Top 5 Strength & Conditioning Exercises for Triathlon

21.7.2016

Strength and conditioning sessions can often be forgotten when planning your training but they are an essential part of your programme and can have huge benefits. Making sure your body is as efficient as possible is a key goal of any triathlete but if we start with bad movement patterns, incorrect muscle activation and weak stabilising structures, we can easily pick up injuries that can stop us swimming, cycling and running. Even just one specific strength session per week can provide essential support that is needed to perform well in such an endurance based sport.

Your strength & conditioning programme should be specific to you. We all have different weaknesses and different activation patterns and so our gym work needs to reflect this but below are my top 5 favourite exercises that I include in all my programmes to ensure that I prevent injuries and that I am in the best physical position when it comes to race day.

1. Mini Band Walks

band walks

Mini Band walks are great for glute activation and strengthening. I first started using them as a rehab exercise but now use them every day for a maintenance and warm up drill. They work by making sure that your glutes, adductors and abductors are firing correctly and help to prevent the knees dropping inwards whilst cycling and running.

Some key points are to make sure you keep tension through the band at all times and that your knees are tracking in-line with your big toe. The lower the squat position you can hold, the tougher the exercise. Perform 8-10reps in each direction, 3-4 sets.

2. Front Squats

front squats

Everyone loves a squat and yes they are an essential lower body strengthening exercise. The reason we love them so much is that you use almost the entire muscular system; quads, hamstrings, glutes, core and back are all engaged in one swift movement. I prefer the Front Squat due to the increased involvement of the abdominals and back muscles required to maintain the body position and stop the bar rolling forward. The front squat works all those key muscles that help maintain a good body position whilst cycling and running as well as strengthening all of the lower body musculature.

Key points are to make sure the chest stays up throughout the lift and that the weight distribution is on the heel of the foot as you bend the knees into the squat position. Make sure you are driving through the heels to extend the legs into a standing position, squeezing the glutes as you do so. If you are unsure of the technique then make sure you ask a fitness consultan or personal trainer to take a look to make sure you are performing the lift correctly.

3. Front Pulldown

front pull downs

The Front Pulldown is a great exercise to strengthen all those muscles used in the swim stroke – strong Lats, upper back and triceps all contribute to stronger catch and pull through the water and the pulldown actions works on all three.  Traditional Lat Pulldown machines can also be used. The pulldown action focuses on the latissimus dorsi and teres major – these two muscles are responsible for that single arm extension in front of the body when doing frontcrawl and the propulsive movement through the water.

Key points are to make sure that a good body position is maintained throughout the lift – the chest must be pulled up to ensure a straight back and the elbows should be pulled all the way back until you feel a pinch between your shoulder blades.

4. Chin Ups

pull ups

Another great exercise for our swimming muscles is the chin up. The variation that will cause the greatest amount of activation through the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles is the wide grip chin up – it is a little bit tougher but produces a great deal more strength through the upper back. You also have to make sure you are stabilising through the core in order to maintain a good back position, a skill that you should be doing instinctively to maintain the body position through the water.

As this is one of the harder upper body exercises to do you can use an assisted chin up machine which most fitness centres will have or you can perform band assisted chin ups (see photo below). The band will assist you in the upward pull phase of the movement and the challenge will be to control the downward, movement making sure you are not relying on the band or not “dropping” downwards.

pull ups 2

And finally my favourite…

5. Rollouts

roll ups

So I’m a little bit lazy when it comes to working my core – I can’t stand sit ups, I hate crunches with a passion and find core sets pretty boring! However core exercises are essential and so I choose to use exercises such as the rollout instead. Not only does the rollout work your abdominals, it works through the upper and lower back and the shoulders. I’ve found this is a great exercise to work on the strong lower back position needed in both the swim and cycle portions of the triathlon. Strong abdominals protect the spine and help to prevent any injuries to the lower back. A strong core will also prevent energy leaks – meaning if your body cannot maintain a strong position throughout the swim, bike and run, you will use more energy to rectify this. The rollout forces your abdominals to prevent the lower back from going into extension – and as we all know we should never have an arched back in any of our three sports!

The rollout is a pretty tough exercise so I would advise starting off with some smaller variations. If you can maintain a strong position whilst performing a plank on a Swiss ball without arching your back or you can perform press ups with no movement through the lower spine, then you can try the rollout.

Always start with a Swiss ball rollout (as shown below). The arms must extend first and you should use your knees as a pivot point to lower your body forward – always maintaining a straight back!! This straight back position is achieved by tilting the pelvis or “tucking” the hips forward.

If you cannot perform the exercise without arching through the lower back then re-visit your traditional plank variations.

roll ups 2

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I would also recommend incorporating some single leg exercises such as Split Squats, Walking Lunges or Single Leg Squats to replicate the unilateral demands placed on the body when training for and competing in a triathlon. A good conditioning programme doesn’t have to be about how much weight you can lift or how many reps you can do and as endurance athletes our focus should be on developing correct movement patterns that will help us through each stage of the triathlon. Correctly incorporating your conditioning work into your weekly triathlon schedule will give you that little extra edge when it comes to race day!

Happy Training,

Alice Tourell ASCC, Artemis Triathlon Team

Alice Tourell is an accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach who has been working with high performance athletes including Olympic & Paralympic swimmers for the past 5 years. She is also a GBR AG Triathlete who has just secured entry into her first Elite race.