Strength training for triathlon and endurance sports part 1 with Menachem Brodie | EP#182
Menachem Brodie is one of the leading strength training coaches for cyclists and triathletes. Among other achievements, he has been heavily involved in USA Cycling and educating USAC coaches since 2011, and is the creator of the Training Peaks course "Strength Training for Triathlon Success". In this two-part episode, we dive deep into a number of important aspects triathletes and endurance athletes need to know when it comes to strength training.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Benefits of strength training for triathletes and endurance athletes.
- How much strength training should you be doing?
- What should your strength training consist of?
- The importance of assessments in strength training.
- How to fit in strength training around swim, bike and run workouts.
- Periodisation of strength training over a year or an entire triathlon season.
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Past strength training episodes
About Menachem Brodie
- I've been coaching triathlon and cycling for the last eleven years
- I started coaching basketball and have been in the sports performance coaching industry for almost 20 years now
- I have a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology with a specialisation in coaching.
- I started coaching at a very young age and have had some really great mentors.
- I worked for the university of Pittsburgh men's basketball programme division 1 in the US, we were top 2 in the nation the whole time I was there and had a number of professional players.
- My background is really just being a nerd - reading and learning and constantly seeking out the best approaches for each athlete I work with.
- Strength training is about finding what works for you as an athlete.
- I was am average coach until 2009/2010 and then I had shoulder surgery - I had a tear in my right shoulder from playing volleyball and basket ball in high school. At the time I was training for the nation's triathlon in Washington DC so I never made it to that start line.
- I started taking cycling seriously in 2010 and then discovered I had femoroacetabular impingement on my left side from playing hockey and riding my bike in an aggressive position.
- That injury is when I went from being an average coach to where I am today - going out and teaching people, trying to lead from the front and share information.
Benefits of strength training for endurance athletes
- There are so many!!
- In the 1980s there was a rookie basketball player in the NBA named Michael Jordan. He went on to revolutionise the game.
We're seeing the thing in cycling and triathlon with strength training.
Back when Michael Jordan started strength training he was told he would get ballski, it would mess up his shot, he wouldn't be able to dribble etc.
Very similar biases and myths exist in endurance sports
- The biggest benefits are helping to keep the joints in the proper position.
This decreases risk of developing arthritis, miniscus injuries or other joint issues.
Joint position dictates muscle function. It allows the body to be able to function better and more efficiently, so movement economy will be better.
- When you do proper strength training for triathlon, you are working on movements you otherwise don't get in your sport which will allow the body to work better.
- You are getting inter and intra muscular coordination which helps you be a better overall athlete.
- It also helps stop you having forced time off due to overuse injuries.
- Your training age in triathlon may well be longer than your strength training triathlete training age.
- For most beginner triathletes, or beginner strength training triathletes, will see huge increases in their abilities because the organism of the body can now function better.
You're using up less of your capacity to hold yourself up in a good posture, to execute your breathing.
This allows more of what you're putting out to propel yourself down the road rather than prop yourself up.
- Triathletes generally don't have good posture because of the time trial bike and swimming.
Once you get yourself into a better posture it allows you to use more of the metabolic system as well as the free spring energy that is supplied by the facial system and the joints being in a good position.
This allows you to spring down the road rather than muscle down the road.
Arguments against strength training for endurance athletes
- Bulking up is one argument, which mostly comes from the available science previously being predominantly about body building.
We're seeing that shift now.
- The number one argument against it for triathletes is time.
We need to consider the amount of time you have, what your goal event is and what your goal is to do in that event (e.g. finish versus podium).
- The scenarios we would choose not to do training would be limited to an illness where you're not recovering, and/or an immediate soft tissue or other metabolic disease.
- I've worked in post-partum corrective exercise for the last 18 months and have a certification in that, and we're seeing a shift in that population that strength training can be beneficial.
- For me, I tore my miniscus and ACL warming up on astroturf, so that week I took off strength training - my body needed to repair the damage that was done.
However as soon as I got clearance from the PT I was back in the gym.
- As soon as you stop strength training is the second you start going backwards.
- If you feel strength training is going to negatively affect your results my two questions would be:
What are you doing in the gym, and how is your recovery?
- Usually one of those two factors will be off-point.
- Breaking down strength training if you're limited for time, you can do 4-5 20 minute sessions a week and the compounding affect will help you see results over time.
Strength training for a time crunched age-grouper
- Using people who are trying to improve their performance. Two athletes: one has 6 hours per week to train, one has 12 hours a week to train.
