Incorporating Strength Training Into Your Training Plan

David Warden

Strength training is conspicuously absent from the run and triathlon plans on this site. This should not be interpreted as a lukewarm position towards strength training. While an athlete can do very well with endurance training alone, peak endurance performance cannot be achieved without some form of strength training. This article will address the Why, How, and When to incorporate strength training into your 80/20 plan. If you are already convinced about strength training, you can skip the Why and move the How and When sections.

Note: The strength training laid out in this plan is highly effective, and moderately complex. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, there are 2 alternatives:

  1. Consider Matt’s At Home Strength Training for Triathletes
  2. Strength training can be simplified in a non-periodized manner with similar results by incorporating the Preparation phase for 12 weeks, then switch to the Maintenance phase until the week of your first A race.

Why Strength Training
I once interviewed Dr. Tudor O. Bompa, considered the father of modern periodization, and asked him what he thought the biggest mistakes were that triathletes make in their training. He responded that the two biggest mistakes were not using evidence-based training methods (80/20 Training seeks to address) and not implementing a year-round strength training program.

For the triathlete especially, strength is paramount. For example, running performance is often simplified as a calculation of only two factors—stride frequency and stride length. True run performance, however, is the result of three factors—stride frequency, stride length, and force, force being the ability to accelerate a mass (the runner or limb) in a desired direction.

One study found that when comparing slower runners with faster runners, the faster runners indeed had a stride length 1.69 times greater than the slower runners did, a stride frequency 1.16 times greater, and a force applied to the running surface 1.26 times greater. In other words, force was more closely associated with run speed than stride frequency was. The researchers concluded that force played the primary role in reducing contact time with the ground. The more force that a runner applied to the ground, the shorter the time was between the end of the contact period of one foot and the beginning of the contact period of the opposite foot.

In addition to an increase in force, below is a (partial) list of endurance benefits after various periods of strength training:

  • Cycling time to exhaustion at 80 percent of VO2max increased from 71 to 81 minutes
  • Short-term endurance performance (from 4 to 8 minutes), which would add power to the final push in a triathlon event, improved 11 to 13 percent in both cycling and running
  • 33 percent increase in cycling to exhaustion at 75 percent of VO2max.
  • Significant improvement in 5K run time
  • Running economy increased by an impressive 5.0 percent, which likely contributed to a 21.3 percent improvement in time to exhaustion at maximum aerobic threshold
  • No significant loss of stride length late in an intense run, whereas a non-strength group lost almost 3 percent of stride length in the final portion of the same run
  • After strength training, an MRI revealed less contrast shift for a given amount of work. These results suggest that resistance training results in the use of less muscle to lift a given load
  • After one hour of exercise, a 39 percent increase in phosphocreatine, a 37 percent decrease in lactate, and a 37 percent increase in glycogen levels after exercise, when compared with the period before strength training
  • 12 percent increase in lactate threshold

Note that most of the studies above measured these results when the athlete replaced their endurance training with strength training. Any concerns that the athlete has about losing valuable aerobic time to strength training is refuted by the literature.

How to Incorporate Strength Training

The most successful approach is a program that is both sport specific and periodized. Sport-specific means that the strength training focuses on the prime movers, or multijoint exercises that mimic the movements of the discipline. Periodized means the strength training follows a preparatory-to-specific path, which is defended in five phases: Preparation, Transition, Maximum Strength, Maintenance and Competition. Readers of the book Triathlon Science will find similarities below to that publication.

Preparation

Consistent with the theory of endurance periodization, this preparatory phase is introduced at the beginning of a strength training program. Long, slow repetitions both promote slow-twitch muscles and prepare the body for the increased demand in load as the strength program progresses. Use caution when introducing this training, particularly for the first time, and increase the load slowly over this period. Failure to introduce this new type of training can result in severe soreness that can disrupt days of training or even cause injury, requiring an even longer recovery time.

