Triathlon Strength Training with Dave Cripps | EP#213
Dave Cripps is the director and physical performance coach at TriTenacious and Coalition Performance. Dave has worked extensively with both professional and amateur athletes in triathlon and outside of triathlon (including working in rugby with the Leicester Tigers), and here he shares his thoughts on how strength training can and should be incorporated in a triathlon training program in a time-efficient manner.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The benefits of strength training for triathletes.
- A little goes a long way - most triathletes can get away with doing only one weekly workout in the gym.
- Incorporating certain aspects of strength and conditioning as part of your swim, bike and run workouts or warm-ups.
- The types of exercises a triathlon strength training program should include.
- Practicality trumps perfection when incorporating strength training in your overall plan.
- Periodisation of strength training for triathlon.
About Dave Cripps
- In my late teens I got into endurance sport, particularly running.
I competed in half marathons as well as ultra marathons.
- I studied sport science at University and developed a passion for understand how the human body performed and how it could be trained.
- I then did a Masters degree in sport and exercise science.
- I started as a strength and conditioning coach 15 years ago in elite university sports .
This included triathlon, rugby and other sports.
- This led to a big portion of my career which was in professional rugby union strength and conditioning.
I was at Leicester Tigers, who at the time were Europe's biggest rugby club.
This gave me access to amazing athletes and coaches.
- I then had my first son and he became a big priority.
4.5 years ago I set up what is now called Coalition Performance which is now one of the UK's biggest strength and conditioning facilities.
We work with all sorts of athletes including triathletes, runners and cyclists.
- More recently we've started TriTenacious which is the world's first 100% online strength and condition resource for triathletes.
Key takeaways from working with Leicester Tigers
- Having great theory, knowledge and underpinnings to your training is very important.
However a huge part of how well the program works is your buy in and motivation as the athlete, as well as how much you trust it.
- Strength and conditioning has to be seen as a 'fourth discipline' - not as something separate, particularly in triathlon.
- This can only happen if people understand how much it can help them.
This is where the athlete coach relationship is so important.
- You can take information at face value - e.g. taking a training program and copying it straight away.
However, it's imperative to understand how to use things in your own context.
- For example, at our rugby club we had some of the best resources in the world but how we applied what we learned was different compared to a club that didn't have those resources.
Similarly if you're a triathlete that has twice as much time per week to train as someone else how you interpret what you read will be different to them.
Benefits of strength and conditioning training for endurance sports
- With strength training and triathlon it impacts three main areas: economy, efficiency and quality.
- I describe economy using a car analogy - if you're driving your car and you're going 50 miles/gallon, you'll be able to drive further compared to going at 40 miles/gallon.
We know that strength training definitively improves economy, particularly with running and cycling.
We can use a smaller amount of energy to get the same result.
- One of the big challenges triathletes we have when we see them isn't going the distance, it's going faster over the distance.
- To describe efficiency imagine going 100 mph in your car over 100 miles and you're using a certain amount of energy to do that, that would give you an idea of your efficiency.
If we tune the engine up and can then go 110 mph over the same 100 miles, that allows us to be able to travel the same distance at a faster speed using the same amount of energy.
- When you have a niggle, your training quality will be poorer even if you're going the same amount of work.
Aside from having a well managed and structured program, strength training is the next tool to maximise your availability to train and the quality of the work.
Responding to objectors of strength training
- The argument regarding lack of time for strength training in endurance sports such as triathlon is sometimes a fair one.
Although we often see that the reality of the amount of time people need to spend on strength training is less than they imagine it will be.
Quality surpasses quantity.
- If we want to improve strength, we need to load a muscle when it lengthens and when it shortens.
Take cycling for an example, the quadriceps only really get taxed when they're shortening.
This will give some degree of strength benefit, but the muscle isn't getting loaded when it lengthens so you're missing out.
The only way to effectively overload the muscle when it lengthens, in a way that allows you to go through good range of motion and time under tension, is to use strength training.
