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We’re not telling you anything new when we say that the sport of triathlon is extremely demanding and rigorous—you likely already know that. Putting together three sports that are each incredibly demanding in their own right is no simple task for the human body, and then trying to do that stronger, longer, or faster truly takes some solid training and athleticism. Many athletes can get drawn into the routine of simply going for swims, bikes, or runs most days for most weeks within a year. And while this is certainly a massive requirement for the sport, it won’t necessarily lead to you moving better or more efficiently, which is really where the greatest gains can be made. The way you move through everyday life is a snapshot of how you will move through your races—and nearly every human out there has the opportunity to improve their movement patterns and their potential. Not only can mastering your movements make you a more efficient swim-bike-runner by utilizing the correct sequences and activations of the big, strong muscles, but it can also help you avoid potentially hazardous patterns that might lead to overuse injuries during a year of training and racing.
There are a few all-encompassing patterns that are truly beneficial for all athletes to train over the course of a season. These motions teach you to move from the center of your body, which is the most powerful and efficient way to move, and also how to stabilize or mobilize the correct joints for each discipline. These movement patterns should be the bedrock of any strength and conditioning program for triathletes, and they can move up or down in intensity just like your sport-specific training. Let’s dig into the five major movement patterns that all triathletes should use with some example exercises for each one.
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Pushing is likely one of the more common movements we make on a daily basis since we mostly interact with things that are in front of us. Pushing is a tremendous way to build upper body strength and muscle all while keeping stable and coordinated with the core and hips. The two most obvious pushing exercises are the standard push-up or an overhead press. For the triathlete, pushing overhead is a critical movement because it serves as a dynamic antagonist to one of our most common movements: the swim stroke. It is a great way to keep your chest and shoulders from getting too tight, leading to weakness or injury. If we then do an overhead press while standing with great posture and add in a little “dip and drive” from the lower body we end up with a pretty perfect pushing exercise, the standing push press. The beauty of this is also in the connection from your feet on the ground through your trunk all the way to the finishing position with your hands completely overhead. You simply cannot do this exercise with poor posture, so it is imperative that you perform without hyperextending the spine.
Begin in a balanced stance with feet shoulder-width apart and a rubber band, barbell, or dumbbells in your hands on your shoulders. Initiate the movement with a small, quick squat towards the ground to generate some elastic momentum, this is not a complete squat, but more of a “dip.” Then from a quick reaction, you are going to “drive” the hips back to the standing position and follow through with the shoulders/arms to then “drive” your weights towards the ceiling. Be sure to keep your core very stable and avoid arching the back in order to push the weights up. This movement can be described visually as the “dip and drive.”
While the push is likely the most common movement pattern we see, the pull is the most important movement pattern, especially for the endurance athlete. Our posterior chain is truly the powerhouse of most athletic movements because typically contractions in our posterior chain bring our limbs into an extension which creates forward movement. In other words, the muscles on our back generally propel us forwards (which is important for triathletes). Additionally, just from an overall health and longevity perspective, our daily lives tend to make us sit or move around in a less-than-perfect posture. Pulling exercises help take those muscles that don’t get as much use in our daily lives (like glutes, lats, and hamstrings to name a few) and put them to work to stay strong and healthy. And, of course, our pulling muscles are also the largest (by volume) in our body, so when they are active our metabolism is likely higher, and that is beneficial for keeping desirable body composition and overall energy. The Hang Clean is the perfect combination of all things pulling and one of the greatest exercises a triathlete can do for total body coordination. There are a massive variety of styles you can do, from lifting heavy in the post-season to build some strength and muscle, to lifting lighter during a race block to keep your balance and coordination fired up. Again, it is a very compound exercise and very important to do correctly so if you are unsure on your form it is recommended to seek out a coach or trainer who can teach you properly.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and in a hinged position holding your weights from mid-shin to knee height. You can be gripping a barbell, dumbbells, or even kettlebells. Initiate the pull by driving through your hips and pressing your feet into the ground, lifting the weight towards your hips. When the weight does get to around hip height, you can begin to pull the weight up through your arms and shoulders, all the while keeping the weight close to your body. When the weight gets to chest height you flip your hands and arms underneath the weight to “catch” the weight. You can also add a slight bend in the knees to catch the weight softly in front of your chest/shoulders.
