Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 17, 2021

I’ve been working as a strength coach for endurance athletes for many years.

But triathletes often have an extra level of challenges to balance their weight, strength, and race performance through the right types of exercises.

To help our readers better plan their strength exercises, we teamed up with a few triathlon coaches to come up with this detailed guide.

Which Muscles Do You Need To Focus On?

Muscles you need to work for

Every sport has different requirements as to which muscles need to be the strongest.

But a triathlon endurance athlete has a bit of a unique problem because they swim, bike, and run.

That means focusing on several muscle groups during your strength training exercises.

1. Shoulders

Inexperienced triathletes tend to underestimate the power of a good swim time.

And a lot of the power you need for swimming comes from your shoulders. Athletes can make this stage a lot easier by taking strength training on their upper back and shoulder area into account.

2. Arms

A triathlon will also require some strength in your arms to support the swim phase. But that doesn’t mean you should build up large muscle mass through your training sessions.

Bigger muscles mean more weight, and they can also get in the way of your stroke.

3. Legs

This is probably the most important part of the body to bring into your training plans. I know many athletes who spend a lot of time training their leg conditioning during the pre-season as they know they’ll need the power for the cycling and running stages.

Let’s move onto some exercises.

Best Exercises for Endurance Athletes

There are two main tips I have to help you better plan your training.

1. Compound Exercises

Compound Exercises

Time is the problem for triathletes, as their endurance training takes up so much time and effort.

So, when you’re planning a strength workout as part of your endurance training, make them count by avoiding isolation exercises.

A strength training routine should include compound exercises that involve multiple joints and muscles to get the most out of every minute you have.

And studies have shown that targeted strength conditioning can significantly improve the running economy in triathletes [1].

2. Triathlon Movements

Triathlon movements

Every sport has certain repetitive movements, and a triathlon requires very rhythmic body motions.

As a result, you should make sure that your training plans force you into movements that are very similar to the swim, bike, and run.

For example, if you’re doing lat pull-downs, keep your hands shoulder-width apart rather than wide to mimic the natural swimstroke.

Also, don’t go full-power right from the start.

Not only will you avoid injury.

But by having a short adaptation phase and then doing explosive reps, you’ll gain more from the short strength training time you have.

How Do You Train For Triathlon Strength?

Here are five weight training exercises that I generally recommend for a triathlon strength training program.

Ideally, you should try and set these up as a type of circuit training, where you do a specific number of reps in one conditioning exercise and then move onto the next exercise rather than doing multiple sets of the same.

1. Lat Pulldown

Lat pulldown training

This is the go-to weight training option to increase your speed and ability during the swim stage.

All triathletes can gain from it as it very closely focuses on the upper back and shoulder muscles that are most needed for swimming.

Aim to do about 12 reps in each set and keep a close eye on your lean mass as this strength training exercise can be very effective and result in too much lean mass.

2. Dumbbell Bench Press

Dumbbell Bench Press Training

I generally recommend using dumbbells for triathletes as they are easier to adapt to different forms of resistance training.

It’s also easier to avoid injury while still building up good strength in your arms and chest area.

Just don’t take the approach of bodybuilders and go for a power phase of fewer than eight repetitions as that could build too much muscle, especially in the off-season.

Plan for a lower conditioning intensity with 3 sets of 12 reps.

3. Bent-Over Single-Arm Rows

Bent Over Single Arm Rows Training

Any sport that requires strong arms and shoulders should include some form of rowing action.

It provides a great benefit through compound multi-joint strength training for triathletes that would result in a more even distribution of new muscle tissue.

Athletes can either do this standing up or lean on a bench for better back support and alignment.

4. Walking Lunges

Walking Lunges exercise

Many triathletes head straight for the leg press, hamstring curls, and leg extension routines in their strength training.

But I strongly advise you to avoid such isolation sessions.

For one, they do increase your chances of injury, but they also don’t account for a natural leg movement for the bike, run and swim side of things.

