Strength Training for the Endurance Athlete:Tradition vs. Function

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a triathlon coaching clinic Hosted by USAT.  Although the course was comprehensive and I learned a great deal very little time was spent going over strength training.  What was more surprising was that throughout the weekend I discovered that few of the attendees that I spoke with (mostly triathletes) had any idea about the strength demands of their sport or current strength training methods.  Furthermore after reviewing several texts on triathlon training it was apparent that the recommended strength training protocols fall way short of current research and methods.  After talking to many triathletes about this we have found the answers are invariably the same. 

  • If they have some free time they need to be swimming/biking/running.
  • The additional pounds added from strength training will be a decrement to performance (the thought of gaining a few extra pounds of lean tissue is enough to send them on a 50/10 brick!)
  • They just don’t know what to do!

I have been a fitness professional for over ten years now and an endurance athlete/triathlete for six of those years and still consider myself a “newbie” but if I have learned anything in that time it is that I still have a lot to learn!  What I can tell you is that from a strength and conditioning perspective I can speak intelligently.  What we know for sure is that there is no doubt that a comprehensive strength training program can benefit an athlete to no end.  But what exactly is a “strength training program”?  For many this conjures up visions of large men in tank tops lifting ungodly amounts of weight, grunting and groaning all the way.  Although this form of strength training is valid for some it is not for the triathlete.  The type of strength training I am talking about here is Functional Strength Training.  I know that “functional training” has become a buzzword in the industry over the past few years so let’s define “function” and “functional training”.

Function:  Performing a duty for which a person/thing is intended for; a normal or characteristic action of anything; a duty, utility or purpose.  

Functional Training (FT):  A comprehensive approach to training or rehabilitation that addresses ALL performance components necessary to achieve success in any target activity.

We now have a definition but before we can look at what FT is for the triathlete we must first look at the physical demands and environment of the sport. 

The physical demands of the triathlete can vary a great deal depending on the distances involved however there are some defining characteristics. 

  1. All three events require a strong core, defined for our purposes, as the area between the sternum and the knees (every one of these muscles attaches to the pelvis).  
  3. Swimming is not a ground based activity therefore the core and rotation become the genesis of movement.
  4. Biking and running are dominated by single leg movement as well as a large rotational component.
  5. Balance and stability are two more components used in all three events.  Remember that balance and stability drive strength. 

Optimal performance enhancement training also has to be specific to the target activity.  Specificity says you get what you train for therefore if one wants to bike faster then one should be out biking faster.  This is true however increasing volume and intensity without structural integrity is the best way to get injured.  If the efficiency with which one pedals can be improved or the power output increased then one can easily see the importance of incorporating a strength training program or strength training in a more functional manner.  Triathlon involves ground contact, multiple planes of motion, multiple planes of stabilization, integrated movements, and utilizes gravity to load and unload muscle systems and involves the expression of power.  The operational environment for Triathlon is dominated by gravity, momentum, inertia, impulse, ground reaction forces, and 360 degrees of freedom of movement.  Therefore the training for Triathlon should encompass all of these components.  What we are talking about here is training movements not muscles or training in a functional manner for triathlon.  The human body works as an integrated unit and thus should be trained that way.  We like to say “train the way you live and live the way you train”.


Looking at strength training through our “new eyes” we now have to ask the following questions:

1.   Is my training dynamic: a training environment that allows us to dynamically load multiple muscle systems to create powerful movement.

2.   Is my training multi-planar: a training approach that prepares us to optimally stabilize multiple muscle and joint systems in a 360-degree fashion.

3.   Is my training proprioceptively enriched: training in an environment that teaches the Central Nervous System how to communicate more efficiently with the rest of the body.  

4.   Is my training systematic: training with a plan to get us from point A to point B.

5.   Is my training progressive: basic conditioning and skill acquisition before advanced conditioning and skill execution.  Slow and controlled to fast and chaotic.

6.   Is my training specific: mimic the target activity.  This includes all of the appropriate joints, as well as the speed and amplitude of movements.  The principle of specificity dictates that you “train like you play/live.”


If the answer is yes to all of these questions then we are well on our way to an effective functional strength training program.  This means we have to make a paradigm shift.  Traditional strength training is usually performed along a single plane.  The use of machines further restricts the movement and often puts us in a seated or lying position in an effort isolate a muscle.  “Stabilization Limited Training” (SLT) is training that trains prime movers only to the strength that the stabilizing structures will support. This approach to training usually takes place in a standing position engaging the entire kinetic chain and results in greater neuromuscular efficiency and therefore greater force transfer.  Training with stability balls, bands, medicine balls, dumbbells and training in unstable training environment are some of the effective methods used to train the endurance athlete more functionally.  This does not mean that strength training becomes a circus act. No!  The risk vs. benefit ratio must always be taken into account.  We can always go back to our checklist and ask ourselves what is the reason for this exercise? 


This thought process highlights the need to re-evaluate current training methods.  Using the FT checklist, and asking those six questions, can ensure that the endurance athletes’ strength training will be specific and effective.  The inevitable outcome of using FT and working integrated movements, instead of isolated muscles, is optimal performance enhancement.