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Strengthening and Lengthening for Triathletes

Finding the time in your busy schedule to train for the three different sports that make up a triathlon (swimming, running and cycling) is difficult and exhausting. Somehow we manage to juggle these three disciplines during a regular week, in addition to work, family, sleeping, eating and (if you are extremely well-organized) leisure or socializing. It is imperative to take care of your body during the triathlon training process for performance and injury prevention.

When it comes to juggling triathlon training items, the aim is not to drop any and to maintain a consistent focus on each item. It is common to struggle at some point. But, sometimes an athlete drops an item or two that he/she thinks aren’t a necessity to alleviate some of the pressure and focuses more on the other items he/she thinks are more important. This is often the case with flexibility and strengthening work. What many athletes don’t understand is that if they drop these very important items in the training regime, it won’t be long before the whole training program comes to a halt due to injury.

If a muscle is tight, it can reduce range of movement at a joint and over time your body will try to compensate for this reduced range of movement. In turn, when there is an excessively tight muscle on one side, there is a muscle or group of muscles on the opposing side that end up lengthened, weak and also taut. Although our primary focus is on swimming cycling and running, a portion of our training week must be spent on lengthening and strengthening the muscles that we need to perform at our best in those three disciplines.

The biomechanics, the position of the body and the way we use the body for swimming and cycling often leave the anterior musculature of our body shortened and tight. Additionally, the back of the upper body is lengthened, taut and weak. The major movement coming from the hip and knee joints for cycling and running creates excessive tightness in the hip flexors, quads and calves, and commonly leaves the gluteus weak.

Endurance training is about repetition—hundreds upon thousands of repetitions each day for each discipline. So it may seem we are fighting a hopeless battle to maintain our flexibility in the tight areas and build our strength in the weak ones, but the time is worth it. The key is to develop a personalized lengthening and strengthening protocol that is specific to your problem areas and to ensure you get to it a few times a week or in short sessions each day.

The table below is an overview of major joints in the body and the musculature around those joints that tend to be tight and weak due to the repetitive actions of swimming, cycling and running. It is to be noted, however, that everybody is different and in order to identify your own problem areas you should endeavor to have a postural screen done by a professional.

Joint Strengthening Exercises
Lengthen Mobilize
Ankles -Calves* -Body weight calf raises (20-30 reps each leg) -Calves (Soleus & Gastrocnemius) -Ankle rotations
Knee/Hip

-Glutes* (max and med)
-Quads*
-Hip flexors*

-Glute bridges
-Romanian deadlifts
-Step-ups
-Hip abductions

-Quads
-Hip Flexors
-Adductors
-Hamstrings
-Glutes
-Hip rotations
Trunk -Erector Spinae -Transverse -Floor raises (Supermans)
-Stability exercises (i.e. planks & side bridges)
-Rectus Abdominus
-Obliques
-Do not rotate -Extend trunk 
Cervical Spine
-Deep neck flexors -Reverse shoulder shrugs, no load (down & back) -Neck Extensors -Upper traps -Lateral tilts -Chin tucks

Scapular/
Shoulder

-Middle and lower traps (Posterior Delt)
-Rhomboids
-External rotators

-Band/tube single-arm rows and flies
-Scapular push-ups
-Band external rotations
-Anterior Delt
-Pecs
-Lats
-Internal rotators

-Lateral swings
-Circumduction

Elbow  N/A N/A -Biceps
-Triceps
N/A

*These muscles that are listed under both strengthen and lengthen columns because they can be both weak and tight. Weakness refers to muscular endurance and the inability to activate effectively over long periods of time. Repetitions and sets of the exercises listed are dependent on what phase an athletes is in. The Base period is generally heavier load than the Build or Peak period. Keep it simple and stick with higher reps (i.e. 20-30 with low load) or bodyweight exercises.

Calves can be both tight and prevent range of movement at the ankle joint, but also need high-repetition, low-load exercises to improve their ability to fire when running.

Glutes are often tight in Gluteus Medius and Minimus, but weak in the Gluteus Maximus, causing the muscles to fail to fire and stabilize the hip when running. The load then transfers to other smaller hip, pelvis and lower back stabilizers not large enough to withstand the workload, often causing poor form and then pain. The glutes require extensive foam rolling and stretching, but also strength work with glute activation and single-leg stabilizing exercises.

Another suggestion is to invest in a reputable and professional support network. Find a good coach, therapist (e.g. myotherapist or physiotherapist), sports masseur, naturopath or even a personal trainer that has direct knowledge with your sport of choice. Get a full postural assessment at the start of the season or year and get a professional to look at your posture both statically and dynamically. They will tell you where you are tight and where you are weak. They will also be able to give you a lengthening and strengthening program that is specifically relevant to you and what you need. This means you waste less time with training that may not be best suited to you.

None of the examples in the table above require a gym with expensive equipment. A stretching protocol involves a mat, maybe some foam rolling and then some band or very simple activation exercises. The key is in the repetition. Include these exercises into your daily life. Before breakfast, stretch your quads. When you brush your teeth, stretch your pecs. When you sit on the train, activate your glutes or transverse. These simple exercises do not need to be done in a session all on their own, but can be done in 5 or 10 minutes during your daily activities.

One of the best things I got in the habit of doing is stretching my chest and shoulders when brushing my teeth. I brush my teeth twice a day every day for two minutes—that’s four minutes every day. At the end of the week, I have stretched a very problematic area of my upper body for 28 minutes. That’s pretty good and I can feel myself standing more upright and open.

In order to perform at your best and avoid injuries, you need to include a good flexibility and strengthening program into your training routine. Keep the sessions short and you will find the break from the other three disciplines very enjoyable and worthwhile.

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