The Triathlete's Strength Training Formula | EP#81
This is the ultimate guide to triathlon strength training. I explain the why, how, when and any other questions you can think of related to strength training for triathletes. One thing is clear - strength training, when done right, has massive benefits for triathletes. This guide will teach you how to get it right.
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- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy!
- What do you currently do for your triathlon strength training? And how do you feel it's working for you? Let us know!
- Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Triathlon, running, and cycling performance benefits from strength training
- What type of strength training to do - heavy-weight, low-weight, explosive, or plyometrics?
- What order to do strength and endurance training in
- An example triathlon strength training program (the Mikael Eriksson Formula)
- How to plan your training so you don't get interference effects between strength training and endurance training
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Triathlon, running, and cycling performance benefits from strength training
- In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was still not enough good evidence to suggest that strength training would improve endurance performance.
- However, this has changed dramatically over the last 15-20 years. Now we know based on the evidence from a lot of studies that strength training for endurance athletes can improve exercise economy, anaerobic capacity, and lactate threshold.
- It can also reduce delayed fatigue in endurance performance, improve maximal strength and speed and endurance performance.
- However, strength training does not improve VO2max. But it can improve your speed or power at VO2max due to improved economy.
Potential negative impacts of strength training (that all have been proven invalid)
- Increased body mass. There’s no evidence to suggest that strength training increases body mass. It may increase lean body mass, but when it does, it also typically comes with some fat loss.
- Other potential negative impacts are all related to increased body mass. For example, VO2max in terms of millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body weight. In the early days, some people suggested that VO2max may be reduced due to increased body weight, but since body mass actually stays relatively constant even when you introduce strength training to your triathlon program, it is an unfounded claim.
- Reduced capillarization and oxidative enzyme activity have been suggested as potential negatives as well, but the collective evidence today suggests that that is not something that is caused by strength training.
- The collective evidence suggests a large variety of benefits from strength training that positively impact triathlon or endurance performance.
- One of the key factors is improved running or cycling economy (you use less oxygen to go at a certain speed or power output).
- All of the suggested potential negatives, primarily increased body mass, have been shown to be unfounded. Endurance training is prohibitive of seeing big increases in muscle mass. However, muscle strength still improves.
Examples of research studies for multi-sport athletes
1. Millet 2002 - Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO(2) kinetics
- This study had 15 triathletes. They did 14 weeks of 2 times per week heavy weight resistance training. They were above 90% of their one-rep maximum.
- They improved their maximal strength, running economy, and velocity or speed at VO2max, although VO2max itself did not improve.
- It was because of that running economy improvement at their VO2 max that they were faster at this intensity.
2. Hausswirth 2010 - Endurance and strength training effects on physiological and muscular parameters during prolonged cycling
- Impact of strength training on cycling in triathletes.
- They had a 5-week strength training program (which is a bit shorter than normal), but it had 3 times per week of strength training. This was always above 90% of one rep maximum.
- This study confirmed the decrease in free cycling chosen cadence with exercise duration. If you go on a long bike ride, usually you may see your cadence drop towards the end of the ride.
- But after 5 weeks of strength training, the reduction is much less significant in the group that had done strength training compared to the group that did not.
- They concluded that strength training can help prevent neuromuscular fatigue which causes the reduction in cadence.
3. Vikmoen 2017 - Heavy strength training improves running and cycling performance following prolonged submaximal work in well‐trained female athletes
- The study enrolled 19 female duathletes.
- The strength training that they did consisted of 4 lower body exercises.They used 3 sets of 4-10 repetitions twice a week for 11 weeks.
- They then assessed running and cycling performance with a 5-minute all out test that was performed immediately after prolonged periods of submaximal work. This was 3 hours of cycling or 1.5 hours of running.
- In cycling, the strength training group saw a 7% improvement in performance compared to the non-strength training group. The running group saw a 4.7% improvement in performance compared to the control group.