12-hour per week athlete
- Female, targeting Olympic and aiming to podium in her age group at Nationals in Portugal. 40 year old, vaginal delivery of her children, pre-menopause. Sedentary job.
- You will need to consider where in her cycle she is each month.
The first two weeks are the luteal phase, where women are most like men - they can train and fuel similarly to men.
- When it comes to day 15-28 - the follicular phase - her hormones will change. We would look to change her strength training based on this.
- Of her 12 hours of training, we'd want 3-5 hours strength training during base, 3-4 hours during build, and it varies beyond build - it may be 1.5 hours a week or possibly more.
- We generally prefer strength training to be done in the morning because the athlete is in more of a catabolic state so we can get more BCAA.
We can supplement a little and use something like osmo or scratch to get their blood plasma value.
During the rest of the day they will be hydrating, and then they do their endurance work in the evening.
- Ideally we want you spending 1/3 to 1/4 of your time in the weight room if your goal is to podium at Olympic distance.
We'd want to work on the bike, and will also work on running technique to make you a spring as much as possible.
More of the Brad Hudson approach - doing more intensity with a couple of long runs sprinkled in.
6-hour per week athlete
- Intermediate level, 40 year old male, targeting Olympic distance and hoping to go sub 2:30. Sedentary job, children at home, wife is the 12-hour athlete.
- For him I would aim for 4 days a week doing 30 minute sessions as consistently as possible through build and base 1.
When we get into build 2 I would aim for twice a week for an hour for the first half, doing heavy lifts with lots of rest in between.
This would be contingent upon him having done INSCYD testing because we can then start to match metabolic profile to what you're doing in the strength training room.
- When you have less time we want smaller, more pointed sessions.
This may mean being at home with kettle bells and band based exercises.
Digging deeper into the examples
- Most triathletes at the intermediate level are going to have had some kind of overuse injuries - mostly it is shin splints or jumpers knee, or possibly a shoulder problem.
- For a 40 year old, this means the poor habits and movement patterns you've been working on for the last 40 years will increase your likelihood of having had an overuse injury.
- Strength training needs to be very dialled in for this type of athlete, we need to lift heavy things.
Usually it will be a pull or a hinge, some type of modified press, and working on breathing patterns.
- You want the athlete doing good diaphragmatic breathing, 360 breathing.
- For the 12-hour athlete who is pre-menopause I went to the 3-4 hours because when you get past menopause it is harder to build muscle mass.
You have only so much time to build the muscle.
- At around the age of 40 for a female, you may only have 5-7 years to build lean muscle mass so strength training need to be prioritised so the person can function better for the rest of their lives.
- When the hormonal shift happens during the menopause, you're fighting an uphill battle.
- For the male there's a similar thing, you tend to see a drop off in testosterone and adrenaline after around 40.
By doing strength training consistently you can add a little bit of testosterone and adrenaline to get the hormones moving and increase lean muscle mass.
- This allows us to see better results in training, and allows the athlete to make their other sessions count because they will focus on technique.
- This is a constant battle I have with my triathletes - and most of the ones I take will have been through a strict vetting process.
I do not carry a high number of athletes but I carry athletes at high levels.
- With my half Ironman female athlete right now we have a big shift because her coach was doing a lot of endurance work, she came to me for strength training and realised there was more to this.
We went almost completely bike, doing enough running just to keep her focused on technique.
When she sent me her assessment videos of her running it looked like she was sinking in quicksand, and she is an accomplished half Ironman athlete.
- When you look at an athlete, the tissue quality, the amount of force they're able to put out, as well as their joint position and breathing patterns, are the main platform you're building the athlete on.
On top of this you have the mental abilities too.
- When you shift the expectations of an athlete from just going out and putting in the miles, and I've never been a big mileage person, you shift the focus to teaching them how to be fast.
- The half Ironman female athlete I'm working with, her previous coach did a lot for her, but I think she was going too long for too long.
The amount of work she did at threshold, at VO2max, especially the ATP energy system, was next to nothing.
Her FTP had fallen almost 30% in the 4.5 years she was with this coach, but we've managed to bring it back up.
- We just getting to the point in her training where we do INSCYD testing to look at her metabolic energy systems.
When we first started it wasn't worthwhile having her go for this service because they were so abused, it was so focused on endurance.
- We have to remember that the pillars of athletes progression are four-fold:
- I don't believe that as you get older you should get slower.
Gene Dykes, who is 71, just bested his Boston marathon time by 18 minutes. He ran it last year in 3:16:20, and he just did 2:58:50.
