How Strength Training for Triathletes Works

By: Jill Jaracz
Boys exercising in motion with sport.
Strength training will increase your endurance, one of the most important aspects of the triathlon.

Swim, bike, run -- lift? The triathlon is a tough sport, because it challenges athletes to compete in three disciplines, each of which is vastly different in terms of motor skills and the strength required to do them. In order to train properly, you have to spend ample time perfecting each discipline -- learning the technique, building up stamina in that discipline, and figuring out how to make your movements more efficient. This can be a tough order for competitors -- and that's probably most triathletes -- because not only do you have to build up your technique and endurance in three different sports, you most likely also have to schedule that training around a day job and family commitments. Although experts advise adding strength workouts to your triathlon training, who's really got time for them? Why should you incorporate strength training into your workout?

Strength training is an important part of fitness. Although cardiovascular exercise is important in building a strong heart, strong muscles also benefit your body in many ways. Together, cardio training and strength training build a better body; one that's stronger, more efficient and has more stamina.


Simply put, if you make the time to build up your lean muscle mass, your endurance capacity will increase. In a race like the triathlon, where you'll be pushing your body to its limit for a several hours, having the stamina to endure the entire race is important. Building up stamina through practicing each discipline can help, but it can really only take you so far. Stronger muscles will allow you to maximize your stamina and carry you for the entire race.

Many top triathletes have discovered that incorporating strength training was the key factor to improving their times. Developing strong, lean muscle mass through strength training also provides additional benefits for your body. Together, these benefits can greatly enhance your performance and help improve your finishing time.

Still skeptical? Let's take a look at how strength training can benefit triathletes.


Importance of Strength Training for Triathletes

Let's start by taking a closer look at all the ways strength training can benefit a triathlete.

  • Enhanced strength. It's kind of a no-brainer: If you lift weights, your muscles will get stronger. However, as you age, your muscle mass decreases. Muscle mass can start decreasing when you're in your 30s, and the average age of a triathlete is between 35 to 40 years old [source: USA Triathlon]. If you're an average-aged triathlete, you're dealing with less muscle mass, and therefore less strength.
  • Muscular endurance and power. Stronger muscles give you more stamina. In a race that could be several hours long, your body needs to be able to go the distance.
  • Higher resistance to injury. Strong muscles actually strengthen your bones by increasing bone density. Another plus is that stronger muscles also protect your joints. In a sport where you're using repetitive motion on your joints, you'll want to protect them as much as you can so that you don't injure yourself during training or a race.
  • Better form. If you have greater muscle capacity, your body may be able to maintain a better form while you compete. If you're running hunched over because you don't have the muscle power to run upright, adding some strengthening exercises could help. However, if you're performing the mechanics of a discipline incorrectly, it's possible that weight training could exacerbate the problem [source: Haettich].
  • Decreased fatigue. Improve your stamina by adding muscle. When you're racing, the muscle fibers in your body break down, causing fatigue to kick in. The more muscle fibers you have, the longer it takes to break them down.
  • Improved efficiency. If you're performing the mechanics of each discipline correctly, strength training can help make your movements more efficient. Move more efficiently, and you'll move faster, improving your overall race time.
  • Improved performance. When you add strength training into the equation, it can ultimately lead to better performance in both your discipline training and your race performance.

Let's look at how triathletes can maximize the benefits of periodized strength training.


Periodization Strength Training for Triathletes

As mentioned on the previous page, periodization training involves changing up your workout at various intervals to prevent stagnation and muscle plateaus. Periodization strength training programs usually start off by requiring you do a high number of repetitions of an exercise at a low weight, and they gradually progress to doing a low number of repetitions at a higher weight.

Periodization strength training works by dividing up a calendar year into smaller training periods. It begins by building a muscular base and gradually increases your strength before settling into a maintenance period. This mimics how a triathlete trains in each of the disciplines, as you have to build a base level of endurance in each of the sports before you can increase the speed and intensity at which you perform them.


Although known by a variety of names, periodization strength training for triathletes generally follows these phases throughout the calendar year:

  • rest
  • off-season (also called base training or adaptation)
  • pre-season (also called transition or strength)
  • competition (also called maintenance)

During each of these phases you focus on building strength in your muscles by gradually changing the variables of your workouts. During the competition phase, you scale back on your workout to maintain the strength you've built up during your pre-season training.

The whole concept of periodization strength training centers on changing the variables of your workout so that your muscles don't get used to moving one way and "plateau." You create periodization in your workouts by making adjustments to these variables:

  • the number of sets per exercise
  • the number of repetitions per set
  • how long you rest between sets, exercises and even training days
  • what exercises you do, and in which order you perform them
  • how fast you perform each exercise

By changing up these variables in regular increments throughout your training year, you'll force your muscles to constantly change how they work. If you don't allow them to adapt to one way of moving, you'll continue to gain strength.

Now, let's look at how you can build a periodization strength training workout.


Triathlete Strength Training Workouts

When you incorporate a periodized strength training workout, you'll want to spend some time mapping out your program. While you set your goals, take into consideration how much time you have to train and whether you've been injured before. Try to leverage the help of a professional who can evaluate you and help you plan this process.

During the base training phase, which can last from eight to 10 weeks, anticipate doing a full-body workout two to three times a week. You'll perform two to three sets of each exercise for 12 to 15 repetitions. The load should be challenging, but not at a maximum intensity level. Throughout this base training phase, you can increase the number of sets, reps and weight to continually challenge your muscles. Remember, you're focusing on building strength in your muscles.


In pre-season training, which can be another eight to 10 weeks, you should tailor your program to exercises that mimic the disciplines. You'll also work on converting power and incorporating more explosive exercises, such as plyometrics. Work in two to three strengths workouts a week. These workouts should consist of two to three sets, with three to six repetitions per set, performed at close to your maximum output.

During your competition phase, which can be about six months long, you'll want to taper off the frequency and intensity of your workouts. Complete one or two strength training workouts, with no more than two sets of 12 repetitions per workout. Use a moderate level of intensity during this phase [source: Wallmann and Rosania].

As you incorporate periodized strength training into your triathlon training calendar, you should see and feel results. Making time for strength training can be just the ticket you need to take your race to the next level.

Read on for lots more information about strength training.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Council on Exercise. "Periodized Training -- And Why It's Important." (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Edwards, Sally. The Complete Book of Triathlons. Prima Publishing. Roseville, CA. 2001.
  • Friel, Joe. "Periodization of Strength Training." (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Haettich, Reece. "Periodization In Strength Training." Oct. 6, 2005. (Sept. 17, 2010
  • Mayo Clinic staff. "Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier." June 30, 2010. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Silva, Michael. "Periodized Strength Training Program." Oct. 31, 2004. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Triathlon." 2009. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Wallmann, Harvey and James Rosania. "An Introduction to Periodization Training for the Triathlete." Strength and Conditioning Journal. Volume 23, Number 5. Pages 55-64. December 2001. (Sept. 17, 2010) handouts/protected/articles/PE/wallman(period).pdf