Total sessions 8 to 12
Sessions per week 2
Sets per sessions 3 to 5
Reps per set 20 to 30
Recovery time 60 to 90 seconds
Speed of lift Slow
Recommended Exercises for all phases
  1.      Squat or leg press (choose one, not both)
  2.      Core
  3.      Chest press
  4.      Gluteus medius
  5.      Hamstring curl
  6.      Core
  7.      Calf raise
  8.      Deltoid lateral raise
  9.      Leg extension

Transition

The Transition phase is designed to prepare the lower body for the heavier loads of the critical next phase. Use caution when introducing this phase and the increase in load. Note that only leg press or squat moves to the Transition phase; all others remain in the Preparation phase. This approach promotes long, lean, fat-burning muscles that will not be required to generate as much force as the key prime mover.  The load of the squat or leg press should be increased so that the athlete is challenged to complete 10-15 reps.

Transition phase for squat or leg press, all other strength exercises remain in Preparation phase.

Total sessions 4
Sessions per week 2
Sets per sessions 3
Reps per set 10 to 15
Recovery time 90 to 180 seconds
Speed of lift Slow

Maximum Strength

The MS phase is the primary purpose of gym-based strength training for the lower body. This phase is when power is primarily developed for the triathlete. Although power is rarely called on in a steady-state event, it is crucial in draft-legal events, when climbing, or when finishing a race. The work done in the Preparation and Transition phases prepares the triathletes for these heavy MS loads to solidify the ability to generate force and power. Like the Transition phase, only squat or leg press move to the MS phase; all others remain in the Preparation phase. The load of the leg press or squat should be increased so that the athlete is challenged to complete 3-6 reps.

Maximum Strength Phase for squat or leg press, all other strength exercises remain in Preparation phase.

Total MS sessions 8
Sessions per week 2
Sets per sessions 3 to 5
Reps per set 3 to 6
Recovery time 90 to 180 seconds
Speed of lift Slow

Maintenance

Like any other fitness or skill developed, strength must be maintained. The Maintenance phase is designed to sustain the new abilities to generate force while not interfering with critical sport-specific endurance and speed training beyond the base phase. The Maintenance phase lasts for the remainder of the season. The load should be adjusted so that the athlete is challenged to complete 6-12 reps for exercises in the Maintenance phase, while many exercises remain in the Preparation phase at loads supporting 20-30 reps.

Maintenance Phase

Total sessions Until first “A” race of season
Sessions per week 1 to 2
Sets per sessions 2 to 3
Reps per set 6 to 12
Recovery time 60 to 90 seconds
Speed of lift Slow
Recommended Exercises for all phases
  1.      Squat or leg press (choose one, not both)
  2.      Core*
  3.      Chest press*
  4.      Gluteus medius
  5.      Hamstring curl*
  6.      Core*
  7.      Calf raise
  8.      Deltoid lateral raise
  9.      Leg extension*

*Indicates this exercise remains in the Preparation phase in terms of reps per set

Competition

Many coaches recommend the termination of strength training at the onset of the race phase to avoid the buildup of additional fatigue. Continuing limited strength training into the race phase, however, will result in better performance than abruptly ending strength training.The Competition phase is designed to provide limited strength training benefit without introducing resistance-induced weakness in competition. Because of this, a Competition session should be completed at least 72 hours before competition. The load should be adjusted so that the athlete is challenged to complete 5 reps for exercises in the Competition phase, while many exercises remain in the Preparation phase at loads supporting 20-30 reps.

Competition Phase

Total sessions Through race phase
Sessions per week 1
Sets per sessions 2
Reps per set 5
Recovery time 60 to 90 seconds
Speed of lift Moderate
Recommended Exercises for all phases
  1.      Squat or leg press (choose one, not both)
  2.      Core*
  3.      Chest press*
  4.      Gluteus medius
  5.      Hamstring curl*
  6.      Core*
  7.      Calf raise
  8.      Deltoid lateral raise
  9.      Leg extension*

*Indicates this exercise remains in the Preparation phase in terms of reps per set

When to Incorporate Strength Training

Strength training can begin at any time in the training plan. Ideally, it begins at or before Week 1, but it can slip into the regimen at any time. In fact, the Preparation phase can begin weeks before Week 1 of your formal plan as part of the Triathlon Maintenance plan.

What days of the week should the strength training be added? As long as the distribution between strength sessions is at least 48 hours, the strength sessions can be added on any given day of the week. When performed on a day with Z3-Z5 intervals, the strength session should be done (when possible) after the interval set. When performed on a day with just Z1 or Z2 work, it can be performed before or after the Z1/Z2 workout.