Strength Training For Ironman Athletes

Written By: Andrew Read

If you ever want to start an argument with an endurance athlete, simply mention strength training. Just as many in the strength world are heavily opposed to endurance work, there are just as many angry haters in the endurance world when it comes to strength training.

But then even the fans of strength training within endurance sports are generally misguided – just like the meatheads if they venture into cardio-land. For many, strength training seems to be synonymous with useless fluffy exercises done with elastic bands. Even worse, it might be associated with muscle gain, which is held in the same regard as tying an anchor to oneself.

The topic is further muddied when you realize that most endurance athletes are not professionals and are working full-time jobs on top of their training. In fact, if not for the age groupers endurance events wouldn’t even exist, as it is the recreational athletes who make up the vast majority of the field in any event. But the advice they take, like with most sports, is taken from the elite.

Breaking Down the Basics

The difference between strength training and endurance training begins with recovery. A strength athlete may train six days per week but their total training time will be roughly ten hours. For a serious endurance athlete, that may only get you to Wednesday, or just might cover all of a single weekend of training. In other words, endurance people train. A lot. When you’re doing upwards of twenty hours per week and working full-time, there’s little time for other things like laundry, social events, or even strength training. At this point it has become about time management and reward versus time invested. Many view strength training as having little reward compared to another swim/bike/run session.

The final point to remember is that a strength plan for Ironman athletes is going to look one way in their early prep but will need look completely different close to race day. It is highly likely that during peak weeks the strength training will need to be removed almost completely to allow the athlete to recover as fully as possible. Besides, after six hours on a bike the day before, no one’s body is in the right state to go and deadlift heavy.

When customers come to me with an Ironman goal I start putting them into boxes. These boxes, or broad strokes, are:

  • Strength athlete
  • Endurance athlete
  • Completely inexperienced in both areas

It is possible that someone has both a good background in strength and endurance, but I am yet to meet any of those that aren’t in Special Forces. Simply completing events or having done some curls doesn’t make you experienced. This judgment is based off the technical elements of the sport as well as their ability to lift with good mechanics. Most experienced endurance athletes are simply too stiff to perform many traditional strength exercises with passable/safe form.

For the Pure Beginner

The last group – inexperienced in both arenas – presents the most problems. This group needs a program that stretches and strengthens them while allowing them to add endurance and technique. And likely you’re going to have to figure out a way to do that in about three hours per week.

It is easy to get sidetracked at various times during an inexperienced athlete’s preparation. They’ll ask for something more advanced or complicated without realizing why the basics are always best. My counter to this is to ask how many strokes they are swimming at the moment. The answer is usually just freestyle, which allows me to counter with, “Well, you don’t ask the coach to change your swimming workout, do you?” I find the comparison to swimming allows them to realize that success usually comes from doing the basics for long enough to become successful. That period of time is dictated by how many hours you spend on it, not some magic plan that had to be smuggled out of Russia.

Early preparation for these inexperienced athletes comprises:

  • Injury prevention for running and swimming.
  • Core stability/endurance to hold posture while running for extended periods.
  • Posterior chain work to offset all the swim, bike, and run work.

The Training Schedule

While triathlon training is technically not my purview as the strength coach, I dislike plans that involve being on your legs every day. Most training plans I see have either a bike or run focus daily. However, that means that the athlete never actually gets to recover and is always operating on tired legs. A far better split, in my opinion, for most athletes, is:

  • Mon – swim and strength
  • Tues – bike and run
  • Wed – swim and strength
  • Thurs – bike and run
  • Fri – swim and strength
  • Sat – long run and swim
  • Sun – long ride

This day off between each leg-based day allows for better quality training and decreases injury risks. Triathletes are already more at risk of injury from running due to (a) the relatively lower number of hours spent practicing it, and (b) the ankle flexibility requirements from swimming, which are virtually opposite those of running. Allowing more time to recover between sessions will decrease that injury risk.

Looking at the three strength sessions we need to cram into the week, some common sense ideas should pop out immediately. Firstly, after a big weekend with lots of time on the legs, Monday’s strength session should be largely mobility and/or core biased. Secondly, to ensure that the legs are as fresh as possible for the weekend’s key long sessions, the hardest strength session, the one that produces the greatest chance of DOMS, needs to be midweek to keep it as far away from those weekend sessions as possible.

Core Strength

We use a fairly simple reasoning for these early stages of developing core strength. Core strength is simply your ability to hold a neutral spine during activity. When it comes to running and swimming, that means that you need to resist rotation while staying tall. It’s helpful to find exercises that can do that while also hitting some of your other needs, such as posterior chain strength or mobility.

