Strength Training For Triathlon

Clearly, triathlon is an endurance sports. How then is strength training specifically important? The truth is that strength training offers triathletes an ‘extra edge’ that is so important that it can truly change everything. So many triathletes have come to this knowledge but many are rather wasting time and energy in the gym due to lack of understanding of why and how they should take their strength training.

For a start, it is important to understand that strength training is aimed at developing stronger muscles and not to build them up. Now, what is the place of stronger muscle in endurance performance? Well, stronger muscles are capable of performing longer at higher intensity before they fatigue. To go through the phases of triathlon (swimming, cycling, and running), you don’t need endurance alone; you need stronger muscles that will let you complete each phase without getting fatigued. Stronger muscles are not only more powerful and resistant, they are also less susceptible to injury. This is especially useful for ageing triathletes.

There is equally a ‘how’ to the argument of strength training for triathletes. Embarking on a strength training without a proper understanding of how you should do it to achieve improved performance in triathlon will be counter-productive. We are going to consider how to embark on the sort of strength training that is triathlon-specific.

Triathlon-Specific Strength Training

To achieve the result you desire from strength training as a triathlete, you need an understanding of how your strength training is different from that of others with different purpose. Your individual need, your level of training, and the length of the competition you are preparing to win should all matter in your strength training routine. Since you are not a bodybuilder, a weightlifter, or a soccer star, your strength training should not follow the same pattern as theirs as their goals are quite different from yours.

The goal or outcome you are pursuing is to maximize your efficiency as a triathlete therefore your combination of exercises, exercise order, sets, sets periods, repetition, and progressive plans should be pointing towards that direction. The Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID) principle is the basis to sport-specific training. Its tenets hinges on the fact that your body will adapt in a specific way based on the demand imposed on it during training.

The goal of a triathlete in strength training is not to increase the size of the muscle (as it is with bodybuilders), or to keep them in an appealing state (as it is with fitness enthusiast). The goal is rather to make them stronger and more resistant in order to fit the various phases of triathlon. The more direct approach will be to mimic the various movements used in the different phases of triathlon, but that may not be practical in most instances. The best approach will be to determine your specific need (as it relates to the sport) and work towards achieving the.

Specific needs essential for better performance in triathlon

To help you gain a better understanding of how you can benefit from your strength training as a triathlete, we are going to consider the various needs of triathletes that can be achieved through strength training:

Muscular Power

Physical activities are basically performed by the muscles and strength training develops muscle power. By the way, muscle power expresses the ability of the muscle to produce force quickly. A powerful muscle helps a triathlete to perform such specific functions like running faster, uphill cycling, and transitioning into water. A powerful muscle has an anaerobic energy store to support any desired movement at any point during a competition.

Muscle power can be developed through strength training in two simple ways. Firstly, strength training can help you build more muscle cells and once they are properly trained, the more muscle cells you have, the more energy they are able to release to support muscular activities. Another means is that by strength training, your muscles are conditioned to reproduce energy quickly so as to facilitate recovery from short bouts of high-intensity movement.


Triathlon is an endurance sports alright, but you still need to have good speed as it can make the difference in really tight competition. You can also achieve improved speed by strength training. Endurance training (which many triathletes take more seriously) uses the slow-twitch fibers that are designed for low power output and long duration. Strength training, on the other hand, makes use of the fast-twitch muscle fibers that have high power and force output. Though the fast-twitch fibers cannot last long, they are very efficient in giving you a burst of energy that is necessary for overtaking during competition.

The importance of strength training, in terms of speed is that it trains the fast-twitch muscle fibers to activate when you want them. You will slow down eventually, but they can recover quicker, with constant training, so that you are able to activate them more often as you compete. This will improve your overall speed during training and competition.

Lean mass

An improved lean mass means that your fat-to-lean ratio is decreased. While endurance training sections will normally burn fat, strength training, on the other hand, will achieve a reduction in body fat by an increase in lean mass. Burning fat is great, but without an accompanying increase in lean mass, it may not be very beneficial for triathlons. Building lean mass should not be confused with building up your muscles as the two are distinct though related. Increasing lean mass means increasing muscle density. It is possible to make the muscles you already have more dense through strength training. Denser muscle cells means you can achieve more movements in less time without undue fatigue.

Muscular endurance

Improved performance can also be achieved as a result of improved muscular endurance. You can achieved muscular endurance by engaging in strength training. It follows that if you can build more and denser muscle mass, you can rely on them to stay active in an activity for a longer period without wearing them out. There are basically two types of fatigue triathletes can face: cardiovascular fatigue and muscular fatigue. While endurance training can help you decrease cardiovascular fatigue, strength training will help you to beat muscular fatigue by increasing your muscular endurance.

