Triathlon Weight Training

Triathlons are a clear example of an aerobic sport — long distance, steady pace, and extended duration. For that reason, it’s often thought that the best training approach for triathlons is a reproduction of those attributes, focusing on long runs and distance rides. However, all that training leaves little time for the overall process of building muscle mass.

Although it is extremely important for triathletes to remain lean for speed and efficiency, it’s still in their best interest to add lean muscle mass. The benefits of having a few extra pounds of muscle (not fat) will provide an increase in performance that will offset its detriment of additional weight to carry.

Here are some training tips for increasing lean muscle mass in the weight room. Follow these and you should see an increase in your race-day performance.


The squat is arguably the best exercise for your legs, if not for your whole body. Squats have numerous benefits across multiple domains. For starters, squats (as with most leg-related lifts) release a growth hormone throughout the entire body that aids in muscular development. Squats are great for building the quadricep and gluteus muscles. The amount of stabilization required for a squat also activates the core and other leg muscles.

Most importantly, the squat is a functional movement, meaning it holds an applicable value outside of weight training. You will always get in and out of a chair, so you will always be squatting. Functional movements like the squat also provide scalability across all ability levels. A few of the many modifications of this exercise can be with the rep count or the weight applied.

Plyometrics: A Suitable Alternative

Plyometrics is a great training procedure, because it allows for a high-heart rate exercise without having to actually go out and swim, bike, or run. In addition to its cardiovascular benefits, plyometrics also increase balance and agility; two characteristics that are often overlooked when training for a triathlon. Improving these athletic attributes is important because they strengthen cartilage and connective tissue.

When implementing weight training into your current routine, try mixing it in on days with little to no alternative cardio work. If your weight training does fall on a day with cardio training, be sure to lift before training aerobically, as the weight lifting generally places a greater demand on the central nervous system. Additionally, it’s safer to lift weights with muscles that are fresh, rather than fatigued from running, swimming, or biking.

In the winter or when it’s raining, it’s often difficult to go outside to swim, bike, or run. After time, stationary bike trainers and treadmills can grow tiresome. Plyometric exercises can act as a great solution to this dilemma, as they can be performed indoors while occupying little space. Adapt your plyometric exercises into a series of circuits for added cardio training.

Recruit the Essential Muscles

Running and biking both require a bit of stability, so it’s important to train your core. Efficient running also calls for a rotation of the shoulders with each stride. Biking requires strong, yet stretched-out hips flexors. Swimming employs the pectorals, triceps and back with each arm stroke. Assess the movements taken in each particular event and try to recreate the movements or a modified version of them to improve overall stroke/stride efficiency come race-day:

  • Running, for example, can be recreated with weight in the form of lunges. Although the high-cadence of each stride isn’t true to its natural form while squatting, it provides a way to increase stride-strength under weight, which in turn, will result in a stronger, weightless stride while running in a race.
  • Swimming calls for a downward pull of the arms. Recreate this movement with tricep pull-downs, chest-to-bar pull-ups, and lattissimus dorsi (lat) pull-downs.
  • Biking’s heavy recruitment of such leg muscles as the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and others can be strengthened with such leg-pressing exercises as squats, leg-presses, and air squat-jumps.

Take time to think about the particular movement patterns of each triathlon event: Swimming, biking, and running. Try to think of ways to recreate these movements in the weight room to improve performance in that particular leg of the race.

Mix Heavy with Light

Chris Solinsky, a professional runner for Nike and American 10,000 meter record-holder, broke the 27-minute barrier in the event with a 26:59.60. Surprisingly, Solinsky weighed over 160 pounds; the previous American Record-holders had never exceeded 141 pounds. This goes to show that some extra muscle can go a long way.

Simply put, heavy-weight, low-rep exercises build strength and muscle mass. Inversely, light-weight, high-rep exercises decrease body fat and produce lean muscle. It’s in the best interest of an athlete’s physical balance to recruit both exercise styles in training. Because triathlons are a race-related sport where speed is more important than sheer size, light-weight exercises might prove to have better results. However, this isn’t to say that triathletes should avoid all heavy lifting.

Fueling Up

Food should be consumed before and after training. As far as the type of food you should eat, that all depends on the time of consumption.

Pre-workouts are best fueled by carbs and fat, as those are the two leading energy sources. Complex carbohydrates are quick-acting, but fats are long-lasting. A mixture of both should yield the best energy results. Mix these two nutrients with a little protein (to acquire some amino acids) for complete nutritional balance.

After exercise, protein and simple carbohydrates are the two foods to consume. Simple carbohydrates, like fruit, provide a much-needed insulin spike for the empty cells. Protein’s amino acids are essential for building muscle. Again, a combination of both is ultimately best for your post-workout nutrition.

Lift Like a Strongman, Run Like a Sprinter

In the end, consistent and balanced training produces the best results. By only pursuing long runs, you will only yield the results of endurance work. Similarly, an exclusive pursuit of weight training will only produce the limited results associated to that activity. Variety is the key; train swimming, cycling, running, and weight training in various conditions (different weights, time domains, distances, etc). Routine has been called the enemy of fitness, so avoid the monotonous task of consistency. Mix it up and benefit from the results of all exercise styles.

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