- Managing training load is also important, but we often see triathletes with hamstring and calf/Achilles problems that haven't been able to solve it any other way.
Often we find that they haven't been able to load the muscle as described above - developing strength and tolerance when it shortens and lengthens.
- Ecentric training (loading the muscle when it lengthens) is one of the most effective ways to protect muscles from ruptures.
- There is some very concrete evidence to show the merit and benefit of strength training, but this is not to take away from managing your overall training plan which is imperative.
It's also not to take away from your training time being prioritised to the three disciplines, but there are practical ways to include it.
How much time is needed for strength training?
- Quality completely surpasses quantity.
The quality comes down to HOW you're doing the exercises you're doing.
- Endurance athletes often don't have to think meticulously about every movement because they do so many (e.g. foot strikes in running, revolutions in cycling).
- With strength training there needs to be a big focus on your movement.
- The majority of triathletes we coach it's once per week, so they do one proper strength and resistance training session per week for 40-45 minutes.
This will typically include a couple of leg strength exercises, pulling and torso strength and mobility work.
- There is sound evidence to show that you don't need to be in the gym 3-5 times a week.
We've got thousands of pieces of data that show improvements can occur with this small amount of strength based work.
- Fundamentally, there has to be one strength training session that is gym based, taking around 40 minutes.
Often when people start it's body weight, but it soon moves to resistance work.
- Other strength work can be incorporated into their training such as in warm ups, or it can be put into times of the day that they can multitask.
- We do something called 'transfer work' with our athletes once a week.
This is making sure the improvements that they make transfer to running on the road, pedalling on the bike and pulling through the water.
This can be done as a solid warm up for your run or bike, and it can take 15 minutes.
An example of this might be stiffening or plyometric work - although how you do this is also important.
- Mobility is also important and small amounts frequently beat large amounts infrequently.
- Most people will watch the TV or listen to podcasts, so they can use this to do 5 minutes of mobility work a day.
- So thinking about additional time, it can be from 40 minutes a week to 1 hour 15 minutes a week.
Is one day a week enough?
- Research is a great sounding point, but a lot of what they measure isn't based on the practical things we deal with as triathletes.
For example, 2 sessions per week can be fantastic, but for some people finding that time may be a big challenge.
- Also the 'second session' could be made up of the plyometric or drill work I spoke about earlier, and included as part of a warm up.
- In professional rugby, we found that with some players we were incredibly limited on time because of the many matches they were playing.
We were looking for the minimum effective dose and over the years collected thousands of pieces of data.
We looked at increases in speed, power outputs etc and we found you could get improved, or at least maintenance in a well trained athlete, with one session per week.
- When it came to working with people in triathlon, the reality is there has to be a solution that is less than having 2 pure gym contacts a week.
So we work to put all the necessary things in that one key session.
- We know we can get significant improvements in strength, maximal power output and average power outputs during fitness assessments that involve pushing large intensities intermittently.
- If you did one session per week and the content and quality of the training wasn't right, it wouldn't work.
But similarly if you trained 3 times a week and the quality wasn't right, you'd plateau there as well.
Outcome measures in strength training
- Training = testing and testing = training.
If your training is structured really well you're almost testing yourself each session because it's easy to track progress and be able to make improvements.
- We measure pretty much everything during training sessions - and this is really easy.
It can be done using power metres or by recording the sets, reps and loads that you do.
- You need to be able to track actual progress.
E.g. if you did a bike session today and tracked power, and then you did it again in two months.
If the second time you'd been up all night and drinking, the test probably wouldn't be as good, but that's not because your fitness has not improved it's because other variables are influencing it.
This is the problem with snapshot testing.
- Snapshot testing is basically testing things very infrequently and consequently it's hard to see trends and improvements.
- If we're tracking things in simple ways session by session you can take the outliers out and see the fundamental improvement.
- Triathletes often come to us wanting to increase average power - minute mile pace.