Getting started

Before we get into the training routine in full, let it is essential to look at other factors that will help a triathlete to avoid wasting time in unfruitful efforts in the gym. The first thing you need to know about triathlon-specific exercises is that they should be targeted at some specific muscle groups. The other important factor is that success will depend on your ability to channel it towards the movement pattern of each of the sports.

​​​Key muscle groups for triathlete

Triathlon encompasses three different sports (swimming, cycling, and running), but that does not imply that the entire body muscles should be targeted during strength training. For swimming, the muscles groups that needs to be developed are those of the chest, lats, and shoulder. For cycling and running, the muscles groups that should be targeted are those of the calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads. In each of the activities, you also need your core to transfer power from your upper body to your lower body. Your strength training, therefore, should also target your core to make it stronger for the duration of the race. 

​​​​Movement specific exercises

Swimming, cycling, and running all consist of simple movements that are repeated continuously towards the mark. It is more efficient to focus strength training on these sets of movements in order to develop mastery instead of engaging in unorganized strength exercises. The movements when carefully examined has only two aspects: force application and recovery. A triathlete will maximize the strength training when these two phases of the movements are simulated continuously.

By continually embarking on the force application aspect of these specific movement, you will make the muscle responsible for it stronger. If this is not accompanied by the recovery aspect of the movement, the role of the joint systems involved in the specific movement will be inhibited and this creates an imbalance that will inhibit efficiency and increase the risk of injury.

By adopting the complete movement specific exercises, a triathlete will gain more mastery of the movements and also reduce the risk of getting injured during training and race days. We are going to explore the specific strength exercises that are ideal for triathlon one after the other. Following this routine will ensure that you save time and maximize your time you spend in a gym.

Exercises for swimming

When you are swimming, there are some specific muscles that are responsible for the force application that is required to achieve the stroke action and the body rotation that helps to propel the body through water. Your strength training, in terms of swimming, should be aimed at making these muscle masses stronger, more resistant, and more powerful. The muscles groups in question include the muscles of the back, shoulders, and the core. So instead of hitting the gym in the traditional manner, work towards developing these muscles for the specific purpose of swimming. There is no better way to do this than to work the core and simulate the muscle movement used in swimming.

There are many approaches to achieving the purpose of developing the strength of the muscles that are used for swimming, but for a triathlete, the goal is to be efficient in the training and achieve the result as quickly and as efficiently as possible since there are three sports to prepare. In the routine below, you will need only a few equipment but you must be totally committed to the process.

Part 1: Medicine ball

  • You can start with a small 2 lb ball and then work your way up with time.
  • Start by warming up (this is very necessary, never skip it). You can walk around briskly or jumping rope
  • In and out from the chest: 20 reps (this can also be done as chest passes with a partner)
  • Overhead from behind the neck: 20 reps (can also be done as an overhead passes with a partner)
  • Behind the back passes: 20 reps (a partner is definitely necessary for this). Stand back to back with your partner. Hand the ball to your partner from one side and as they swing around, collect the ball from the other side. Continue until the 20 reps is completed.

Part 2: Exercise ball

  • Back extensions (spinal extendors): Knee against Swiss ball or exercise ball. Grab medicine ball and extend your arms and legs. 10 – 15 reps. Add 2nd set when you get stronger
  • Prone rows (Rhomboids): Grab two 3 – 5 lb dumbbells. Lie on your stomach on the ball with your legs your legs straight behind you, balancing on your toes. Start with your arms hanging off the ball. Bring elbows towards the ceiling. Hold for one second and lower slowly. Achieve 10 – 15 reps, slowly increase weight and reps.
  • Prone push up from knees (Deltoid and Abs): avoid this exercise if you currently have shoulder problems including tendonitis. Lie on your stomach on the ball and walk your hand forward until your lower thighs and knees rest on the ball. Your hands should be just a little wider than shoulder width apart. Bend your elbows and come down to where your chest is a fist width off the floor. Achieve 10 – 15 reps, slowly increase reps and add 2nd set
  • Arms and leg extension (lats, gluteals, spinal and hip rotators): lie on the ball on your stomach. Rest your fingertips and toes on the floor. Lift your leg and arm up on the same side (as if swimming and pushing the water up) to where your hip is pointed towards the ceiling. Hold, return to starting position. Make sure that the hand is reaching towards the foot. Repeat on the other side. Add 2+ lbs as you get stronger.
  • Crunches on ball (abdominals): sit on the ball and walk your feet forward until your back is supported by the ball. Keep your hands on your chest. Flex gluteal muscle and curl up halfway, hold for 1 or 2 seconds and lower. Achieve 10 – 15 reps, add 2nd set and increase reps as your strength increases.

