Monday, November 26, 2007

Some Thoughts on Strength Training

For most triathletes on the northern side of the equator, this is the time of year to begin recovering from the race season and the beginning of the base training phase. This is also the time of year when you start to see articles popping up regarding incorporating use of strength training. For many triathletes just making it to the gym is a challenge. There are a lot of reasons for this. And as the proud owner of three different gym memberships, I should know about most of them. The fact that you actually have to "go there" being at the top of the list. There are others. One of my friends looked at me with a very, very stern face when I suggested we add some strength training at the gym to our winter routine and just said, "It's inside."

As a group endurance athletes are often both time obsessed and time oppressed. When this happens, they do what any time efficient person would do, they look for places where they can optimize their training time. Spending more of their limited hours swimming, biking and running just seems like the best way to produce the results they seek. And in some instances there may be some research which suggest their thinking on the matter may not be too far off base. For more on this see what Joel Friel has to say in this blog.

This winter I decided to take a little different approach to my strength training. I decided to ask myself some questions prior to committing to a course of action that would ultimately carry me through until June 2008 when I planned on racing again. I had to ask myself what does strength mean for me as a triathlete? Once I could say what strength meant for me as a triathlete, I wanted to know what was the goal of the time I was going to be spending training strength?

When you just consider the term strength, an exact definition can be elusive. One of the simplest I found was "The ability of the neuromuscular system to produce force." And while this is a concise definition, you can see it does not specifically address the issue of strength as it pertains to an endurance athlete. And this is where the answer to my second question comes into play.

Basically I determined I had five goals for strength training this winter:

  1. Change my body composition -- specifically build lean muscle and lower body fat percentage
  2. Improve strength related stamina -- the ability to apply force for long periods of time, also known as muscular endurance
  3. Develop functional strength -- focus on creating applicable strength that can be used in each of triathlons three disciplines
  4. Develop muscular balance -- this would mean less chance of injury
  5. Develop muscular flexibility and range of motion necessary for coordinated muscle recruitment

Once I decided on what my goals were for strength training it became obvious I wouldn't be spending much time in the gym at all. Here's why. Triathlon and the three sports that comprise it require you to move your body efficiently through space. The problem with most of the strength workouts you will see relying on large amounts of time in the gym is they limit the body's use of coordinated muscle recruitment with an overly focused emphasis on benches, bars, and special apparatus. In triathlon, the resistance you overcome is primarily your own. What is missing from work such as this is the ability to learn how to balance and effectively move your own body through the mediums of water and air. And your workout needs to address the aerobic nature of the sport as well in order to be an efficient use of time. Based on my goals and observations, I turned to several sources and started to do strength routines focused primarily on Isometric and bodyweight exercises and calisthenics. This means work focusing on resistance provided by my own body both with and without flexation (or movement). The workouts do not require much more equipment than dumbbells, a pull-up bar, a set of resistance bands, a chair, a jump rope, an ab wheel, some guidance (primarily from books and videos), a little imagination and some Yoga. A typical workout session can include pushups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, curls, Hindu squats, pistols (single leg squats), Hindu pushups, handstands and core work. In fact one of the things about doing these exercises versus going to the gym is my core is engaged in every single movement I perform now.

Some of the results I've noticed:

  1. Convenient -- all work can be done at home
  2. No boredom -- after 3 months I average 4 one hour strength sessions per week (5 if you count Yoga) where 2 sessions per week was a challenge to get in before
  3. Less useless muscular bulk than when I used weights and a traditional gym routine
  4. More actual range of motion -- probably the result of less bulk
  5. Faster recovery time -- less stiffness/soreness making triathlon training while in a strength phase much less unpleasant and more productive

So far, the impact on my triathlon specific training has been positive. I have been able to utilize the additional strength and see it manifest in each sport. We'll just have to wait and see just how well this approach works when I race next season. My takeaway from the change in my strength work this winter is the more specific your strength work is to helping you realize your personal goals, the more likely you are to stick with it. The more often you get in the strength work the more likely you are to see the results you were looking for. In this way strength training isn't something to just squeeze in or add on to your other workouts, it is an integral component to realizing your multi-sport goals.

I found a video that shows what the functional strength workouts could look like. However, the guy in the video is extremely well conditioned. The work I do while somewhat similar is in no way as intense. Yet...


BRFOOT said...

Great video, thanks for pointing it out.

Marsha said...

yeah, but who has white bar tape with pink cable housing?



Jason said...

Great post. Good solid, convincing take on the subject of strength and coordination training. I agree with you it is more than just how much weight you can lift, it includes muscle coordination and range of movement as well.