- Normal conventional triathlon training is focused on the delivery of oxygen to muscles, which is central aerobic fitness and it's critical.
It comes from long interval work, tempo runs and long steady rides.
- When people hit a plateau and more miles isn't equally more progress, often the peripheral aerobic fitness is what isn't being trained.
This is about training the body so the muscles can utilise the oxygen best.
To be able to adapt the body to this requires you to include training that'll specifically drive this.
To do this, you need intensity - and it's intensity often way beyond what endurance athletes are used to.
- For example, when it comes to pedalling big gears and pushing the boundary with minute mile pace, improving peripheral fitness will help.
The limiting factor is being able to sustain very large intensities under fatigue.
- The bike test we do usually includes 3-5 minutes of work.
The key thing is the intervals are short (less than 30 seconds) with very large gearing.
E.g. on a watt bike it would be air resistance 10 with a magnet of 5.
Cadence is low but intent to produce power is high. We look at the average power someone can optimally sustain over a given number of intervals.
This is a strong measure of peripheral aerobic fitness.
- We're huge advocates of in the winter, or alongside usual training, adding in very intense short sharp work using interval training.
- An analogy we use is imagine you have a V8 engine (with 8 cylinders).
The people who haven't done strength training will be using 5 cylinders.
- Those extra cylinders can only be achieved by strength training - it helps you develop the ability for nerves to turn on muscles to a larger degree.
The size of the engine doesn't change, your muscles don't increase in size with the strength training we do for triathlon, but your ability to recruit them improves
- Strength training to increase power isn't just about increasing power during a 6 second sprint when you're fresh.
- A paper from 5 years ago showed that people who did strength training saw favourable improvement in power output, heart rate and blood lactate over a 3 hour steady state cycle.
They were also able to do a time trial after that and performed 10% greater than the group who hadn't done strength training.
When to increase your number of strength sessions
- As a coach, we often hear people saying their limiting factor is time.
But often this isn't the case, it's what you value.
Time can be available but it's spent on things you value the most.
- An analogy for this is packing a suitcase for a holiday with a specific weight limit.
The things you include will be what you value having on that holiday, and less valuable things get left out.
It's the same with training, the things you choose to include in your time budget are the things you value the most.
- One of the biggest things anyone should ask themselves when trying to find time is about the value it can provide.
- For people who can do 2 strength training sessions a week might spend an extra 1 hour 15 a week are typically those who have a little more time.
But they know and can see the value of doing strength training.
- The fundamental thing it comes down to is how much you value strength training and the context of your life.
- As a minimum effective dose you need to do strength training at least once a week.
- Doing a second session can be additive but it's not a pre-requisite.
It's better to start of doing one gym based session per week and adding plyometrics to warm ups and mobility work around that.
- If you feel the value of that and you have the time, that's when you'd add an extra gym based session a week.
- There are some people who are enthusiastic and feel they've got the time so they go straight into doing two.
Gym based session
- You have to train legs because fundamentally movement during the three disciplines is governed by extending our hip, knee and ankle.
We need to use lower body exercises that strengthen the legs when our legs extend through our hips, our knees and ankles.
This makes sure we're training the right muscles and we'll get as much transfer from the exercise to swim, bike and run.
- Typically we have one bilateral life - where both feet are in contact with the floor or foot plate.
For example, squats, hex bar dead lift, leg press.
- A second exercise would be a unilateral exercises - a single leg exercise.
For example, split squat, reverse lung.
- This also has a lot of good transfer as triathlon has a lot of unilateral movement.
- The bilateral exercises are important because evidence suggests having good balance and stability allows us to overload our strength better.
The unilateral work helps it transfer better.
- A lot of triathletes who are new to strength training struggle with single leg exercises.
If we just throw in loads of single leg exercises the quality won't be there and people may start getting aches and pains.
- So generally we need two lower body exercises, one bilateral and unilateral.
- Another area that is often overlooked is pulling exercises, which are great for helping swimming.