- The strength training group also had reduced oxygen consumption which is in essence improved economy. They also had reduced heart rate during the final 2 hours of cycling. However, they did not see any of these changes in running.
4. Ronnestad 2013 - Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review
- Bent Ronnestad and Inigo Mujika confirmed that running economy is improved by performing combined endurance training with heavy or explosive strength training.
- However, heavy strength training is recommended for improving cycling economy.
- With running, you can go both ways – heavy weights or explosive strength training. With cycling, it’s really the heavy weights that will give the most bang for your buck.
- With explosive strength training, if you can get your intended velocity high, that still counts (by the body and its adaptations) as explosive, even if the actual velocity isn’t high (because you loaded the bar with a ton of weights).
Meta-analyses and review studies in running
1. Denadai 2017 - Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Included 16 relevant studies on how heavy weight training affects running economy.
- With explosive strength training, the athletes had an improvement in economy of 4.8%. With heavy weight training, they had an improvement of 3.7%.
- They also assessed isometric training, which didn’t have a significant effect on running economy.
2. Berryman 2017 - Strength Training for Middle- and Long-Distance Performance: A Meta-Analysis
- 28 studies were included in this meta-analysis. They found improvements in middle and long distance performance that were associated with improvements in running economy, maximal force, and maximal power.
- They found that maximal force training led to greater improvements than other intensities. This refers to lifting heavy weights at a low number of repetitions, and not lifting high reps, low weights.
- If you are an endurance athlete and you want to get into strength training, you need to be lifting heavy to get the most bang for your buck.
3. Balsalobre-Fernández 2016 - Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials
- They included only 5 studies that met the strict inclusion criteria (high-level runners, etc.)
- Interestingly, this is a bit different because 4 out of the 5 studies used low to moderate resistance strength training intensities. These are 40-70% of one rep maximum.
- All of them used low to moderate training volume. That would be 2-4 resistance lower body exercises plus 200 jumps and 5-10 short sprints.
- They did this 2-3 times per week for 8-12 weeks.
- When they pooled these studies and analysed the combined effect, the effect of strength training programs on running economy specifically in high-level middle- and long-distance runners showed a large beneficial effect even though these studies were more of a low weight, high rep strength training program.
- This meta-analysis shows that in high-level runners at least, not only heavy weight training, but also lower weight, higher rep training can potentially be beneficial.
- This meta-analysis goes against most of the other collective evidence in this aspect.
Cycling economy, performance, and strength training
- In well-trained and elite cyclists, there haven't been huge amounts of studies that have shown positive effects on cycling economy by strength training. However, with moderately trained cyclists this has been the case.
- Also, in well-trained and elite cyclists, after a long duration of sub-maximal exercise, like cycling for 2-3 hours, in the last hour of cycling the economy in the group that has done strength training is typically higher than in the control group.
- This is massively relevant for triathletes. Especially if you’re doing half or full distance triathlons.
- If your cycling economy improves (or more accurately, declines only minimally), then, as the duration of the event grows longer, that is going to translate into great time savings for you.
- In addition to cycling economy, there are many studies that have shown positive performance effects of including strength training in a cycling training program, and how it can result in faster time trial times.
Key takeaways from Cycling Science by Stephen Cheung and Mike Zabala
- Most studies have used multiple leg exercises during a minimum of 8 weeks, which has been suggested to be the minimum period that you need to do strength training to see really good results.
- The few studies that have failed to show improvement in terms of time trial performance have had weight training programs that have been shorter in duration or have used a low volume of strength training.
- In cycling, protocols that have been using explosive strength training have not been beneficial and did not result in performance improvements.
- Explosive strength training is very good for running but not necessarily the best for cycling.
Yamamoto 2010 - The effects of resistance training on road cycling performance among highly trained cyclists: a systematic review
- 5 studies met the inclusion criteria. This was with highly trained road cyclists.
- The outcome measure was cycling performance – time trial or time to exhaustion.