You can equally add push-up. This is optional. It is targeted at the biceps, triceps, abdominals, pectorals, rhomboids, lats): start with as many as you can do and build up till about 8 – 10.

Following this routine, there are two basic rules you should never neglect:

  • Never attempt to lift more weight than you can handle
  • Never start the session without warming up
  • Observe the routine twice in a week.

There are few other things you can do in addition to the laid out routine. You can do a one-arm cable pull in a gym cable machine with the pulley set at a height where you can bend over to create the high elbow position. If you also happen to have access to the sophisticated vasa trainer, you can use it too. In anything you do, ensure moderation to avoid injury.

Exercises for cycling

Cycling in triathlon demands endurance and efficient control of your bike. Strength training for this is focused on making a triathlete stronger, faster, and more resilient. To this end, the sessions should be aimed at building your frame to be able to use the core and your upper body to control your bike during the ride and also your legs to pedal harder and more efficiently.

Also, it is important that you understand that your strength training should cover the two positions you will assume while cycling in a triathlon: the aero position and the standing position. We are going to consider 6 key exercises that will that you can engage in to make you ready for what is required in the cycling phase of a triathlon

Alternate dumbbell chest press

This is targeted at the pectoral, triceps, deltoids, rotator cuffs, and abdominals.

Lie on your back on a flat bench with the dumbbells held in a harmer grip position to your sides

Press one weight up until your arm is straight

Lower the weight to the starting position, under control

Repeat the same movement on the other side

Brace your core and leg muscle during the session to maintain balance

You can start with 8 reps per set, take 2 minutes break between sets and increase reps as your strength increases. Observe three sets in each session.

Dumbbell squat press

This is targeted at the adductors, biceps, deltoids, glutes, triceps, and quadriceps.

Stand upright with the dumbbells held with a pronated grip at shoulder level

Lower into a squat by bending at your hips and knees until your thighs are slightly pass parallel to the floor

Stand back up, pressing the weights above your head

Bring them back to the start position at shoulder level

You can start with 6 reps per set, take 2 minutes break between sets and increase reps as your strength increases. Observe three sets in each session.

Reverse abdominal crunch

This is targeted at the oblique, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis

Lie on a mat with your hands positioned by your sides

Lift your leg off the floor and bend 90-degrees at the knees (that is your start position)

With your core braced, pull your knees to your chest while keeping your legs bent

As you pull your knee towards you, allow your lower back to come away from the floor

Return to your starting position, under control

You can start with 20 per set, take two minutes break between sets and increase reps as your strength increases. Observe three sets in each session.

Single-arm dumbbell row

This is targeted at the biceps, dorsi, latissimi, trapezius, and triceps.

Grab the dumbbell with one hand and place the other hand and corresponding knee on the bench

Plant the other feet firmly on the ground beside the bench

Pull the dumbbell up to the side of your pec by bending your arm

Lower the dumbbell to the starting position, under control

You can start with 8 reps on each side per set, rest for 2 minutes after each set. Also, work with a weight that can allow you to get more reps without damage. Observe three sets in each session.

Barbell calf raise

Stand with a barbell against the back of your straps and hands in a supinated grip roughly 10cm outside of your shoulder

With your body in a straight line, raise heels off floor as high as you can

Lower under control.

You can start with 6 reps per set, take two minutes break between each set. Remember to work with a weight that can allow you to get a couple more reps if your strength increases. Observe three sets in each session.

Romanian deadlift

 This is targeted at the abdominals, hamstrings, and spinal erectors

Place an appropriate barbell just at your feet

Bend at the hips and slightly at the knee and grasp the barbell with a pronated grip, with your hands shoulder-width apart.

Keeping a slight bend in your knee, with your backs and arms completely straight and hips back, stand pulling the barbell up your shin

Lower it back down your shins, stopping just before the weights hit the floor.

You can start with 6 reps per set, observe 2 minutes break between each set. Also, work with a weight that can allow you to get a couple more reps when your strength increases. Observe three sets in each session.

You can also combine this routine with the conventional and easy leg press. There is no harm in working out in the machine. It is, in fact, useful for the recovery phase of the movement necessary for cycling.

Exercise for Running

 Running in triathlon is not much different from long distance races. You can adapt the exact strength training that marathon runners use to prepare for the big day. You have to get your muscles stronger and ready for the occasion and less susceptible to injuries. For the exercises, they should be focused on stability, strength, power, as well as maintenance and recovery. We will consider these in phases.


