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Triathlon is an extremely cardiovascular sport, but neglecting strength work, especially in the offseason, is a huge misstep. Strength work is what allows triathletes to endure their demanding season and to improve their power, explosiveness, and joint and muscle health. The cold, dark hours of the winter offseason are the perfect time to spend some time lifting up heavy things and then putting them down.
But not all foundational strength comes in the form of pumping iron in a gym. Some of the best strength work is the kind that enmeshes itself with the triathlon-specific swim, bike, run work you’re already doing. Enter: the weight vest.
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What is a weight vest?
A weight vest is a wearable piece of training equipment designed to increase resistance during a workout. Most weight vests are adjustable and range from 10 to 150 pounds. They generally come with a variety of small weight panels to slip into evenly distributed pockets across the vest.
Even weight vests are evolving with technology, and the Omorpho weight vest is a “connected vest,” which means it syncs with the Omorpho app and provides weight vest-specific workouts to choose from if you need a break from swimming, biking, and running.
Weight vests can range in price from $40 to the $200 range. At the end of the day, what matters is that you get a properly fitting weight vest, which means the vest should be snug but not suffocating (just like a wetsuit) and allows freedom of movement in the arms, neck, and torso.
Why should triathletes run with a weight vest?
Adam Zucco is a veteran triathlon coach who has worked with multiple professional triathletes, helped more than 60 age group triathletes qualify for the Ironman World Championship, and himself completed Kona nine times.
Zucco has his athletes strategically use a weight vest to improve their run, specifically their explosiveness and turnover (i.e., cadence).
“There are only two ways to increase run speed: take bigger steps, or take more of them,” Zucco said. “Taking bigger steps often leads to a death spiral of muscular exhaustion in a triathlon, so we’re left with improving our turnover and muscular endurance.”
A weight vest helps athletes achieve better turnover by forcing them to the ground faster (hey there, gravity), which means they must leverage their running muscles quicker (calves, glutes, hamstrings) to propel to the next step, ultimately creating a faster cadence.
“When the body is placed under stress, in this case, a good stress such as running, it will find the most efficient way to move through that stress,” Zucco said. “In this case, adding a weight vest at about three-to-five percent of body weight, which is really no more than running with a full water bottle or hydration pack, improves turnover and explosivity. Come race day, you’ll naturally have a quicker step and stronger run-specific muscles from this strength-related training.”
Zucco must be onto something; Zucco coaches professional triathlete Danielle Lewis, who just broke Chrissie Wellington’s 12-year Ironman Arizona run course record this year by clocking a 2:52:44 marathon.
How to start running with a weight vest – safely
Zucco recommends progressing your use of a weight vest – no need to rush in with the heaviest weight first.
“Just like how you might increase run mileage each week, you should slowly increase weight vest weight,” Zucco said. “I would start with three to five percent of your body weight for a week or two, then increase it slightly. I wouldn’t recommend going too far above ten percent of your body weight, because then the weight is slowing you down instead of achieving the turnover and explosiveness goals.”
Be strategic about which runs you use a weight vest for. Aim to incorporate the weight vest into steady runs.
Zucco suggested doing a workout that includes a mix of running and walking, such as three minutes of running with the vest, one minute of walking with the vest (and repeat) to allow your body to get used to the added weight. Leave the vest off for speedwork – that’s when you should instead feel the benefit of the vest with increased cadence and speed.
For those who want to go all in on adding extra weight to your training, weighted apparel can go beyond the vest. Weighted pants and even bike shorts are available, but make sure not to overdo it with stacking on weight. As with everything, moderation is key. Listen to your body and consult with a coach before becoming the human version of Atlas.