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I’ve had the pleasure of coaching multiple Masters triathletes and runners over the years, including a few all the way to the age group podium in Kona or to the Boston Marathon for the first time. The key lesson I’ve learned? The best strength training for triathletes over 50 isn’t the most conservative approach. In fact, Masters athletes who double down on their strength tend to get through their seasons with better speed and power output, fewer injuries, and quicker recovery in between hard training blocks and races. But to learn this lesson, many of us need to flip our understanding of fragility and risk on its head.
We’re often told that as we age, we should approach training more conservatively in order to avoid risk. In the gym, this might look like:
- Shortening the range of motion of exercises (for example, squatting to only 90 degrees, and no further)
- Decreasing the load on the bar (lighter weight, higher reps)
- Switching to lower skill, lower risk movements altogether (let’s not have you squat at all, but opt for the leg press machine instead)
The presumed logic behind this is that we want to preserve your body for triathlon, and not “risk” getting injured. Avoiding injury is a good thing, but we’re going about it in the wrong way.
RELATED: Strength Training for Triathletes
Why playing it safe creates more risk
There’s something that inevitably happens to nearly every athlete that starts to de-risk their training in this way. They become more fragile and more prone to problems. Masters athletes who take a conservative approach to strength training don’t preserve and improve their body’s joint mobility and motor control. They also miss out on an opportunity to improve their bone density essential for handling the impact of running. And finally, they miss out on an opportunity to boost human growth hormone and testosterone, crucial for staying hormonally balanced from all of the necessary highly catabolic endurance work that crushes us the more we age.
In short, by following a conservative, “low risk” approach to strength training, it virtually guarantees a fragile, injury-prone result. So then what’s the alternative? What’s it look like to go “all-in” on strength after 50?
Strength training for triathletes over 50: The Bear Complex
This is one of my all-time favorites, a go-to strength workout—and it’s one of the best strength workouts for triathletes over 50. It’s full body, full range of motion, and develops everything you need to swim, bike, and run with a little (or a lot) more pep.
At first sight, the Bear Complex flies in the face of what we’d consider safe and low risk. It combines five moves:
- Power clean
- Front squat
- Push press
- Back squat
- Another push press
And that’s only one rep. It requires focus, technical ability, explosiveness, and full range of motion in the ankles, knees, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. The Bear Complex is hard. Really hard.
But done correctly, the Bear Complex improves, well, everything. To really get to what I’m saying here, let’s specifically address what I’m not saying: yanking a too-heavy weight around, doing unfamiliar movements you don’t yet know how to do is not going to be a win for you (or anyone). But all athletes need to give themselves the opportunity to become technical movers capable of lifting heavier things.
This is another reason why the Bear Complex is so great: it’s highly scalable and adaptable to you and to your situation.We all need practice and repetitions to improve. Newer athletes can start with a lighter weights to drill the basics of the deadlift, the clean, front squat, push press and so on. Each movement is an opportunity to ingrain these essential motor patterns and lay the foundation for the harder, heavier work to come.
How to modify the Bear Complex
The five moves listed above count as one repetition of the Bear Complex. You can start at the beginner track and work your way through different weight and rep and combos based on your progress and familiarity. Each session should include 15 minutes of full body warmup that improves your mobility, gets key muscles firing, and your nervous system ready to go.
Do 3-5 rounds of 3 full repetitions at a light to medium weight.
You want to be able to feel the weight without compromising your mechanics.
After each round, rest 2 minutes or as needed.
Do 5 rounds of 5-7 repetitions at a medium weight.
Choose a weight that becomes increasingly taxing beyond the 4th rep. This is where you’ll learn how to be efficient and powerful when fatigue sets in – a key lesson for swimming, biking, and running strong from first to last mile.
Rest 90 seconds in between.
Do 5 rounds of 3 repetitions at heavier weights.
Heavy weights elicit the biggest anabolic response in the body and are the ultimate core stabilizer. Heavy weights are the also the ultimate muscle activator and recruiter (no “sleeping glutes” for you!).
Rest 2-3 minutes or as needed.
You can repeat the Bear Complex once per week for a 6-8 week block.On a second day of the week, you can break the bear down to its component parts and zero in on the deadlift, squatting, or the overhead press.
Remember, the best way to build a body that won’t break down and perform, especially as you age, is to not accept lower standards on your strength, range of motion, and mechanics in the first place. So go forth and embrace the bear! Your body will be glad you did.
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.