- We shouldn't be shutting down and going backwards, but I think this is one of the things people misunderstands.
- Had we used an example above of a couple in their 30's, I would dial back the strength training.
For the female I'd be talking about 2.5-2.5 hours a week in base, 2-2.5 in build 1 and build 2 would depend on her weakest leg.
If it was the run I'd dial up the strength training but make it more Olympic lifting: the hang high clean, the drop clean.
I'm not such a fan of snatches in the first couple of years but I do think it's important to know the techniques because of the high prevalence of shoulder injuries.
- At the age of 40 it changes, you're working with a time window and we need to increase the muscle mass as much as possible.
- The strength training really is that important.
- If you're around the age of 40, now is absolutely the time, don't put it off - think about the long game.
- A lot of us as athletes don't think about the long game - it's important not to think just about the next month, but the next three months. This needs to drive your changes.
- As triathletes we tend to get stuck in the mindset of more is more is more.
It's not! Training is effective and efficient when the least amount of work that you need to do in order to see the desired result is done.
It's not going out and saying 'I did 24 hours last week'.
Let's take you off the trainer, track and out the water, make you function better, spending 2-4 hours a week in the strength training room.
- We're not talking lungs, squats, leg press and hamstring curls, we're talking breathing exercise - sphynx breathing, crocodile breathing, all four breathing etc.
Getting you better shoulder function by getting your shoulder blade to move properly.
Protecting your lower back and your knees.
This is how we make you a better triathlete.
Objectives of the sessions
- The types and objectives of strengths and conditioning sessions always depend on many things, but will be about three things mainly for triathletes.
- First is posture - improved with consistency over time and using a dynamic warm up. This is 4-8 exercises we do consistently 4-6 days a week. This is where we focus in on the breathing patterns.
- For more intermediate strength training athletes, or those with good posture and shoulder mobility we do hands over head breathing.
- I always schedule in one day of complete rest a day.
- You can teach yourself 360 breathing and it helps lower your stress levels, it gets you into the habit of having this as your first exercise.
This means on race day you can do your breathing exercises.
- Number two would be some type of dynamic movement: high knee skips, frankinsteins (straight leg shuffle), a marches, b marches, statue of liberty's.
Things that will open up the body and get it ready for movement.
- From there, the dynamic exercises should take no longer than 5 minutes but they increase your heart rate, core temperature and breathing rate.
- We then go into prehab or rehab exercises which are targeting for that specific session.
For example our 12-hour female athlete at home may do crocodile breathing 1 set of 5 breathes, straight leg shuffles, statue of liberty (quad stretch with opposite hand over head).
Then if it's upper body day we might do inch worms. You start from a standing position, put your hands on the floor and walk yourself as far as you can out, bracing the stomach and protecting the back, then walking your butt into the air (like down dog).
- From there we would go into the specific exercises for that athlete.
Taking the female athlete again, imagine she has 24kg and 12kg kettlebells at home. She's fairly strong and has been strength training for about 3 years.
- We'd start her off with a power exercise: kettlebell swings.
5 sets of 8 kettlebell swings.
The first 2-3 are her getting into the groove, but number 4-8 are her working set.
This is fairly advanced. We're really pushing the feet into the floor and snapping through, bracing the stomach and getting the explosive triple extension.
This would be paired with some kind of opening exercise like a lat stretch where she works on an area of her upper body that's a little tight.
- From that power exercise we would move into her biggest weekend, so for her maybe it's the pulling motion, her shoulder blade tends to round up to her ear.
We would do something like a banded row with a door anchor, which are relatively cheap on amazon (under $20) and you don't need anything at home besides a door that closes and locks.
We would do 2 sets of 10, with a squeeze at the back - making sure she's working on her posture and feeling the hips, glutes and hamstrings engage,
She would pair that with inch worms again as an exercise. 2 sets of 8, focusing on her breath whenever her hips are high in the air.
- Her third exercise would be some type of dynamic movement.
I would do a side lung with her hands over her head - getting her used to moving laterally, getting the groin to stay long and strong, activating the glutes and getting the mid-back fired, lifting hands over head learning to maintain posture while getting the obliques and glutes to work together.
- After that, we'd choose something she likes to do, such as squats or lunges.
We'd do 3 sets of 8 each side with hands over head lunge, and 3 sets of 15 of goblet squats.
- She now has a fantastic programme that allows her to address issues she may have in her movements, as well as giving her specific exercises that engender a mind muscle connection.
