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You’ve marveled at their chiseled abs, on glorious display in finish-line photos. You’ve gawked at their taut physiques at races, often as they blow right by you. They are our pro contingent, and they are damn fit. But they weren’t born that way. It’s not just the countless hours of swimming, cycling and running that’s morphed them into their enviable form—they also hit the gym for some serious strength training. Here, some of the sport’s fittest bods reveal, in their own words, how they got that way.
Two-time Wildflower Champion
It’s really a balance for me—getting in the strength work but not trying to put on that extra muscle weight.
This past winter, the entire focus for me was the swim. I was doing double swim days, and, on top of that, plyos—walking lunges, box jumps, step-ups and a ton of abs just to help with the swim. Six to eight weeks out [from a goal race like the Ironman 70.3 world championship] we get back into two to three weeks of building back up with the weighlifting and plyo work: more squats, lunges, box jumps and core work.
In terms of core training, I do a lot of planks, sit-ups and work with medicine balls. I have about 10 exercises, and I’ll do around 50 repetitions each, three times through.
Before, I never thought about the importance of engaging stomach muscles while swimming. That’s why [coach] Cliff [English] brought core work in for me. It really helps with your rotation in the water. My legs sink, so I am constantly evaluating if I’m using my core to lift my legs up. Also on the run, you want to use your core to keep good body position and lift your legs.
It’s been a process, but this has been a part of my overall shift in body tone and shape. Last year I was doing a lot heavier lifting in the gym a couple times a week. I found that it would help on the bike but my legs felt heavier running. It’s really a balance for me—getting in the strength work but not trying to put on that extra muscle weight.
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Multiple Ironman Podium Finisher
For swim strength I swim with paddles or an ankle band and I do hill repeats in the big gear for my bike strength. This year I did several of my long rides at Mount Lemmon in Tucson, Ariz.—I went up and down for more than five hours. For my run training I mix things up. Sometimes it’s hill repeats where I climb hard for one minute and go back down 10–15 times, or I’ll just run trails. Last summer I discovered the TRX classes. It’s nice to do the core work with a group and have an instructor watching for the right form, but it’s also possible to do the exercises at home after a run.
I think in the end of a triathlon it is all about strength. You still want to be able to hold the aero position after 150K and have good running form for the last 10K. A strong core holds everything together as well as protects you from injuries. I think every athlete would profit from doing some core work twice a week, even if it’s for just 15 minutes at a time.
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57-time Ironman finisher
After several hours out there, Ironman becomes a strength-endurance event. You have to be strong to be the one putting time into the competition in the eighth hour.
My focus for building strength for triathlon has always been sport-specific strength work built into my swim, bike and run workouts. This means things like big-gear work on the bike, swimming with paddles and band, and running hills—so I am doing some kind of strength work every day, really. In the past few months, I have added some TRX workouts twice a week to work on core strength and try to correct some of the imbalances that have been hindering my run. After several hours out there, Ironman becomes a strength-endurance event. You have to be strong to be the one putting time into the competition in the eighth hour.
I think you have to assess your specific needs and weaknesses and keep it simple; a lot of people overcomplicate this aspect of training when there really is no substitute for just climbing more hills or swimming more laps with your ankles tied together!
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Ironman Lake Placid Champion
Younger athletes can get away with just swimming, biking and running, but I think the older you get the more important it is to do it not just for strength, but for body balance, symmetry and injury prevention.
I do a functional strength/core workout that, depending where I’m at in my training, is either 1:15 or 1:45 Monday and Friday. It’s pretty comprehensive. The heaviest weight I use for the whole thing is 10 pounds; I use a lot of ankle weights, 10-pound hand weights and a 10-pound kettle bell. I try to focus more on my shoulders than my back, as the shoulders seem to be more problematic for people that swim a lot. I average well over 20,000 yards a week. That’s the biggest back workout you could possibly do—swimming. If you don’t have good swim technique, you’re not using your back very much, but the better your swim technique, the more you’re going to pull from your lats. In the pool I do quite a bit of band and ankle pull buoy work to really focus on my upper body. I work on my turnover rate and maintain a good body position while swimming without kicking. I do a lot of pull-ups, which are a pretty good indicator of the power you can generate in the water. I like to finish my swim workouts with 10 pull-ups.
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Three-time Ironman Champion
I’m a big believer in strength training. My philosophy is that as an Ironman athlete, speed is important, but you also need strength. The longer you can hold your form in a marathon, the better you’re going to be able to run. In order to hold form you have to have a strong core, strong hips and strong glutes so your body doesn’t get overly fatigued on the bike and you can run strong—particularly for the last 13 miles.
Generally, twice a week I lift weights, focusing mainly on functional strength. I call it the Dirty 30. If you can’t get it done in 30 minutes then you’re doing something wrong. I do five upper-body and five lower-body movements and then 10 minutes of continuous core work. I also do a mobility program 3-4 times a week, which involves dynamic stretching, power yoga-type moves and more core work. Most of the things I do involve single-leg movements where you’re isolating certain muscles. It helps identify if you have a weakness and creates an awareness of how your body is handling the training. For example, if you are doing single-leg squats or leg press and your leg is moving around all wonky and not stable you can say, ‘OK, I have a weakness, how can I approach that and work on that?’
I call it the Dirty 30. If you can’t do it in 30 minutes then you’re doing something wrong.
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Three-time Ironman Champion
I go in for an hour session twice a week with Petr Julianov at Colorado Sports Training, and it’s all-out. I’m sweating more in those sessions than from some of my rides and runs. It’s a lot of consecutive movement that builds functional strength. I do box step-ups, kettle bell squats, a lot of balance and strength core work on a half bosu ball and runner’s squat-lunges, and work on my shoulders a lot, too, with ropes.
I’ll do one other strength session at home too so I’m doing three per week, and that is core and lower-leg focused.
I tend to build muscle really easily, and it’s not something I’m always looking to do. But for Ironman it’s not such a bad thing because it allows me to endure a little bit more at the end—my body can handle a little more stress and, knock on wood, I’m able to avoid injury pretty well because I do the strength workouts and have a little more muscle mass. I certainly don’t target higher weight. The biggest dumbbells I ever use are 12 pounds. I’ll do really explosive squat jumps just with the bar weight. I do 20 reps three to four times, depending on where I am in the year, and do about 15 exercises in the course of an hour. I also do a lot of band work, and that’s more about resistance.
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