Grab some dumbbells and perform some walking lunges in your gym training sessions, and you’ll notice that they quickly improve your leg muscle endurance.

5. Squats

Squat training

The final strength training exercise I recommend for triathletes’ strength boost is the good old-fashioned squat.

Ideally, have a coach show you the right way to position and move your body.

Even a small posture mistake can increase the stress and force of the weights on your joints and back.

Squats are a great way to engage your legs, glutes, and core. And you do these sets within just a few minutes, giving you more time for other training activities.

Good form is the most important part to avoid unnecessary risk.

Timing Your Triathlon Weight Training

triathlon weight training

I’ve worked with a few beginner triathletes, and a number of them have made some fundamental mistakes in their training plans that possibly made them weaker.

Here’s what to consider from a strength routine timing side of things.

1. Avoid Sporadic Weight Training

As an athlete in an endurance discipline, you should not plan only to do weight training one week each month.

First of all, you’ll end up suffering one week of soreness each month, and that causes many athletes to abandon the idea of building strength.

Secondly, you’ll also increase your chances of injury because your body won’t get used to dealing with regular muscle resistance.

Instead, plan for two short strength sessions each week during the main season.

2. Pick Easy Training Days

Don’t plan your strength program for days when you go for long runs, cycles, or swims.

Your body will already be under enough pressure, and you’ll find your success rate drops significantly while you’re working with weights.

Here’s a better idea.

On a day where you do a medium distance on the bike, add some upper-body workouts. While on swimming days, you could then train your legs and give yourself the ability not to cause too much strain on one body part.

Benefits Of Strength Training For Triathletes

Benefits for Triathletes

There are three main areas that strength training impacts for triathletes.

1. Fatigue

During various phases of the swim, bike, and run stages, an athlete will feel a burn build-up. That burn comes from lactic acid, and the more lean mass you have, the more you can distribute lactic acid and reduce the burn [2].

As a result, you can work harder while delaying the feeling of fatigue.

2. Speed

One of the significant performance gains from targeted gym work comes in the form of increased speed. Not so much the fact that your maximum speed capabilities will be higher, but more the fact that you can maintain a higher speed for longer without wearing yourself out.

And when it comes to competition, everyone can benefit from the extra speed as an advantage over others.

3. Injury

A well-executed strength session will also help protect joints and ligaments from the risk of injury. And I don’t mean injuries that could happen from a fall.

It’s more a case of avoiding repetitive strain damage from long stints of running or cycling. That’s the last thing you want to deal with during competition events.

FAQs

How Often Should a Triathlete Strength Train?

A triathlete should strength train once or twice a week. Two strength sessions will help most people avoid any significant amount of soreness, and it will also help maintain the strength and overall fitness levels.

Should Triathletes Lift Weights?

Yes, triathletes should lift weights as part of their triathlon training. While it requires a careful balance of avoiding the build-up of too much heavy lean mass in the race season, it’s an important aspect from a speed and overall race results side of things.

Can a Triathlete Be Muscular?

Yes, a triathlete can be muscular, just not in the bodybuilder sense. The more lean mass an athlete builds up, the more weight they have to move forward and the more oxygen their body needs for the run, cycle, and swim phase [3].

How Do You Lose Fat While Training for a Triathlon?

You lose fat while training for a triathlon by reducing your calorie intake and increasing your trainingpeaks. That approach will help with overall physical conditioning allowing triathletes to achieve better results.

Are You Going To Prioritize Strength Work?

With all of the training advice above, you should be in a great position to come up with a good strength training plan. And it will give you a competitive advantage over others in your race category.

You’ll notice that your fitness levels will increase within a few months of executing such a program, giving you better run and cycle times than ever before.

Start slowly with some moderate repetitions and then gradually work towards a higher intensity and your goal. And don’t forget to report your achievements back to us on social media.


References:

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328667147_Strength_training_improves_cycling_and_running_economy_in_long_distance_triathletes
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16573355/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2017016/

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