For examples, chin up, chin down etc.
- A good scientific paper found that those who had good strength through these types of movement incurred less shoulder injuries from swimming.
- The prime muscle that allows us to create power when we pull through the water is latissimus dorsi which is what we use in overhead pulling work.
- Pulling work has other benefits such as preventing shoulder and neck issues which can occur in cycling or swimming and usually come from inadequate pulling strength.
A lot of people are dominant in their upper trapeizius muscles and they use this, when actually they need to develop strength in their lower trapesius and their rhomboids to create stability.
- They are also helpful for power transfer.
Imagine you're gripping your handlebars on your bike - your ability to do this is pivotal for power transfer.
If you don't have strong pulling muscles you'll rely on your forearms which fatigue easily.
If we can make latissimum dorsi and upper and lower trapezius muscles stronger you can stabilise a lot better.
This links in with transferring power and energy down to the pedals as well.
- Horizontal pulling work is also beneficial in this way, for example horizontal cable pull, good quality bent over row and prone row exercises.
- Finally, the core, which is probably one of the most poorly understood areas to do with strength and endurance performance.
- As an example, we coach an athlete who does Olympic triathlon and he came to us with back and Achilles problems.
The fundamental reason that caused this is when he ran his back would hyper-extend and consequently his foot contact was too far ahead of his body and it loaded his Achilles tendon.
Core training was one of the key trainings that got him better.
- General core exercises like planks are great and we encourage people to use them.
But they don't allow you to transfer that strength that well into swim bike and run.
- We use a lot of core exercises that we call 'dissociation exercises'. We've done a lot of videos on this on TriTenacious.
- You need strength in your torso and abs to be able to stabilise your spine, but you specifically need to be able to use this strength when your hip moves.
A lot of people will move their back when their hip moves, which is a key thing that causes a lot of problems - not just injuries but it reduces your running economy due to less efficient body position.
- Exercises for this area is something like a dead bug, where you lie on your back and lock your core into the floor, and slowly move one leg at a time.
It looks simple but to do right it's really difficult.
- I would really recommend people accompany their core work with dissociation work, which is using and overloading your core during movements while your hips move.
- So to summerise:
2 leg exercises.
1 pulling based exercises.
1-2 core based exercises.
- It's more important to select the best tools and practice these well.
You're then less likely to have improper form, and less likely to develop severe DOMS.
- I think a good programme should not include more than 5-6 exercises - quality surpasses quantity.
Weights, reps and periodisation throughout the seasons
- From a scientific perspective we know the higher the intensity the lower the reps.
The fewer reps we do and the higher intensity (weight) we lift, the more the body will adapt and improve muscle recruitment and strength and power.
- But there's a caveat - strength training and lifting heavy is a real skill and it takes time.
It's a skill that you don't necessarily have to do either.
- A lot of research recently looked at explosive type movements rather than loading up to an intense weight.
This involves moving with as much intent to power as you can.
There's good evidence to show that as long as intent is there when it comes to the concentric part of the movement (when the muscle shortens) you'll still get a very good adaptation.
- So with a lot of triathletes to begin with we won't be working at low reps with large intensities because the skill isn't there to be able to do that.
We instead make sure that the intent to move the bar or the object is there.
- Even if we are using slightly higher reps, the fact we're not doing 4-5 session, using body builder exercises and still doing a lot of endurance work means we don't need to worry about increases in the weight or size of muscles.
- As people get more able we then can utilise doing more traditional strength work which some people like because it's a new challenge.
- In theory, the approach has always been keep the weight the same but reduce the reps.
But we know through working with triathletes is that there's sometimes still a worry about the heavy leg feeling in a de-load week.
So we often de-load the opposite way - reducing the reps a bit and taking some of the weight out and still making sure we keep the intent.
- Regardless of the time of year you need to strength train because strength dissipates if you don't train for seven days.
As long as the intent remains the same and you're recording your reps/sets/weights so you know where everything should be at, you'll be good.