- 3 of the 5 studies found an improvement compared to the control group in cycling performance.
- The 2 studies that did not have improvements added resistance training on top of the athlete’s existing endurance training program.
- The 3 studies that found improvements just exchanged some of the endurance training for resistance training instead, to keep the total training volume constant.
- This is very interesting. You don’t need to add more training. You can substitute some of your endurance training for strength training.
- Of the 3 positive studies, 2 of them used high-intensity, explosive types of resistance training. This goes against what we see in Cycling Science.
- However, this meta-analysis is from 2010 whereas Cycling Science is from this 2017. So, I personally would lean towards using Cycling Science as a better reference.
- For triathletes a combination of both heavy strength training and heavy explosive strength training is beneficial.
- Heavy strength training seems optimal for cycling, and also great for running.
- Explosive strength training and plyometric training have been shown to be very beneficial for running.
- Typically, you'd want to do at least 8 weeks of twice a week strength training to see benefits.
- You can exchange some endurance training for strength training. You don't need to add strength training on top of endurance training.
General tips on triathlon strength training in practice
- Involve similar muscle groups as in the triathlon disciplines and, if possible, imitate sport-specific movements in your strength training.
- The squat is a brilliant example of a specific resistance exercise that you can use. It uses the same kind of muscle groups and its concentric part has similarities to movement patterns that we use in running and cycling.
- Most of the studies indicate that 2 strength training sessions per week is typically enough to achieve a sufficient increase in strength to result in endurance improvements in an 8-12 week period. I would personally advice to go for the 12-week period to be on the safe side.
- The kind of weights that you should be lifting based on the existing evidence should be between 4-8 reps in 2-3 sets, with approximately 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.
- This is true based on the science that has been conducted in endurance sports. I advise to stay below the 8 reps except for the adaptation period when you first start strength training. In this adaptation phase, doing 10-12 reps with light weights is a good approach.
- When you get to the bulk of your strength training program, go into 6 reps or below. This is the sweet spot. I would also suggest 3 sets and not just 2 sets with 2-3 minutes rest between sets.
- Don’t do strength training like circuit training where you jump between exercises with no rest in between them. You must have those rests so that you can recover to get the most benefits and the best adaptations from your strength training.
- You can’t just forget about strength training when you get to your racing season and stop it completely and expect the benefits to last. The maintenance that you need to do, however, is very minimal. One session per week is enough. You don’t need to do 3 sets per exercise any longer. You don’t need to do heavy weights. You can reduce the weights slightly. You can go with middle rep with middle weights to minimize muscle soreness and to maintain those strength training gains that you made in your strength training period.
- Some studies have shown that not even one strength training session per week but up to once every 8-10 days can be sufficient.
- When we talk about explosive training, it’s really the intended velocity rather than the actual velocity that seems to determine the training response. Although you may be really slowly lifting that bar in your squat, if you’re trying to be powerful and lift it as fast as possible, the intended velocity is what counts.
- You must be doing core stability and strength all season long, several times per week.
- For your strength training periodisation, remember that it must be progressive. If you just lift the same number of sets, reps, and weights every time, it’s not going to do you much good.
- There is a lot of good benefits from plyometric training for running. You can do it in addition to heavy strength training, or you can substitute one heavy strength training session for plyometrics.
- in a study by Saunders and colleagues at the Australian Institute of Sports in 2006, there's a plyometric program that you can use. You can also check out the plyometric program by John Davis, who is a very good running coach, on his website www.runningwritings.com.
- After an initial adaptation phase, your sessions should have 3 sets per exercise of heavy weight training at 6 reps or less, with 2-3 minute recoveries.
- You must do maintenance even in the racing season. One slightly scaled-down session per week or 8-10 days is enough.
- Do core training year long, several times per week.
- Your strength training program must be periodised and progressive.
An example strength training program (the Mikael Eriksson Formula)
- The standard program is 16 weeks long with 2 sessions per week. However, this can be adapted based on how the season progresses, where the races fall, and so on.
