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How to Structure Your Strength Training

If this was a “normal” year and you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, chances are your triathlon season would be winding down.  You'd probably be heading into a recovery or base build phase. This lighter load in training volume is the perfect time to either increase your strength sessions, or, if you’re like the majority of triathletes and runners I know, add it back into your routine.  

As I coach, I program strength work into all my athletes training plans.  I know when schedules get tight, it’s almost always the first thing to go but I cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain some kind of routine over the course of your entire season.  Done with proper technique, weight training will help keep you injury free, and will help improve strength, power and muscular endurance. 

Much like a triathlon training plan, strength work should also be periodized.  Off season is the time to start working on building strength for your following race season.  Once your build phase starts, your strength training plan should change again to allow for the additional training load.  During your race season, your plan should change again with a focus on maintenance.   But how do you do that?  

How you structure your strength training will depend on what your race season looks like as well as your experience level with strength training.  Athletes that are new to strength training will need a longer time to adapt to the additional load vs athletes that have included strength work in their yearly plan. In this case, let’s say the athlete’s goal race is at the end of July and they have very limited experience with strength training.

The first four to six weeks of the plan would be focused on balance and core work 2 to 3 times a week. You can’t build a house on an unstable foundation. You can’t build solid strength on an unstable foundation. Too many people make the mistake of skipping this type of work in favour of getting right into lifting. More often than not, athletes end up either hurt or perpetuating imbalances that already exist. The best part about this type of work is that you can add it in any time because it’s not terribly taxing on the body. So if an athlete has a couple of months of “fun time” after their A race, this can be added in at that point in time so they are ready to hit the ground running once they start their base training.

The next phase of the plan would be four weeks of lighter lifting twice a week, usually 3 sets of 8-10 reps. The focus is on nailing form for whatever exercises I’m planning on incorporating into the heavy lifting phase. This usually means squats, deadlifts, push press, rows and lat pull downs. So instead of loading up the bar in the squat rack, I have the athlete squat with just the bar (or body weight to start) and work on form for the first 4 weeks. The goal is using lighter weights and focusing on form first to get the body and mind ready for the next phase of the plan. If you are unsure of what proper form looks or feels like, it’s a good idea to hire a personal trainer. Many online trainers offer online video analysis so they can give you some pointers to help you with your form.

Once the athlete has gone through the anatomical adaptation phase, I gradually introduce heavier lifts. I start with 3 sets of 6-8 reps and work up to 4-5 sets of 4-5 reps. The lower the reps, the heavier the weight and the more rest required between sets. Heavy lifting helps build strength and power. When lifting something heavy, our bodies have to recruit more muscle fibres to move the weight vs lifting something lighter. The more muscle you can recruit, the more efficient you become. This type of lifting can be daunting at first but once you get the form down, there’s something very satisfying about it. Normally I like this phase to be around 8 weeks with two sessions a week. This type of work is best done when your training load is on the lighter side.

As training volume starts to increase, strength work needs to change again. I like to leave one or two big lifts in a plan, and complement the lift with some single leg, single arm work in addition to some core work. In terms of sets & reps, I will alternate between 3 sets of 8 reps or circuit style, super set workouts of 30 to 45 seconds of work with 10 to 15 seconds rest to keep things interesting for the athlete. This is a sport specific maintenance phase so the exercises I program will reflect that demands of the sport. This maintenance phase will last up until taper begins. At that point, weighted strength work is tapered off and replaced with mostly core and balance work. I will keep that type of strength work in an athletes plan until race week.

I hope that gives you a general idea of how to periodize your strength training over the course of your training cycle. If you’re looking for some exercise ideas, check out my Instagram series on the seven types movements to include in your routine.

Questions? Comment below!

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