Home base strength training
- For a large number of people who are new to professionally structured strength training, a lot of the time they won't be pushing big weights from the start.
Consequently there isn't a need for machines etc.
- To begin with it's a lot easier to do strength training at home.
However there does become a point where you need more weights to progressively overload, and you'll start to need to use external load.
- It's still possible to do this at home, with things like a power cage, some weights and a barbel.
Some people may prefer going to a small gym and have access to everything they need.
- Having access to a gym does mean the scope to do other things is a bit wider.
- Ideally you eventually need access to a barbel, kettle bell, bands, benches and power rack - either at a gym or purchased for home.
- All the transfer work and mobility work can be done at home/as part of warm ups.
- It's about making sure you are doing the right things in the right way wherever your set up is.
Transfer exercises, plyometrics and mobility work
- Transfer work is making sure the improvements in strength training is transferring to the movements we do in triathlon, and how the muscles behave.
A classic example is something like plyometric exercises.
- If you're not already into a good solid strength training program, the benefits you'll get from plyometric training will be relatively small.
There is also a risk of injury if you don't have sufficient strength.
- That type of work usually involves things like A walking - slow movements in running postures where you have to use your strength to stabilise your body.
This is progressed into marching work which is using your legs, hips, knees and ankles during movements similar to running.
This can then progress to skipping or hopping drills.
- Essentially you're making sure the strength gained from gym work can be used exactly how we'll need it when we run.
- With cycling, transfer work can come into sprint work.
We get people to perform maximal sprints over 6-7 seconds.
When we first get triathletes to do this they look like they're going as hard as they can but we can tell from their body that they have more gears left.
The ability is there but they aren't making active use of it.
- Using the transfer work in sprints on the bike we're making sure they get tuned to the positions, joint angles and range of motions we use when we cycle.
- The problem with mobility is that people think if they stretch anywhere it's going to be good.
I was the same. When I was 14 I was laying turf in the garden with my Dad and I had a back spasm and ever since I've had to manage my back and be a bit careful with it.
I have ridiculously tight hamstrings and the reason is since I pulled my back my hamstrings are very active and short, because they allow me to keep stability in my spine and keep my back okay.
If I stretch my hamstrings, it makes my back worse.
- In contract, we coach an athlete called Richard and when he stretches his hamstrings it helps him.
Stretching the right areas for the demands and objectives of swim bike run is absolutely critical.
- With swimming, one of the limiting factors of rotation particularly when you bilaterally breath is the thoracic rotation.
If you can't rotate effectively through your thoracic spine you're going to over-rotate in your shoulder joint which often results in swimmers shoulder or frozen shoulder.
You will also probably over-rotate in your lumbar spine which is one of the reasons swimmers develop back problems.
- With mobility work it's making sure when we do it it's specific to improving the mechanics and skills we need for triathlon performance.
When to include this extra work
- The mobility work needs to be small amounts done frequently - 5 minutes every day is great.
You can do it while doing something else to stop it taking extra time.
- We also incorporate a lot of mobility work into rest periods during strength training.
- Transfer work we usually fit into your running warm up.
For example, if you're going out to do a threshold run you can do it in the warm up as they work well to prepare your body for the training session.
- Some of the transfer bits are done in the gym work such as bike sprints.
- Transfer can be done once or twice per week, as part of a warm up for something you're already doing.
Where to position strength training in the programme
- The evidence isn't necessarily concrete to say one way or another.
- The biggest factor is practicality.
When it comes to things like this if you try and make your programme 100% perfection it'll practically work very little, but if you make it 90% perfection it'll probably work 100% of the time.
- The most important thing to get the improvements is to make sure you get the strength training in.
If you've got the flexibility to fit it in whenever you want, that's a luxury and it might give you an extra 2-3%.
- Sometimes people can talk themselves out of strength training when worrying about fitting it in.
If you're following a professionally structured programme it'll be accounted for in that context.