- She can do this at home two days a week, and if she has time another two days in the gym.
- I'd also like her to use sumo deadlifts off of blocks (6.5-10cm) in the gym.
She has her feet out towards the side in an open pattern, and she would have to fight with the bar using shoulder blades and back muscles to keep her upright, and using her hips and glutes to lift up, bring the bar close to her body.
This is a non-sport specific movement, but that's the point.
- A lot of people say deadlifts have to be off the floor but it really depends.
Most of us don't need to lift heavy things off the floor - we're triathletes, not power lifters, we just need the hinge motion.
- Put the weights up as high as you need so you can maintain a hinging action with good posture to get the movement from the right places.
Gym based exercises
- The sumo deadlifts off of blocks would be A1.
You would be doing 3-4 sets of 4-6.
Rep ranges would be strength and hypertrophy, but you want it with speed: 1 second to come up, and 2 seconds to come down. Training the muscles and body for speed.
- The weight will depend on how fatigued the central nervous system is from in sport training.
- There's a great app I use called CNS Tap Test. You place your phone on the table and tap with your index finger on each hand for 10 seconds.
It maps over time what your number is - this is your central nervous system's ability to fire.
If your tap test is lower you might edit your workout accordingly - e.g. in the 4-6 range you might do less.
- For A2 you would have something like a side lying windmill or a bretzel.
This is a rotation - the legs are going one way and the upper body is going the opposite.
- If you follow Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers he explains the fascial systems in the body. There are several meridians/muscles that are interconnected by the facial system, which is a spider web which runs throughout the body.
This is why exploratory surgery can be a very bad idea, because the scar tissue interrupts the facia.
- B1 would generally be some type of push - 2 sets and it might be push ups or dumb bell bench press.
I'm not a fan of barbell bench press in season for triathletes because I think it is important for us to have a good connection and awareness of where our shoulders and elbows are in our sport.
If we start to see the dumb bells tracking differently when we start to increase our distance in the pool it tells us something is off.
We might want to take the paddles and pull buoy out and go back and check our technique in the water.
Or it may mean the athlete is carrying a tightness we missed.
- We'll do 3 sets of 8, still in the hypertrophy range.
- Along with that we'll do a shoulder exercise, e.g. wall scapula slides with a foam roller, getting the lower and mid traps to fire with the serrates anterior (small muscles on the side of the rib cage).
This allows us to teach the shoulder blade how to move.
- C1 and C2 would be really dependent on the athlete.
- Let's say her main focus was the bike:
We would do a max effort front plank for 5 seconds, then rest for 2-4 seconds.
You do 3 sets of 5 seconds on, 5 seconds off.
- A max effort is the RKC version of the plank, where you fire all your muscles together as hard as you can: glutes, abs, quads, biceps, triceps, lats.
- C2 would be something like a standard side plank.
- In a standard side plank the top foot should be forward - the feet should not be stacked.
This is important because your transverse abdominus is one nerve route, but your obliques act as part of a hoop that locks together your rib cage and pelvis.
Power and protection for the back both come from here.
When you want to activate the internal and external obliques theres four compartments: upper and lower, medial and lateral.
In order to activate all four you need to split the feet. Once you can hold it for 30-40 seconds static, we'd start small rotations keeping the rib cage and pelvis locked together.
If you're looking to go pro and gain some speed on your run, this exercise combined with sumo deadlifts, kettlebell swings etc will help.
Adding in some technique based running and a couple of long runs would be a great programme.
- Whether or not you'd change this for a long distance athlete depends on running age, previous injuries,
Changes for long distance athletes
- Using the example of the female athlete, imagine running is her strong suit. She's been running for 7 years and has had some minor injuries.
She had a slight IT band issue and had to take two weeks off running.
She's currently coming out of her off-season, but before that she was a more volume based runner. She hasn't done a lot of strength training, her strength training age is 2 years, but winter half year.
- There are studies that show as soon as you take the strength training away you lose a lot of the performance gains.
- If you are a 'standard triathlete' right now, as with the example client, doing strength work from November to May, your training age is 6 x 2 = 12, divided by 2/3rds. So 9 months.
I calculate it that way to take the total actual training - this means consistent (2-3 x a week) and take away a third because we've lost those tissue adaptation during the time off.
This is what takes forever and this is why the consistency is so important.
- This is where a lot of cyclists get hurt because they can lift a lot of weight with their legs so they increase their weight from 60% of their 1 rep max.
