efficient for each individual runner.
Hire a running coach to analyze your gait.
5. The Problem: Mental Fatigue
Months of early morning workouts and structured training plans can lead not only to physical breakdown, but to mental fatigue as well. “To avoid burnout, triathletes need to take a break from training in the offseason,” says Miner. “Trying something new can make exercise fun again.”
Fill your off-season with different types of exercises and activities. “Mountain biking, rowing and spin classes are some of my favorite ways to cross train during the off-season,” says Dr. Miner.