The importance of strength training

Most triathletes adamantly hate strength training. They willingly spend five or six hours on the bike, but 30 minutes in the gym lifting weights is heresy. The literature on this topic has been mixed, with some researchers promoting strength training as a means to improving performance while others report that it does not.

I believe, though, that there is enough evidence both scientifically and anecdotally to make me a firm advocate of strength training as a means to injury prevention and performance improvement, particularly in master’s athletes who have years of unaddressed muscle imbalances and muscle weaknesses.

The problem with strength training compared to a swim, bike or run workout is this: delayed gratification. You go out for a bike workout, for example, and you know immediately whether you had a good day — you hit your power goals or you didn’t. Integrating gym workouts into your routine requires patience because the improvements are not immediately obvious, the workouts are often monotonous, and who wouldn’t rather be outside on a gorgeous day? But, the benefits of strength training are numerous, and even for a time crunched athlete, it is worth shifting the schedule a little to fit in some gym work. I outline just a few of the important reasons below.

On average, the non-exercising population loses about 10% of muscle mass per decade. A proper exercise program can reduce this to 1%. According to Robin Galaskewicz, a kinesiologist who has helped me recover from my rib injury, Masters athletes in particular need to increase motion and strength in the pelvis and thoracic spine because aging and the accumulation of repetitive forward motion causes weaknesses and loss of flexibility.

Robin has told me that there is a significant impact in sparing muscle and maintaining flexibility. The rate of injury can be markedly reduced by developing stronger muscles, tendons, fascia, ligaments and bones which in turn can prevent injuries common to triathletes: shin splits, stress fractures, lower back pain, knee problems and hip injuries. Now, who doesn’t want to reduce the risk of injury?

Also, stronger muscles increase power, improve exercise economy (the ability to swim, bike or run faster over a given distance due to reduced oxygen consumption), and increase basal metabolic rate contributing to improved body composition. Sounds good, right?

The various studies examining the association between strength training and endurance performance have generally looked at two types of workouts: explosive training (i.e. plyometrics) and resistance training (i.e multiple sets of an exercise with higher repetitions).

In 1999, Paavolainen showed that explosive training improved the 5K time in well-trained endurance athletes and they concluded that the improvement was due to increased running economy. Spurs in 2003 replicated this finding when looking at the effect of explosive training on 3k running performance.

Paton showed similar results with cycling in 2005; his results showed that explosive training increased sprint and endurance power in well-training cyclists due to enhanced exercise efficiency and increased VO2max.

Resistance training has also shown benefits to endurance athletes, particularly in those who are less well trained. Studies have not shown measurable increases in VO2max or lactate threshold in athletes who integrated a resistance training program into their training. However, resistance training has been linked to improved running and cycling economy and increased time to exhaustion, both for cycling and running.

How does this apply to you? Integrate a strength program that consists of a combination of explosive and resistance training. During the off season you should try to do strength workouts 3-4 days per week and during the season focus on a maintenance program 2 days per week.

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6 Responses

  1. Becky Wexler says:

    I am by no means a competitive runner anymore, but as I’ve moved into my later 30s, I’ve realized more and more the importance of strength training (and “prehab” to target injury-prone parts). I love strength training, but only when I can do it as a supplement and not a replacement for running or biking. And as a working mom, I just don’t have the time I used to to fit it in.

    Anyone else out there struggle with this? I have weights in my basement but don’t have time for much more than 2-3 brief lifts a week. It’s easier when I can get even an hour at the gym to myself but can’t count on that every week these days!

  2. Becky-
    It is great that you have weights in your basement. A short workout of 15 minutes is better than skipping it altogether. You can get a lot of core work and glute and hip activation done in 15 minutes! Good luck.


  3. Really had a great time reading this post. Thank you for giving us information on how strength training is very important.

  4. Yes! I brought a strength training background with me into my triathlon training – it’s been four years of juggling both. I USED to do it 3-4x a week year round, but at the wise old age of 45 figured out that 2x week in season is plenty. I will bump that to 3 after. For me, I also find that if I look strong and capable, I feel much more that way too. I hate to say it, but a lot of age groupers just don’t really look that fit or athletic. I also enjoy the gym as a bit of social time since most of my tri training is done alone. Great write-up 🙂

  5. MarkyV says:

    “It’s a lot like brushing your teeth, it’s not going to directly make you faster but it’s very good for overall health”

    Now whether overall health is party to making one faster is left to personal interpretation.

  6. It is like in any sports. It has its ups and downs. But if you stick with something you should take it as whole not pieces of it.