Successfully Introducing Strength Training

The fall is a time for many things. It marks the end of the race season for many athletes, a transition to slightly less focus and a shift in workout emphasis. During the season, it’s important to work on limiters--areas that specifically detract from your ability to perform in your goal races. In the off-season, that focus should shift toward addressing weaknesses--areas that don’t necessarily limit your performance, but are out of balance with the rest of your fitness profile. You all know the adage about the weakest link. Addressing limiters helps to improve the areas in which you’re already strong by creating a stronger overall system. One area that is a common limiter is functional strength.

Now, let me say that for most people, “strength” is not truly a limiter for endurance sports as the actual force requirement to swim, pedal a bike and run is not that high. Two populations where strength itself could be a limiter are lightly muscled women and older individuals who are losing muscle yearly at an accelerating rate. Even outside of these two groups, functional strength can be an important part of complete performance.

At VQ, we refer to “functional strength” because we are rarely concerned with just how much mass you can move, but are concerned with how effectively and efficiently you are able to move that mass. Functional strength encapsulates strength, stability and range of motion under one umbrella. This is not just about sports performance, but also daily life functionality and ease. It is fairly common to see people who are quite strong, but lack the stability that helps them transfer energy specifically, so functional strength remains a key component of their training routine.

A good place to start when planning to introduce a functional training regimen is by assessing your needs. This may best be done with the help of a personal trainer, physical therapist or massage therapist who can help diagnose particular areas of weakness and perhaps even set baselines for performance. If strength itself isn’t a limiter, it may not be necessary to lift heavy weights. More important may be strengthening stabilizing muscles, correcting compensation issues or increasing flexibility in the hips. Once you know what you need to address, come up with a plan. Again, this might be something you do with the help of a professional, but if you’re undertaking it on your own, there is a wealth of resources out there.

Many books have been written specifically on the subject of strength training or core stability training for endurance sports. Many other books dedicated to endurance training will also include a chapter outlining a basic strength routine. Googling “strength training for triathlon” will yield more information than you probably want to deal with. Look through several of these and find a plan that seems realistic. Take note of the equipment, training time and experience requirements of the plan when determining if it is an appropriate fit for you.

A good plan should also take a balanced approach to the body, working front and back equally, or even a bit more work on the back side of the body, which is often weak. Group classes can also be an option in some cases. You may find it necessary to supplement a basic plan with a few additional exercises to address certain areas you know need help. Just take note, there probably isn’t a case out there where biceps curls are the crucial supplemental exercise your program is lacking!

As you start actually training, approach your functional work just as you would endurance training, keeping track of what you are doing and your progress over time. Sets, reps and weight are your benchmarks of improvement. Progression should happen gradually; increases in any of those metrics should be relatively small on a weekly basis. If you decided on a plan involving some heavier resistance training, it is best to start out at lighter weights (40-60% of max) and higher reps (15-20+). The body needs time to adapt to the new exercises and movement patterns and this period will generally be at least four weeks, although eight weeks may be a better play for full adaptation. During this time, you can safely increase your overall workload, but you should avoid pushing yourself to the max on any set, exercise or workout. Expect other workouts to be affected. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will be a nearly unavoidable part of a new functional routine. (If you’ve been consistently performing some sort of a maintenance routine, DOMS will be greatly attenuated even with a big increase in resistive workload.) It could take 24-48 hours for DOMS to take place, and you will likely notice it in every part of your life.

Continuing to exercise, both functional and aerobic training, at light levels is appropriate and will help you to work through the soreness as long as you didn’t overdo it with your first session. As you progress through your functional routine and adapt to the movements, you shouldn’t find yourself routinely feeling sore. What you may notice is that you’re not performing as well in your other sports.

For one thing, you’re probably spending less time training those sports. The muscles are also likely carrying some residual fatigue from your functional training sessions so the body isn’t quite as snappy as usual. Planning a reduction in endurance training volume and intensity may even be a good idea. There is a cost to strength training and, in order to recover effectively, you will likely have to lighten your load elsewhere. Now is not the time to be concerned about your endurance performance.

Remember that you are addressing a limiter in the interest of creating an improved overall system. Functional training is an investment in your future health and performance and, although it may cost you something in the near term, it should pay you back down the road.