Saturday, 10 January 2015

Weight training for Ironman

In the previous blog post, Jason Shortis praised the impact that gym work had played on lengthening his career and lowering his risk to injury. He is not alone in being a firm believer of spending time in the gym. Most, if not all elite IM athletes spend time away from the standard swim, bike and run training to value add to their program.


So what are they all hoping to achieve?


It is a combination of outcomes they are striving for:

1)     Extra strength

This is especially important towards the end of long races. The gym work and weight sessions can target specific muscle groups that would be hard to strengthen by triathlon training alone. Take a calf muscle for example (soleus or gastrocnemius). This can be targeted specifically with a calf raise piece of gym equipment and loaded above normal body weight. This improves its strength above the normal parameters that running alone can give it. A stronger muscle can work more efficiently for a longer period of time with less effort. All of these things combine for faster times and the ability to working longer in a race setting.

2)     Extra balance

It is no surprise that a balanced body can work more efficiently and with less chance of injury. Gym work can build one side of the body that is weaker than another by targeting just that side. In cycling for example, if one leg is stronger than another, the body must compensate with these inefficiencies and use more effort for the same outcome. When yourironguide first visited Star Physiotherapy, the first hour session was to test both sides of the body individually, specifically the lower legs. It was quickly apparent that one side was being favoured much more than the other causing a break down over longer sessions. This difference was between 15 to 20%! In addition, to compensate, body alignment was effected. In other words, running was not in a straight alignment but slightly crab walking (leading with the left side). This wasn’t obvious to the naked eye but over a 20km training session run, every millimetre the alignment was out (for say 20,000 steps), increased the chance of injury. If you go to a masseur regularly like me and run with a left side slightly forward, this is easy to spot as one calf muscle on the left leg is strained laterally (on the outside) and the right leg would be strained medially (on the inside) and both need remedial work. The gym program is thus best designed with all single leg work – nothing combined to try and improve this imbalance.

3)     Extra core stability

Every Pro triathlete talks about core stability. Jan Frodeno (3rd this year at the IM world champs) said this in his latest interview "If I could offer one key tip to age-group athletes to improve their Ironman running it would be to get a stronger core". Have you ever heard about running with your “bum in a bucket”? As we progress further in to the run, the core muscles (stomach and torso) begin to work more and more to keep an upright running stance. The further we progress, the more these muscles tire and allow the skeletal system to take over. The outcome – your backside starts to get closer and closer to the ground. While this may seem a natural progression, it causes a massive inefficiency to your running style. Instead of the foot planting under your centre of gravity and pushing out behind you causing forward efficient motion, it makes contact with the ground further forward, causing an initial “stopping” motion before being pushed out behind. Look at any pro athlete running at the 30 – 40km mark of a marathon and see where their bum is (high or low) and get the picture by comparing to an age grouper. By the way, this may need some explaining if you are cruising the internet and your partner asks what you are looking at!

4)     Time management

If you are able to target and strengthen a muscle in half an hour at the gym and it would have taken 3 hours of running to achieve the same result – it is a “no-brainer” as to what option you need to go with.

5)     Flexibility

Any improvement in the range of motion a muscle can work under obviously lowers the risk of injury.

6)     Rehabilitation

Yourironguide unfortunately has had far too much experience in this outcome. If you are unable to run or train due to injury, a tailored weight training program will allow “active recovery” rather than simply rest. It also beats getting depressed over not being able to train at all.


Yourironguide also asked Merv Travers, Clinical Director at Star Physiotherapy (and well respected specialist in long distance athlete rehabilitation) to give some basic ideas of why we should follow a structured gym routine. Here are his top 3 reasons:



1)     Injury Prevention

No athlete can be bullet proof, but if you want to reduce your injury risk the simple answer is to get strong. If you are an endurance athlete the most effective way to reduce your injury risk is by integrating strength training into your regime. Minimising training time lost through injury, will allow you the consistency to make gains in each of the disciplines.


2)     Run Faster

Improved leg strength has been demonstrated to increase running economy in triathletes and has also been shown to improve 5km time trial time.


3)     Ride Faster

Strength training has been demonstrated to improve cycling economy and increase time to exhaustion at max power in competitive road cyclists.



So if now you are motivated to incorporate a weight session program in to your week, how much and what activities should you concentrate on?


Merv also gave some tips for sessions and frequency - The first step is deciding how many sessions we should have a week. Every athlete is different and so no two programmes are the same. Most importantly, your programme has to be “doable” – it must fit with your other training and your life commitments. Yourironguide had two weight training specific sessions a week in preparation for IMWA and then added two core sessions at home a week. This fit with Merv’s intentions to increase strength and also time management of how to fit them in. The gym based sessions lasted an hour each and the home core sessions (following a fit ball video or palates video) 30 minutes each. Not a lot of time in the scheme of things - 3 hours total for the week as they are very specific in intentions!


The second step is to design training sessions tailored to the individual athlete’s needs and goals. A word of warning here – any weights programme needs a professional to coach technique, to set starting weights, activities and repetitions. Over the course of your training programme, ongoing feedback is also vital to optimise the results from your gym sessions and minimise injury risk. Yourironguide recommends here to look for someone with an endurance background to give this specialist information rather than a gym instructor at a one size fits all gymnasium.


The following list is the top 11 gym activities we agreed on (after all, why stop at 10) typically for long distance triathletes. Remember though, these are only a guide!. Every one of these exercises MUST be performed correctly and only a specialist can give you this training. Many of these exercises completed incorrectly will not only fail to improve your strength but may well lead to injury!


1)     Calf raises both combined and one legged (running and cycling specific)

2)     Leg Press both combined and one legged (running and cycling specific)




3)     Weighted split squat one legged (running and cycling specific)

4)  Romanian Deadlift (cycling specific)


5) Step-ups (cycling and run specific)


6) Lat Pull down (swim freestyle specific)



7)  Triceps extension (swim specific)


8)      Side and standard plank (core specific)
9)     Push-ups or bench press (swim and core specific)
10)     Single arm rows (swim specific)
11)     Flutter kick (core and swim specific)




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