The carry is a very endurance-specific movement pattern. If you care at all about your performance and health through a triathlon, or your life in general, it’s important to realize how critical it is to maintain good posture. Posture is most definitely the cornerstone of performance and health: the worse our posture is, the more our body tries to make up for our movements through a mechanism called “compensation.” Compensation is an unhealthy and ineffective way to move or race and in many cases will lead to injury. Having great posture is the best enemy of compensation, and integrating a carrying exercise into your movement training is a fantastic way to drill your posture, especially under fatigue. One thing we constantly face in a triathlon are forces trying to knock us out of great posture. Some examples might be choppy swim conditions, crosswinds on a bike, and all sorts of running terrain from hills to slopes and turns. When we have to deal with these external forces it is increasingly difficult to find our way through it without losing our forward-focused progress and posture. This is where a good carry exercise can come in, an exercise where you deal with extra forces from the side or in a rotation and you are forced to simply focus on keeping your posture intact and moving forward. By blending a carry with a walking lunge, we are drilling balance, core strength, leg strength, posture, and efficiency.
Hold a moderately heavy weight in one arm so that you have to create a bit more balance with your own body, as the weight tries to knock you off balance. Keep your feet and hips square, and walk forward in a lunge pattern, alternating feet each time. Lunge slowly with great control, and try to get your back knee about 2-3 inches off the ground. If you are off-balance, you can stop in the middle and bring both feet together, then start the next lunge once you’re balanced. Do a full 8-10 reps with the weight in one hand, and then switch and come back with the weight in the other hand, for a total of 4 sets.
Hopefully you didn’t think we’d get all the way through this article without incorporating some form of squat! In my opinion, there’s no athlete in the world that would not benefit from some sort of squatting pattern in their routine (barring injuries or disabilities, of course). This is the gold standard for maintaining muscular strength, mobility, endurance, and balanced force production through your lower body while maintaining perfect posture. This sounds a lot like a triathlon to me! This is a great movement that truly drills triple-extension through our legs/hips, which means coordinating extension through our ankle (plantarflexion), knees, and hips. When all done together, this is an incredibly efficient way to move. The one difference that I would recommend for a triathlete is to learn the Split Squat, which then helps you learn that efficient movement pattern but in a more specific way to biking and running, by separating the hips forwards and backwards.
Start with your feet shoulder width apart, and then separate them by taking one foot forward about 10-20 inches. Make sure you can still plant both feet on the ground. You can hold weights at your side, or in front of your chest in a “goblet” position. While keeping a strong, upright posture, slowly lower your back knee to ~2-3 inches from the ground. Drive back up to the staggered stance starting position and repeat. Focus on one side at a time and then switch the stance.
As the great Chubbs Peterson once eloquently put it, “it’s all in the hips.” The truth is, he’s not wrong. The hips are the center of most of our movement patterns so it makes sense to put focus into that specific area. The hips are your most resilient, powerful, and balanced joint during a triathlon and it’s an area of the body that no triathlete can afford to neglect. The hinge pattern is the most specific movement pattern to ensure your hips are firing on all cylinders. Hinging refers to the basic flexion and extension from the pelvis, and whether we are swimming, cycling, or running, it is critical for triathletes. An exercise like the Single-Leg Deadlift helps work on and improve the hinge pattern that every triathlete needs.
Start with your feet in a staggered stance, with one foot just a couple of inches behind. Place very little pressure on the foot that is set back, so that most of the pressure is on the front foot. Use a light to moderate kettlebell and place it (horns up) equivalent to your front foot. Hinge your hips backwards while maintaining perfect upper body posture and kicking your back foot behind you, then grab the weight and hinge forwards back to a standing position. Do your repeats by very lightly tapping the kettlebell to the ground and coming right back to your neutral standing position.
Mike Olzinski is head of strength training and senior coach at Purple Patch Fitness in San Francisco, California.