- There is strong science to show that the last session you do in a day will not have it's adaptation diluted as there is no competing changing.
- The practical problem with this is the psychology.
For some people doing a strength training in the evening after a hard run session in the morning might be too difficult.
This is important to consider to make sure it works best for the individual.
- You always need to make trade-offs as a age group triathlete and this is key here - the most important thing is that the work gets done in the first place.
Most common mistakes endurance athletes make with strength training
- I say these as someone who has made most of these mistakes!
- The first one is poor technique - it's there for safety but also for improving your response.
We did an in house research study which looked at different types of technique on an exercise and how it could load the muscle.
From that we were able to directly determine how effective the different techniques would be at improving strength.
It consistently showed that poorer form would dilute the benefit of the training.
- Often this is the reason people plateau.
For example a hip thrust looks so simple, but people often use their lower back and hamstrings to assist the movement and they won't use their glutes very well.
The whole purpose of the exercise is to target the glutes! But you need good technique to see consistent gains.
If you don't do that, the other muscles aren't the target muscles so the improvements will plateau and the benefits for triathlon won't be seen.
- Second thing would be not including appropriate strength work that transfer to triathlon based movements.
- It needs to transfer to training the right muscles in the right movements in the right ways.
There are a lot of exercises that are often used which will make you stronger but won't make you better at triathlon.
- An exercise that transfers really well is a Bulgarian squat, which is a unilateral exercise.
It's a simultaneous movement of flexion and extension in your hip, knee and ankle.
It also requires you to heavily strengthen and utilise weak links in a triathletes lower limb, particularly gluteal muscles - e.g. seeing the knee rolling suggests weaker glutes.
- An example of an exercise where it doesn't transfer as well would be a single leg squat movement where you don't go through much range of motion.
This means you won't load the muscle appropriately to get the adaptations.
It is also potentially quite an unstable exercise and stability becomes a limiting factor rather than overloading strength.
This means the technique is often beyond people.
- Another example would be things like sit ups and crunches.
With your core you're trying to develop strength to prevent movement in your lower back.
If you're doing strength training exercises that are creating movement in the lower back, you're doing the opposite of what you're trying to do in swim bike and run.
If we create excess movement while doing triathlon it's a recipe for injury, and it reduces economy and efficiency by creating poor transfer of force through the body.
- Doing core exercises such as plank, palloff presses and dissociation exercises use strength in the core to stop movement in the lower back so are much more effective with triathlon.
- One of the biggest things that stops people being able to adopt certain techniques is their physical limitations.
If they haven't got the mobility, strength of stability they might not be able to do an exercise, and they need to unlock this first.
- Take running mechanics, we often see coaches talking about high knees but this relates to your force of your foot hitting the floor.
Therefore distance runners knees won't come up as high as sprinters.
What happens if you focus on high knees is your hip will drop and fall in and we create less stability and often arch the lower back.
- There's a lot of information put out about running mechanics but you need to consider how it'll improve what you're trying to work on yourself.
- A big issue is ground contact with running mechanics and a common thing we see is people contacting the floor a little too far ahead.
This makes sense because if you haven't got better hip strength, by striking in front of you you don't rely on the hip strength as much - it's your body getting round a weakness.
- If you want to improve running mechanics we try and get people to strike a little closer to themselves, but this can only be done if you've strengthened your hips in the first place.
From there you can build transfer work and drills and assess the technical element.
- We also see knee knock where after the foot contact your knee rolls inwards.
We can try and tell a runner to keep their knee out but they lack the ability to create force through the external rotators in the hips and gluteal muscles.
Unless they correct their underlying strength and then add the technical drills they won't be able to improve it.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or strength training?
- Drive by Daniel H Pink - it's about motivation.
- What is your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
- My mindset! I'm not a great triathlete but I work hard.
- Also my Garmin is great for data.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
- Do more open water swimming - I've learnt this the hard way!
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Dave Cripps
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.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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