Functional Strength Training for Triathletes

Functional Strength Training for Triathletes



The goal of this article is to present principles of Functional Strength Training (FST) for optimal triathlon performance. All the methods presented are designed to make you a stronger, faster, and injury free athlete. No only is this important for athletic performance, but the evidence is mounting rapidly that strength training is essential for health and longevity.


Strength Training Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions when it comes to strength training. Before we go any further, it would be wise to look at some basic facts regarding strength training.

Strength and size are not synonymous. The goal for triathletes when it comes to strength development is to become stronger without adding muscle bulk. Many believe

Strength training will slow them down. Research done on Olympic athletes at the 1970 Olympics in Mexico proved that Olympic weightlifters were faster than 100m sprinters in a 30-meter sprint. Others claim that strength training will lead to decrease flexibility. These same Olympic weightlifters are the second most flexible athletes.


Swimming, biking and running are not enough to maintain strength levels. Research has revealed that beginning about the early thirties, athletes will lose approximately .5 lbs of lean muscle per year if they do not engage in intense strength training. This loss will result regardless of the amount of aerobic activity one engages in. To maintain fast twitch muscle fiber strength, which is needed for sprinting and climbing, 75% of 1 rep. Max. (the most weight you can lift one time) must be used in strength sessions. This equate to the amount you can lift 10-12 times.


Functional Strength training does not require a large time commitment. Maximal gains in strength and power can be achieved with a small time requirement (2 session of 30-50 min per week). Often times, these sessions can be conducted outside the gym.


A year-round strength program is required. Many athletes only engage in off-season strength programs. This can lead to less than optimal strength when it counts the most. In six weeks, an athlete can lose 40% of strength gains if in-season strength training is not continued. In ten weeks the loss rose to 70%. In season strength training should consist of 1-2 sessions in the gym, and another specific strength session in each of triathlons three disciplines.


Triathlon Specific Training

Strength training for multi-sport athletes has unique challenges. The athlete need to maximize strength without risking overtraining.. This is possible through Functional Strength Training (FST). The exercises selected for the strength program should be specific, require stabilization, be explosive/ power based and have an acceleration/ deceleration component. It is important to train movements, not muscles. The exercise movement s should closely resemble those of triathlon. One training component often ignored is stabilization. This is the body's ability to control movement efficiently, and provide a stable platform for the limbs to act off of. For triathletes, this means training the stability of the lower limbs (ankle knee and hip), torso and shoulders.

Another variable essential for a tri specific program is power development. Strength alone will not make you powerful. Strength must be converted to power in order to be useful to triathletes. Two of the best methods of training for power are the use of explosive lifts, such as Olympic lifts and medicine ball training. The most specific conversion sessions would involve swimming, cycling and running against high resistance with relatively low rpm', such as cycling and running up steep grades, or swimming with a dreag suit or other resistance tool..


Functional Strength Training

Functional Strength Training (FST) is a method of training that is very specific to the demands of the athletic activity. This training can include free weights, cable machines, elastic bands or tubing, stability balls, medicine balls and balance boards. Functional exercise have the following qualities:

    1. Progressive- begin with simple exercises, and progress in intensity and difficulty.

    2. Multi planar-movement not restricted to a single direction of movement.

    3. Velocity specific- the exercises duplicates the speed of movement required by the individual disciplines of triathlon.

    4. Specificity- the movement pattern of the exercise duplicates that of swimming, cycling, and running.

    5. Balance dominated- increases in stabilization will aid in increasing efficiency and reducing injuries.

    6. Fun- if you don't enjoy the process, you won't get the most out of it.


Tools Of the Trade

The equipment  below is ideally suited for FST, and can be found at most good training facilities, or through

Free weights are versatile and the equipment of choice for explosive strength training. They require a lot of stabilization, and can be moved in all 3 planes. Explosive lifts such as Olympic lifts (clean and jerk and snatch lifts) are excellent for developing full body power and stabilization. These lifts are the cornerstone of strength training in most sports.

Stability balls have gained popularity the last few years. These large inflatable training devises are ideal for torso training. They can also be used as an unstable bench for conventional strength exercises such as chest presses or dumbbell flyes. This will increase the involvement of the shoulder stabilizers, which is vital for all swimmers.

Cable and pulleys ideal for any pulling exercise. Cables can be uses in all directions as well as twisting rotational exercises. Tubing with handles can do virtually everything cables can, but are portable and come in different thickness to give provide variable resistance loads. Upper lower and torso exercises can be executed with both pulleys and cables..

Triathletes often neglect the musculature of the lower leg when it comes to strength training. Unfortunately, it is also the source of many overuse injuries in runners. By adding a balance board under the supporting leg any single leg exercise, such as a one leg squat, the muscles of the lower leg will be heavily involved. If the balance board is large enough, a two-legged squat can also be done effectively.

Unlike the old leather medicine balls, today they are make of rubber and are great for throwing drills that integrate the upper body and torso, creating power and stability. Med. balls can be used as external resistance in stability ball exercises. They can also be utilized as a stability devise when doing push ups with a med ball under each hand. This turns an ordinary push up into a very functional exercise.

Putting it into Action

This all sounds great, but where do I begin? First, make a list at the functional tools you have available to you. Next, look at you current strength program (you do have one ?), and evaluate it for it functionality. The third step is to use the methods outlined here to create a more tri specific routine. Often times these changes will result in a lowering of the weight or resistance needed to successfully complete the exercise. Begin by introducing FST into your warm up exercises. Then integrate them into your lower intensity sets, before making them the primary exercises.


8 Great Functional Exercises For Triathletes

Here are eight great FS exercises specific to triathletes.

    1. Single leg squat (with or without a balance board)

    2. Stability ball push up- feet are on the floor, and hands are on the ball.

    3. Split squat- rear foot on a 12-18 inch box, front foot 4-6 feet in front of box.(balance board can be used under front foot).

    4. Horizontal cable row on stability ball- seated on ball, pull bar attached to cable at shoulder height. Cable stays parallel to the floor, and squeeze shoulder blades together.

    5. Overhead squat- hold a barbell overhead with elbows locked and complete a squat with perfect form.

    6. Single arm dumbbell snatch- this variation of the Olympic lift will enhance full body strength and shoulder stability.

    7. Single leg cable row- standing on the left leg grasp a low cable with the right hand. Completes a row pulling the hand toward the shoulder while maintaining balance.

    8. Curl press - With dumbbells, complete a curl movement. With hands at shoulder level do an overhead press to complete one rep. Return to start and repeat.


Reps and Sets

So just how many sets and reps of each exercise are required for optimal benefit? If you are training for maximal strength, which is advisable during the foundation or base phase of training, aim for a range of 2 to 3 sets of 3- 8 repetitions per set.


Power training will require less weight than strength. This is to allow for maximal-speed of movement, and high nervous system involvement To avoid nervous system fatigue, 5-6 reps per set, for 2-4 sets is recommended.


Muscle endurance requires a much higher rep range per set, but with less sets.  One to two sets are all that is needed since the reps can be as few as 15 or as many as 100 reps per set.


Through the use functional training, you can expect to continuously increase your power, strength and stability for years to come.  The ideas presented above are only a sample of what is possible through FST. I recommend you find a trainer or coach versed in FST to assist you in technique. The only limits are your own creativity and desire to improve as an athlete.