Traditionally triathletes have been told to go to the gym and perform exercises like leg press, leg curls, leg extensions, bench press, shoulder press and abdominal (or the ever popular word core) work. Repetitive crunches, isolation exercises and non-functional strength work compose most triathletes strength programs. The pendulum has definitely been swung to the other side and functional strength work is now the buzz word amongst amateur and professional triathletes. Spending time in the gym is crucial but what you do in the gym is even more imperative. As triathletes are spending masses amounts of time on their specific skills like swimming, biking and running, time is limited to implement specific strength work in the gym. Corrective and functional training should become the basis of your work in the gym. You should no longer go to the gym to work on specific body parts (i.e. back/biceps, shoulders/legs, etc). The sport of triathlon involves the body in one kinetic chain. Not once during a triathlon does your body or a body part work in isolation. If you train isolation in the gym you will not become a functional athlete. Before I go any further, let me give you a brief description of the word “functional”. This is a very popular word in the fitness industry. Many fitness enthusiasts believe “functional training” is circus like exercise that involves unstable surface training and/or fancy equipment.
This is not functional training. This is ignorant training! DO NOT DO THIS!
The truth is functional training is purposeful training. Will your training in the gym assist you in your domain of your sport or outside activity? Will bicep curls and triceps extensions allow you to improve your triathlon performance? These moves are probably not the best application for the sport of triathlon. Looking at the sport of triathlon we must break down each sport, look at their imbalances and construct a corrective plan that will produce body symmetry to allow for more efficient movement. If you become a more efficient mover, you will become a more efficient triathlete. Yes, you must perfect the specific skills of swimming, biking and running. You can do all the corrective and functional work but if you cannot swim, bike and run, good luck. But when you have functional strength mixed with a base of triathlon endurance and fitness, you become a less injured athlete, a stronger athlete and you will be able to have longevity in the sport.
Isolation does not improve triathlon performance!
First let’s look at swimming. Most triathletes swim freestyle. The majority of the sets in the water use the freestyle stroke. Swimming freestyle puts major stress on the shoulder girdle. If you have weak stabilizers of the upper back and shoulders you will be at a higher risk of injury. The gleno-humeral joint is a joint that is made for mobility and complete range of motion and if your lack mobility, you can improve this aspect in the gym. Inside this joint you have small stabilizer muscles that must show stability. Charlie Weingroff defines stability has “the ability to control movement in the presence of change”. When a swimmer lacks this stability you risk friction of the labrum and the gleno-humeral head, which could cause impingement, labrum tears, and rotator cuff issues. Corrective exercises that need to be implemented should incorporate movements that work the rotator cuff muscles (subscapularis, infraspinatus, teres minor and supraspinatus). Going to the gym to just hit bench press and shoulder press will do nothing to strengthen the small stabilizers. If your stabilizers are weak and inactive your prime movers will be limited in their strength and movement. Along with rotator cuff work, strengthening the mid- and lower trapezius, rhomboids and scapulae is imperative for improved posture and anchoring the rotator cuff in its position. If your shoulder blade area is weak, your rotator cuff will be forced to over work, compensate and ultimately get injured.
Being in the bike position for prolonged periods of time promotes bad posture, shortened hip flexors and hamstrings, inactive glutes and a quadricep dominant repetitive movement. These dysfunctions can create debilitating pain, injury and imbalance.
To produce this symmetry we talked about above, in the gym we must focus on posture reinforcement, hip flexor and hamstring flexibility, glute activation and strength and hip dominant movements. Biking primarily works the quadriceps and if you do not concentrate on building the posterior lower body in the gym you force imbalance. Muscular imbalance is the number 2 predictor of injury according to the Functional Movement Screen. For improved functional strength as a cyclist, an athlete must implement shoulder girdle strengthening movements, glute and hamstring strength exercises and flexibility drills to reinforce length in the muscles.
