Strength Training for Triathletes

I have previously written a post about cross training in general, but I’d like to put a few posts together about strength training specifically. As I’ve touched on before, and is pretty common knowledge, triathletes (especially the ones who used to be runners) tend to hate strength training. First, I want to touch a bit on the benefits before I dive into the practicality and program building.

First, strength training makes you stronger, duh. Being stronger allows you to pull more water, put out more power, and have longer strides. Second, strength training is good for injury prevention, strengthening the small stability muscles that we don’t always work fulling when we swim/bike/run. These can be the small muscles around joints, or the muscles we use for lateral motion since triathletes tend to only move in one direction. Thirdly, and this relates back to reason number one, strength training builds neuromuscular connections (the pathways from your brain to your muscles).

So now lets talk about the phases of strength training. There are 4 phases, Neruomuscular Development, Build, Power, and Maintenance. Each of these phases are done in conjunction with the training yearly cycle and line up with your key races.

So lets start with phase 1, Neuromuscular Development. The point of this phase of training is to get the body moving, learn the basics of strength training, and build some of those connections. This is far and away the most important phase of strength training, which is why it comes first. These workouts, much like base training, lay the foundation for everything else. Coordination, balance, and range of motion are the main goals. Most of the exercises here should be done with either body weight or very light weight. The point here is not to get really strong, but to get the connections firing in all of your muscles. Movement and proper form is key here. This is usually done in the 2ish month period before the start of base training, which for most people occurs in November and December.

Phase 2 is the Build. The main goal of this phase is to build strength. Taking the movements and basic fitness gains from phase 1, this is where you start introducing in more resistance to most exercises in order to induce some strength gains. This is a good time to work on strengthening specific movements if there are deficiencies in your form for either swimming, cycling, or running. For example, if you are a strong cyclist, but cramp on the run, this is a good time to do exercises progressively strengthening your vastus medialis muscles. This phase usually lasts through the duration of the base season for most athletes through the winter and into early spring.

Phase 3 is the phase that is most often left out for certain athletes and the phase that most people are afraid of, Plyometrics and Power. If you’re an ¬†athlete that gains muscle mass quickly and easily, this is the phase you should stay away from. Here, we are taking all of the strength gains we achieved in Build, and applying them to more specific movements. The main goal here is to simply work¬†on explosiveness and springiness while maximizing power output for the muscles used in triathlon. This phase usually lasts for only a few weeks at the beginning of the race season when most athletes are racing for fitness more than results. This shouldn’t last for too long or muscle growth starts to become more common and we no longer are seeing neutral gains in strength.

Phase 4 is similar to phase 1 in concept and is referred to as Maintenance. The main goal here is to maintain all of the gains that were made in the preseason, base and early parts of the race season. By this time in the training cycle, most athletes are starting to really focus on their “A Race” and doing lots of specific training for that particular race. Exercises here should mostly focus on not loosing strength rather than gaining it. This will allow you to continue to progress in your training in the pool, in the saddle, and on the road. Injury prevention is key here as well, making sure that the small stability muscles are continuing to be recruited enough to stay active.

So those are the big picture concepts of strength training for triathletes. Lets recap a little bit. There are 4 phases, Neuromuscular Development, Build, Power and Plyo, and Maintenance. These usually follow the progression of an athlete’s training cycle and key races and are to be used as suplementary work rather than key workouts. I hope this helps you get some direction when you are starting to go to the gym!

If you have specific questions about strength training, feel free to send them my way at! I’ll be happy to give pointers or even take you through a training program!