For stability, effort should not be focused on weight but on form and execution. Concentrate on mastering body-weight movement like single-leg deadlift and single-leg squat. These will strengthen your hips and prepare your muscles for what to expect in a triathlon. Avoid the temptation of using much weight for the leg lifts, focus rather on high repetition sets with very little rest. You can start with 12 reps per set, with 45 seconds rest. Three sets at a session will be ideal too.


For muscle strength, it is ideal that triathletes choose exercises that can be loaded up to a challenging intensity. Such bilateral exercises as barbell squat and barbell deadlift can be very useful. Instead of several repetitions, triathletes should focus on heavier load and fewer number of reps per sets with 1 to 2 minutes break intervals. 5 to 8 repetitions can be okay with the appropriate weight. While we talk about heavier weight, the idea is not to encourage triathletes to carry too much weight that can cause injury during training.

Form and Technique

The power phase of the training should be focused on form and technique without adding more workloads as in the previous phase. In fact, it is recommended that the volume in the weight room be reduced and the triathlete should focus on total-body movements, executing them in a quick and explosive manner.

Some excellent exercises that can be done at this phase include the jump squats, box jumps, and plyometric pushups. These exercises will activate your muscle fibers significantly, helping you to gain more strength without disposing the muscular system to wear and tear. Body-weight plyometric trainings can also be very useful in improving running form. These exercises should not be scheduled for several repetitions. 3 – 5 reps per set, and 2 – 3 sets per session is ideal to achieve the required result.

Maintaining Strength to Promote Recovery

The maintenance and recovery phase sees a further reduction in the intensity of the strength training for triathletes. Efforts should be geared towards maintaining strength while stretching and foam rolling to promote recovery. This should be embarked upon towards race day.

Any hard strength training within this period will not have positive influence on result, so the triathlete will have to concentrate on easy short runs and warmups, while prioritizing stretching and adequate rest. Body weight movements like pushups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges should be considered at this point too. Higher repetitions of 10 to 12 reps, with 2 – 3 sets per session is ideal. Massages, ice baths, and other methods that induce muscle recovery can be tried at this point.

Core Exercises

As you know, your core is very important in the sports that make up the triathlon. Though most of the exercises discussed above can be helpful foe your core, it is still very important that you incorporate some core-specific exercises to your time at the gym.

There are several core exercises that you must know, but we will look at those that will suit the specific needs of a triathlete to maximize the time spent in the gym. The hamstring curl will improve your hamstring and hip strength and also stabilizing the back and core muscles. Hip extension can also give you an advantage as strong hip is good for running and cycling.

Furthermore, back extension is also good as the back muscles support your core and entire body. Your deep abdominal as well as your entire core can also be activated by knee tuck. The torso twist also activates the entire core but they should be done in moderation. You should also try not to neglect rotational core exercises as they form part of the most essential strength training for any triathlete. Body rotation is needed in all three disciplines of triathlon and your core will play a huge role in your overall success.

Other Factors to Consider In Strength Training For Triathlon

There are few other factors you have to consider and we will quickly highlight them below:

Distance of the race

While training, you have to consider the distance of the race you are preparing for. This will have to decide how you proceed. Short distance races demands more speed and power while the Ironman distance will demand less speed and power and more muscular endurance. Half-Iron distance and Olympic will demand a compromise between the two extremes. You have to schedule your strength program with that in mind.

Time spent in the gym

It is natural that you will want to do more of endurance training than strength training, but just how much time should you stay in the gym? Well, it depends on your needs and the sort of race you are preparing for. Ideally, 35 – 40 minutes strength workout can be ideal for a triathlete. You also don’t have to do it every day of the week. Twice or thrice per week is ideal. Consistency is also important – you should know this as a triathlete.


This is a very crucial aspect of the training as it will determine the success of the entire program. How much weight are you required to use in the training? How many reps will be ideal for a set and how many sets per session? How long should each break period last? These will all be determine by your body condition and the race you are preparing for. Intensity will also need to change during the strength training session as it does when you are actually competing in a triathlon race.

In whatever you do at the gym, focus on achieving muscle density, efficiency and power; faster leg turnover; more powerful strokes and quacking spinning. All these should be achieved without a mindful increase in effort.

Endurance training alone can never give you all you need for triathlon. The nature of the sport demands that you develop stronger muscles for all the movements involved in it. With an adequate combination of strength training and exercises, you will have an edge that can actually make the difference on race day.

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