Strength Training for the Multisport Athlete - Part 1
Success in multisport requires a combination of strength, speed and
endurance. Although triathlon is an aerobic sport, a solid strength
base is essential to prepare the body for the physical rigors of
swimming, cycling and running and reduce the risk of injury.
All-too-often, however, triathletes forego strength training due
to time constraints and the perception that it is less important than
Certain types of endurance activities benefit tremendously from the
speed and power gained from strength training. These include: climbing
hills, surging, closing gaps and sprinting for the finish line. In
addition, research suggests that strength training can improve some
aspects of endurance performance.
A study from the University of Illinois investigated the effects of
a 10-week strength-training program on endurance-trained individuals.
Parallel squats, knee extensions, knee flexions and toe raises were
performed three days per week in conjunction with an existing cycling
and running schedule.
The program elicited a 27-percent increase in strength from parallel
squats, a 37-percent improvement from knee extensions and a 25-percent
increase in strength from knee flexions. While no significant changes
to VO2max were seen
after combining strength and endurance training, long-term cycling to
exhaustion at 80 percent of VO2max
was increased from 71 to 85 minutes. Short-term performance increased
by 11 percent in cycling and 13 percent in running.
A second investigation from the University of Illinois looked at the
effects of strength training on aerobic power and short-term endurance.
Untrained subjects undertook a 10-week, five-days-per-week
strength-training program. Parallel squats, knee extensions and knee
flexions were performed three days per week. Leg presses and calf
raises were performed on alternate days.
The program elicited a 38-percent increase in strength from the
parallel squats, a 50-percent improvement from knee extensions and a
42-percent increase in strength from knee flexions. Again, although no
significant changes to VO2max
recorded, short-term cycling performance increased by 47 percent
and short-term running performance increased by 12 percent.
Researchers from the University of Maryland studied the effects of a
12-week strength-training program on endurance performance and lactate
threshold in untrained healthy males. Subjects completed three circuits
per session. Each circuit consisted of 10 exercises. There were no
significant changes in maximum oxygen consumption on the bike or the
treadmill. However, blood-lactate concentrations at all relative
exercise intensities between 55 and 75 percent of VO2max were significantly reduced.
Therefore, subjects were able to perform a greater amount of work at
the same relative intensity. After training, cycling time to exhaustion
increased substantially and was accompanied by a 12-percent increase in
The effects of strength training on injury risk are perhaps even
more noteworthy. In part II of this article (in January), I will show
you how to combine both triathlon-specific and injury-prevention
exercises into your strength-training sessions to improve performance
and decrease incidence of injury. The key lies in enhancing joint
stability by improving strength balance in muscles on both sides of
In a survey of 155 British triathletes who kept a training diary for
an eight-week period, 37 percent of the respondents reported suffering
at least one injury during the survey period. Seventy-eight percent of
the injured triathletes had to stop running, while 37 percent and 21
percent discontinued cycling and swimming respectively. Seventeen
percent missed a planned competition.
Overuse was identified as the cause of at least 41 percent and as
many as 90 percent of these injuries. The questionnaire showed 65
percent of the injuries to have occurred during running while 16
percent and 12 percent of injuries took place during cycling and
swimming, respectively. While factors as diverse as body alignment,
technique, equipment and training errors can lead to injury, training
error may be the most significant risk factor for suffering an overuse
Training errors include excessive mileage, a sudden change in
training distance or intensity, an excessive amount of hard interval
training, improper footwear and running on cambered surfaces. By
incorporating a regular weight-training program into your training
schedule, you can help protect yourself against many of the injuries
commonly associated with high-volume triathlon training.
Though strength training might not lead to significant changes to VO2max,
it does enhance endurance performance through other means. From a
performance-enhancement standpoint, strength training may be most
beneficial for sprint and Olympic distances, but it should not be
overlooked when preparing for half-Iron or Ironman-distance
Therefore, the next time you contemplate doing an extra set of hill
repeats, ask yourself: Is muscular strength or power my weakest link?
Would it be more beneficial to spend more time under the squat rack?
When it comes to injury prevention, strength is a must regardless of
competition distance. Lack of adequate joint stability contributes to
many overuse injuries, and appropriate strength training can do wonders
to increase the stability of your joints. Its tempting to skip strength
training in favor of swimming, cycling or running, but this decision
could render you unable to swim, ride or run at all.