- The first 3 weeks are adaptation to prepare you for the harder strength training. It’s higher reps, lower weights going from 12-14 reps down to 8 reps, and low to moderate weights as you progress through the sessions.
- The following 9 weeks are undulating heavy strength training with explosive strength training. It is focused more on heavy strength training. For example, I may have 2 heavy strength training sessions and then 1 explosive session. It can also be 2 weeks of heavy strength training sessions (so 4 sessions) and then 1 week focusing on explosive strength training.
- The exercises will be the same throughout the program but the weights lifted will be different. In the heavy strength training period, the weights lifted will vary around 80-90% or occasionally 90+% of one rep maximum. In the explosive phase, it’s much smaller than that. It can be 60-70% or even 50% later in the program when it becomes even faster.
- The 4 last weeks are explosive strength with plyometrics added in. The explosive strength training is done with less weight. It is working up from 50-60% of one rep max. This phase focuses on the speed of the concentric part of the lift.
- The added plyometrics are performed in the same strength training sessions with rest in between different sets and exercises.
- This is how we get in all the different kinds of strength training that have been proven beneficial. Heavy strength for cycling primarily but also for running. Explosive strength for running and maybe for cycling. Plyometrics for running.
- Every session also has at least one upper body exercise that is specific for swimming. The same principles apply. It can be a lat pull-down or a triceps extension for example.
- There should be at least 2 days in between strength training sessions to recover properly.
- The program has a gradual progression built in. For example, you will have 6 reps at 75-80% of one rep max when you first start with your heavy strength training. It will then progress to 4-5 reps at 85%. Then it will be 3 reps at 90%.
- The point here is that it’s never the same for longer than 1 week. There is a slight progression and periodisation in it at all times.
- I do go even lower than the 4 reps recommended by endurance strength training studies. When I looked at pure resistance training literature, 6 reps is the maximum ceiling for what can be considered low rep high weight strength training which generate those neuromuscular adaptations as opposed to hypertrophic adaptations.
- We’re after the neuromuscular adaptations and not hypertrophy (which is increased muscle size). We want increased strength through better interaction between the neural system and the muscles themselves. 6 reps is the high end of that spectrum but it goes down to 2 or even 1 rep.
- However, I don’t use such low reps. 3-4 reps is what I go down to regularly.
- For the recovery periods in my program, in the adaptation phase with moderate or low weights and moderate or high reps, 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes of rest between sets is adequate. When you get into the heavy strength or explosive training sets, you must keep those 2-3 minutes of rest between sets and exercises.
- We also work in one rep maximum tests a couple of times in the program.
- In here, you choose weights that you think you can lift between 4-8 times until you can no longer lift with good form. You can use this One Rep Max (1RM) calculator to calculate your theoretical 1RM based on the weight that you lifted and the number of reps that you managed to do until failure.
- Let’s say that you have a strength training session on a Monday and Thursday. Half of the exercises that I include in the program overall will be in the Monday session and half on Thursday. It’s 3-4 lower body and 1 upper body exercise per session.
- The exercises that I include are double leg squats, split squats, Romanian deadlift, step-ups, good mornings, lunges, reverse lunges, power cleans, lat pull-downs with a close grip (alternatively, you can use rockers), and triceps pushdown.
- The plyometric exercises are rocket jumps, bounding, scissor jumps, box jumps, quick skipping, A skips, and depth jumps. These only come in the last 5 weeks of the program.
- However you design your program, it must be progressive and periodised.
- It's good if you can work in all aspects of heavy weight training, explosive training, and plyometric training in the program.
- I recommend keeping the exact same exercises throughout the program.
- Do 1RM-tests at the start of the heavy weight training phase, and potentially a few weeks into it.
- Make sure you have an adaptation phase before starting with heavy weight training.
How to plan your training so you don't get interference effects between strength training and triathlon training
- Interference is when strength training and endurance training cancel out the effect of the other training modality. This may happen because they are very different. It’s very complicated, and there are many molecular pathways and hormones involved.