I tend to write these programs from the ground up – as in, there will be an exercise done on the ground, an exercise done in quadruped position, an exercise done kneeling, then standing, and finally one that ties it all together. It might look like this:

  • Lying T-spine rotation x 5 each way
  • Renegade row x 5 each side
  • ½ kneeling halo x 10 each way
  • Single leg deadlift x 5 each side
  • Get up x 1 each side

Perform three to five times increasing weight each set. This would be a great starting place for core stability sessions. Add in some extra mobility work at the start and end. Total session time should be less than 45 minutes. Ideally, this would go on Friday.

The Rest of the Week

The midweek strength session should look like a normal strength session. I would advocate working on deadlifts, rows, and pull ups as your primary goals. If deemed safe, we also use small amounts of ground based plyometric work. Endurance athletes show a loss in power thanks to the volume of running they do, as do the older athletes who comprise much of an Ironman field. Plyometrics can be a useful tool to minimize that loss.

Do not get side tracked into Bulgarian squats or straight-arm pulldowns in an effort to improve your cycling power or swim stroke. This is one thing endurance athletes have right: there is no correlation between gym strength and race times. However, there is correlation between gym training and reduced injury risk. Stick to basic low rep strength work on this day – as a general guideline, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps will do the trick here. For the plyometrics, aim for less than 80 total foot contacts. Rest time between all sets can be between 2-3 minutes. Remember that this is strength and power work, not a conditioning session. I always tell my clients that they should feel like they do the least number of sets of anyone in the gym on this day.

Additionally – and this is something I always end up having to remind people – the majority are not professional athletes. Ignoring time in the gym will only lead to more spectacular injuries and loss of general athletic qualities in the long term. I have endurance clients in their mid-thirties who display less mobility than my oldest clients, who are in their mid-seventies, thanks to a lifetime of ignoring mobility and strength work. Sooner or later you’re going to stop being a triathlete, but you’re always going to be a human being.

The final day to be concerned about is the first day of the week. This day is usually the day Ironman athletes feel their worst thanks to a super high training load over the weekend. Our Monday sessions begin with some release work via foam rolling for the calves, hamstrings, glutes, quads, adductors, lats, and T-spine, as well as some static stretching. The muscles just get bound up after so many reps over the weekend and spending some time untying everything is very beneficial. I know many people will tell you that static stretching hampers power output, but so does stiffness. And given that today’s gym session is recovery-based, we’re not going to have an emphasis on power anyway.

From Clydesdale to Race Horse

I have bad news for you guys and girls who have spent your whole life in the gym and now want to tackle Ironman: you’re going to suffer, and you’re going to suffer on a scale you hadn’t even dreamed was possible. After years of learning to work hard for thirty seconds, you now need to learn to work hard for hours at a time. And the worst part about it is that all that muscle you’re carrying needs to be fed with oxygen. You’re a super-charged V8 in a diesel sport.

However, the good news is that it is relatively easy to maintain your strength after having spent so many years to develop it. And even better news for you is that all the time and energy you save on building that strength will free you up to swim, ride, and run more.

Given how good you are at strength versus endurance work, you may be able to get by on as little as two solid strength sessions per week. I’d stick to the big three of squat, deadlift, and bench for the midweek strength session and keep a core focus on the second session, as above, with anti-rotational and single leg work. Don’t sweat losing your strength. During Ironman preparation, you will seem to lose strength due to the extreme fatigue you’ll be facing but you’ll bounce back just fine after the event when you return to regular strength training.

Ironman athletes are usually workaholics and believe that more is always more. But Iron distance racing isn’t like that and neither is strength work during ultra-endurance training. Keep in mind, your recovery ability is going to be severely depressed compared to how it normally is. There will be days when you can barely open your eyes because you’ll be so tired. I can remember days where I would wake early on a Saturday and go for a two to three hour run and then have to go train people for a few hours. I’d be hobbling around like someone had taken to my feet with a hammer; I was so stiff from my long run. Any thought of doing some strength work on those days was quickly pushed from my mind. On other days, I would pray to get hit by a car as I was leaving for a ride because I was so tired and ready for it to be over. The last six weeks of Ironman preparation are awful.

Strength training for Ironman is, first and foremost, for injury prevention and undoing all the damage incurred by endurance training. Kept in that perspective, it is easy to see how little is needed. Strength maintenance is a secondary goal, even for the experienced strength trainees coming to Ironman. Focus on injury prevention first. For the inexperienced athletes it may be possible to set strength PRs on your journey towards Ironman. However, if your goal is a triathlon, regardless of your background, you’ll still be better served focusing on the basics of swim, bike, run, and injury prevention.


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