Running creates the most stress to the body. When you run you put 4-6 times your bodyweight of stress every time you contact the ground. Most runners take 80-90 foot strikes per minute. If a 200 pound male runs for 60 minutes, do the math that is traumatic stress to the body. I truly believe in the quote by physical therapist Diane Lee, “You can’t run to get fit, you must be fit to run.” If this 200-pound male laces up his shoes and begins his running program without building functional strength and stability first, he is destined for injury; unfortunately a chronic injury that could take weeks and even months to heal. Let’s focus on building strength first and then start running. Corrective work to maximize your running economy is truly important. When you look at the movement of running from the ground up you need foot stability and strength, ankle mobility, knee stability, active hip mobility and stability, glute strength and power, core stiffness, proper posture and stabile shoulders. When you have these traits you run more efficiently with less stress to the body. But unfortunately most runners and triathletes lack these attributes which debilitates them and forces them to stop their activity. These hard working athletes run, run and run some more. They run through injury, run through pain and run till they get hurt. Until they put a big focus on corrective strategies to enhance their running, it will continue to be an issue.
Is all that kinesio-tape really needed? "Get fit to run, not run to get fit."
When triathletes show up to the gym, the first thing they should do is soft tissue work. Sit on a foam roll or a tennis ball and roll areas that need attention. Spend 10-15 minutes improving tissue quality and eliminating the knots and adhesions that are built up from constant training. The dynamic warm-up is next. Looking at the above imbalances that are created from swimming, biking and running, the warm-up is a perfect time to implement specific corrective work to promote balance, function, flexibility and mobility. The drills in the warm-up, when done consistently, will force this symmetry and enable the body to work as a kinetic chain. After the warm-up, spend time on corrective movements for the shoulder girdle, glute stabilizers, inner core musculature and posture enhancement. I usually design mini-circuits for this portion. For example:
1a) Y’s/T’s/W’s lying prone on bench x 6 reps (scap stability)
1b) mini-band lateral walks x 5 steps – repeat twice (glute medius activation)
1c) pallof core pressouts x 8/side (anti-lateral flexion)
1d) wall slides x 10 (shoulder mobility/posture enhancement)
*repeat this circuit 2-3 times
2a) Shoulder step-ups x 6/side (scap stability, anti-rotation for core)
2b) mini-band monster walks x 10 steps – repeat twice (glute medius activation)
2c) marching front plank 2 x 20 seconds (anti-rotation, hip flexor activation)
2d) seated thoracic spine rotations x 20 turns (thoracic spine mobility)
*repeat this circuit 2-3 times
After the corrective exercise portion, I move into the functional strength. For triathletes I design movements that, just like the corrective exercises above, build balance, symmetry and function throughout the body. So the strength movements are a continuation of the corrective work but now we could add external loads to the equation to build strength. Balance is key, for every knee dominant you add a hip dominant. For every pressing movement, you add a pulling movement. Again, I use mini-circuits for this portion:
1a) 1-leg squat x 6/side - Knee dominant
1b) Farmer Walks x 20 yards and back - anti-lateral flexion
1c) Inverted Rows x technical failure - pulling
2a) stability ball leg curls x 10 - knee dominant
2b) ab wheel core rollouts x 10 - anti-flexion
2c) alternating medicine ball push-ups x 10-16 - pressing
Depending on where the athlete is in their season will depend on the volume of this workout. Usually throughout the year I have triathletes perform 2 quality sets of these mini-circuits. I am a big advocate of smart and efficient work rather than more work. I also advise triathletes to be in the gym all year long. As an athlete's "A" race approaches the volume of the workout decreases but you would still remain in the gym at least one time per week. That workout would consist of soft tissue work, movement drills to activate and prepare the body for race day and corrective work to mobilize and stabilize specific joint structures. Triathletes should not be afraid of gym work the week of a race. The application of what you are doing is what's important. Go to the gym with a motive to become a more efficient mover and in turn you will become a better endurance athlete.
Functional and corrective exercise should be used to build a balanced and symmetrical body. If you have an understanding on how the body moves and functions you will be able to implement corrective exercises into your training program to assist in creating this functional body.