Note: No triathletes should be doing a 1 rep max (RM), the risk of injury is too high and you have no need to do it.
- If you're just starting strength training you can test your 1RM by doing a set of 8-10 repetitions with a sub-max weight.
This will be far safer because the connective tissue takes longer to repair.
- For this imaginary client, I would have her do 30 minute strength training 3-5 times a week, mostly home based working with kettle bells.
Unless she had a connection to the gym, in which case we'd do 3 times a week for 1 hour in the gym, and a half hour at home another 2 days.
- This person is a 7 year runner, so she's a great candidate for the INSCYD testing to see where she is metabolically and what she is capable of doing.
With running it would need to be a lactate based test which may be an obstacle as we want specifics.
- We'd still working on the IT band issues in the weight room.
First we would start with anatomical adaptations: 6-8 weeks low to no weight, getting her to move better. We would want to go through metabolic stress.
- There are three primary ways to grow muscles: metabolic, mechanical and time under tension.
Some people say that time under tension doesn't count and instead go down the scientific route, but I'm keeping it simple.
- Metabolic and mechanical are two ways we can overload the muscle and see strength growth and muscle size growth.
Muscle size growth isn't necessarily a bad thing!
- The IT band is the insertion for the glute max into the knee, which essentially keeps the knee from falling in. That's the main job of the glute max.
- As a runner a slight IT band issue tells us she most likely has a gluteal issue, and almost definitely a rotary stability issue.
That means a lot of her strength training stuff in the gym isn't going to be really fancy - let's just teach you how to connect with the ground.
- I'm going to post on my instagram a video of my athlete doing toe yoga - learning how to interact with the ground, because it's hard.
- For the female example we would give deadlifts to work on her posterior chain.
The squatting would be limited, we would look for time under tension so I'm a big fan of tempo goblet squats for triathletes:
2 seconds down, 1 second pause maintaining tension, 2 seconds to come up, 1 second pause, next repetition.
- We would then look at teaching her to pull properly. A little bit of pushing, but when she's doing this seeing how she's positioning her body. Is she using her glutes to stabilise her body?
- Even though she's volume based, that is still about 4-5 hours of strength training a week, but this would only be for the first 10 weeks of her training programme.
- After that we'd want to get the body back into what it's used to.
The reason the INSCYD testing is important is because we can decrease her volume and dial in more to what her metabolic needs are.
We can make her a more efficient runner by understanding what her energy systems need and focusing on that while giving her strength in the weight room.
How do you use the INSCYD information?
- I would use it almost exclusively for the run training only because I am still learning how to use the INSCYD to match the strength training.
- The reason we would do that is to work on the metabolic and neuromuscular pillars and still keep her volume - we don't want to pull away what you're used to.
If she's a volume based runner, we don't want to bring in something new and take away something she's used to.
We would use to INSCYD to figure out if you're going to continue with volume what kind of efforts do you need, what energy system to we need to work on: is it VLA 0.3 or 0.8?
- We would use the running training to help foster the metabolic adaptations she's running so even though she's doing lower volume we're dialling in more to what her metabolic needs are while we're strengthening her.
- VLAmax is very individual. We know we want it to be as low as possible because it is an endurance sport, but some people may have a fantastic ability to deal with lactate.
- Using INSCYD testing for running we know it'll be accurate because it's in a lab, and we can then show progress through training changes.
- If you want to lower VLAmax (e.g. 0.5) you might need to limit explosive strength training during the last 2-3 months before the A race, to try and not stimulate the glycolytic contribution to the energy system for a long distance race.
This is why you do 6-10 weeks in the initial because you have to go through these energy systems in the hypertrophy phase.
- This is where triathletes and cyclists get it wrong because they go into the season doing high repetitions, low weights.
What about just lifting heavy things twice or three times? We see some professional cycling teams starting to do this, particularly before time trials to rev up the neurological system and then see the results on the bike.
- Aerobic based training should be much higher sets - for more detailed reading on this see Supertraining by Verkhoshansky & Siff.
- During the season I lean towards heavy weights but once a week.
- When we get to professional triathletes that energy system work becomes even more important because they're so sensitive to what we do to them that we need to be careful.
- Whereas the amateurs don't have as much training history so we can get away with messing up 15% of the time!
- Mikael recommends to his athletes having heavy strength training but the kind that will work on the neuromuscular and CP system, rather than glycolysis.
- You can still do explosive stuff. similar to Olympic lifters who do sets of 1-2 of really explosive stuff and then sit around.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Menachem Brodie
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
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