As multi-sport and endurance athletes, most of us understand the important role that strength plays in our performance. It is intriguing though, how many multi-sport and endurance athletes take a haphazard approach or laissez-faire attitude toward something that can make or break a season; something that can assist in preventing an injury. The time spent with coaches, or to meticulously read and plan and plot the training, usurps any consideration for strength. If we as athletes spent one-third of the time focusing on our strength that we do planning and developing the other aspects of our sport, we might just see different results. For some reason, strength is considered cross-training, and is left to videos, random fitness classes, or some protocol snatched from the pages of a magazine. This is such a contradiction to a population that is so meticulous about food, clothing and gear. Why are we leaving our strength to chance?
For our purposes, I am not referring to the strength and physique that is obtained and meticulously developed by body builders or fitness models. Women in sport need to recognize that their body will develop in response to the training that is done. As an endurance athlete, it is unlikely that one would get BIG or develop the muscular size that is observed in other sports. It is more challenging if the athlete is female. The athlete will acquire muscular definition; but that is more related to body fat and not size. AND one can be strong without being big. The athlete needs to train for the sport she is undertaking.
Strength, like recovery, needs to be written right into the program. In the off-season, when you are developing and increasing endurance, one can spend a great deal of time developing and improving strength. Once the season and racing schedule begins, time becomes more valuable, and less available. Putting the strength or athletic development protocols right in the program ensures the continuation of strength development throughout the season. It leaves nothing to chance. Recognize that your exercises can be done at home, included in a warm-up, or a warm-down. Many of these can be body weight movements, and all of them will assist in keeping you healthy throughout the entire season. If you are not doing any strength once your training or competitive season opens, you are losing strength, and making yourself susceptible to injury. Strength helps with movement and improves fitness for sport. Overall, movement and multi-joint activities are key. Medicine balls, dumbbells, mini-bands (or ankle bands), suspension equipment (TRX or other), or even the jungle gym at the park can assist in your strength protocols.
As an athletic development coach, I look at the needs and demands of the sport as well as the specific needs and demands of the athlete. There are several things that are consistent for all athletes that participate in all or one of the three components of triathlon. Because of body postures on the bike, during the swim and throughout the run, athletes who participate in tris have very similar needs.
- Leg Strength: Athletes should be performing squats, single-leg get-ups or squats, dead lifts as well as single leg dead lifts. Leg strength is best developed with feet on the ground, as running occurs by driving our feet to the ground and reacting to the ground forces.
- Remedial Leg Strength: The runner and cyclist spend a great deal of time in one plane of movement. As this happens, there is little demand on the muscles for other planes of movement. Using a mini-band, for remedial walks, traveling forward, backward, side steps, and monster walks, helps target the muscles that are sometimes neglected, yet critical to overall performance and injury prevention.
- Rows, and back strength: More rows and pulls, less pushes. The work in the triathlon is a result of movement to the front of us. Arm positions, and pulls in swimming place a demand on the pectoral muscles. This can cause over development of the pecs, and underdevelopment of the rhomboids, lats, and traps. Balance it out…. pull, and row. The pulls should be done single arms. Change the range of motion– incline pull-up, one-arm row at chest level, one arm-pull down.
- Core strength: For our purposes today, core will refer to the strength that is necessary for movement to be generated through the pelvic girdle. In running, the core assists in the transfer of the ground force from one leg to the other leg, to generate movement. In cycling a similar action occurs, but there is no ground force, and the pelvis stabilizes while the legs move through the phases of the pedal stroke. In swimming, the core stabilizes, and the hips actually do lift upward, or towards the head, as the hands catch, as if gently climbing a ladder. What happens through the pelvic girdle influences overall movement. To train, reactive rotations, med ball throws and catches, some plank work to accommodate the postures in swimming and cycling, as well as reaches and lunges. The core is involved in and responsible for all movement, so it is not necessary to train just the core.
- Shoulder girdle strength: The infamous rotator cuff, which is comprised of four muscles…. supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. Like the plantar fascia of the feet, if these muscles are not happy, the athlete is not happy. These muscles are responsible for keeping the humeral head in the glenoid fossa (shoulder joint) while permitting and controlling movement. To develop strength and prepare the swimmer for the posture and movements start in a push-up plank position, and then move to a forearm plank, without changing posture (flat-back) and without putting your knees on the ground. These are ups and downs. One can also put a step or phone book or 25# plate (weight) on the floor and walk hands onto the step and back down. In the forearm plank position, perform push-ups, or roll through the shoulder girdle. In push-up positions, walk your hands all the way to the left, and then all the way to the right. When that is easy, walk to the left with hands and feet. Repeat to the right.
- Crawling: From spider mans, to bear crawls (on hands and feet, changing reaches and postures), crawling is a great strength tool to be included in a warm-up. It is non-traditional in terms of strength, but it is an amazing warm-up component. This movement helps the brain prepare for the movement to be encountered in running.
It is imperative that strength is incorporated in year-round training for the triathlete. This training needs to be written into the program. It can be incorporated in the warm-up or warm-down. It does not need to be lengthy in time. When strength is included, it can be the difference in the overall finish of a season.