- There are 4 cases when molecular interference between strength training and endurance training may occur.
- Aerobic training before endurance training.
- Close proximity between two sessions – strength or endurance sessions.
- High aerobic endurance intensity in the program
- High aerobic endurance training volume in the program
- However, these effects have been shown in people that are not used to both endurance and strength training.
- If you are used to strength training and endurance training, you can have a little bit of leeway, but do pay attention to them.
- Placing the strength training session before the endurance session is beneficial, especially in the heavy or explosive strength training phase. When you’re in the adaptation phase, it’s not necessarily critical.
- Placing one session in the morning and another in the afternoon or evening is ideal.
- When you’re in the off-season you typically do the bulk of your strength training program. This means that you don’t do high endurance intensities or volume anyway, which is good.
- Whatever you do, don't ramp up the endurance training volume or intensity a lot and also start to include heavy strength training.
- A study from Docherty from 2000 showed that the zone of interference only happens when you’re focusing on peripheral adaptations in both strength and endurance training.
- For endurance training, peripheral adaptations means that you have a very high intensity in your endurance training (90% of VO2max or higher). If you stay away from this, you’re going to stay away from that peripheral adaptation zone and be more in the central cardiovascular adaptation zone where interference is minimized.
- For strength training, the peripheral adaptations, which is the danger zone for interference, is when you have high reps (8-10 reps or higher). When you have lower reps (6 reps or lower) is when you are in the central neural adaptation zone for strength training.
- When you are in the central adaptation zone for both strength and endurance training, you don’t have that risk of interference.
- One review study from Garcia-Pallares from 2012 called Strategies to Optimize Concurrent Training of Strength and Aerobic Fitness for Rowing and Canoeing writes:
- The residual fatigue caused by a previous endurance session could reduce and impair the quantity and quality of subsequent strength training sessions.
- In particular, for highly trained athletes, the strength training sessions should be placed before the endurance sessions or at least be separated by more than 8 hours for both types of training sessions.
- Avoidance of the simultaneous development of 8-10 reps of strength training and aerobic power can reduce the interference phenomenon.
- A training volume close to 3-5 sets in 4-6 specific and multi-joint exercises during 10-12 weeks of training cycles seem to be an adequate stimulus.
- Short training phases, 5 weeks or so, using highly concentrated training loads of more than 50% of the total training volume focusing on the concurrent development of one strength and one endurance target can provide a more effective training stimulus for the improvements of performance in highly trained athletes.
Related Listening: Episode 68 on block periodisation.
- The training to repetition failure approach should be avoided in athletes at any performance level.
- Keeping your strength training in the 6 reps or lower range with high weights, while avoiding very high-intensity and high-volume endurance training minimizes the risk of negative interference effects between triathlon and strength training.
- If possible, do strength training before endurance training, and separate sessions so one session is done in the morning and the other in the afternoon or evening.
The mechanisms of why strength training is beneficial for triathlon performance
1. You improve your muscle strength through either muscle size or neuromuscular function.
- In endurance athletes, it’s usually neuromuscular function, because we can’t easily achieve hypertrophy due to the interference effects (and also, due to our non-bodybuilder diets).
- For us, improved neuromuscular function leads to improved maximum strength and rate of force development.
- This improves both your short duration performance and indirectly your long duration performance because the rate of force development specifically reduces the muscles’ fatigability.
2. Some of our IIX muscle fibres become IIA muscle fibres that have reduced fatigability compared to the IIX fibres.
- This reduced fatigability improves your long-term endurance.
3. Musculotendinous stiffness
- By improving musculotendinous stiffness, you improve your exercise economy which improves endurance performance.
- This is where plyometrics are especially useful, because it specifically increases musculotendinous stiffness.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
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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Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy!
What do you currently do for your triathlon strength training? And how do you feel it's working for you? Let us know!