With so many social and media outlets and infomercials claiming they have the best exercise or best program it is difficult to know who or what to believe. The following information I am presenting has developed from working with competitive athletes for over 20 years.

Combining my medical background with my strength and conditioning back ground I have seen amazing results particularly with endurance sports and combined sports events like triathlons.

The following information is only a brief glimpse at the many factors that go in to training for triathlons or any competition.


This article will address factors to consider in developing a training program, common complaints and strengthening exercises to address those complaints, exercises to engage important muscles which encourage proper mechanics and encourage proper breathing for the triathlete.

How you train will dictate how you perform

A very simple but often dismissed principle is that you need to train your body to meet the needs of your sport. How you train will dictate how you perform. In planning your workouts and training program you must consider the following:

Duration: how far, (distance), is your competition and how much time will your competition take to complete?

Intensity: is it a sprint, distance or both?

Movement: what muscles will you use during your competition? What is the range of motion that you will have to move in? Your training regime must address these areas.

Once these have been determined you can begin building your program to include cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and mobility, speed and foot work, and sound nutrition to support this work and provide adequate recovery.

For triathletes we know the duration is at least a couple to a few hours depending upon the competition is set up and the length of each stage of the event. In addressing duration we look at both the length and number of individual workouts as well as the number of sets, reps, and time performing specific exercises.

Athletes often complain of muscles “tightening up” or “cramping”. While this can be attributed to improper nutrition and/or a lack of hydration I have found more of a correlation between the tightening and a lack of training of those muscles to produce the force outputs and/or the number of repetitions necessary in competition.

Often, athletes do not perform enough repetitions to adequately train for those needed in competition.

The intensity, although not a sprint throughout the entire competition, can be a combination of both because of short bursts of intensity either to maneuver position, to get out of traffic or to make up time, etc.

The pace of exercises is often lacking as well in that many athletes train at one speed, one pace. This is not to stay that athletes should perform ballistic or out-of-control speeds but by using lighter weights with a slightly quicker pace such as in interval training can enhance ones performance.

Movements range from arms overhead in the swim with shorter leg movements in the swim to cycling without arm movement but repetitive up and down movement of the hips and legs, to then arm swing and leg stride length in the run.

You must train for the different movements and the significant number of repetitions for each. Flexibility is also important for the muscles to produce speed and power when needed as well as relaxation to maintain proper muscular balance and breathing. Flexibility and mobility exercises need to be done daily.

strength training for triathletes2

There is a different between flexibility and mobility. In short, flexibility is more the range of motion a muscle can move whereas mobility is the range of movement a joint or combination of joints can move.

For example: pelvic tilts are a mobility exercise whereby moving the pelvis also creates movement in the low back, upper back, hips, and knees. A hamstring stretch exercise focuses on no movement but hold in place to lengthen the hamstring.

Flexibility and mobility exercises are crucial to help the body move between the different stages of the triathlon efficiently to adequately perform efficiently throughout the next stage.

Recently I worked the USA Age Group National Triathlon Championships. Common complaints by numerous competitors were the very same complaints my clients and athletes come to me for rehab and to help improve their training. They complain of sore or tight low backs, hamstrings, necks, shoulders, hips and calves. Looking at their posture and movement it’s easy to see their programs are lacking important exercises.

I find athletes focus so much on quads and their “6 pack” but do not give enough time, if any, to shoulders, hips and hamstrings and other muscles of the core. 

I see so many athletes who only do the bench press, bicep curls and maybe arms raises for the shoulders or only squats and legs curls for the legs. For the core, I see many who only do back extensions or crunches but do nothing for the other core muscles at the pelvis or on the back and sides.

Finally, proper breathing is crucial. Breathing must be from the abdomen and not from the chest. Proper and efficient breathing can be significantly inhibited if the body has muscle imbalances in the core, arms and legs.

In some instances these imbalances elevate and restrict the rib cage from functioning properly and can actually inhibit the shoulders from moving properly. The body then uses more energy to force the shoulder to move the way it needs to creating compensations in movement.

Imbalances in the core and lower legs can impede the diaphragms proper function for moving air and oxygen. By strengthening all muscles of the body to create balance and proper length-tension the body can move freely and more efficiently.

Now that we have identified common complaints and muscle deficits we will look at specific exercises to address and how they benefit the triathlete. I have included the following exercises are only part of the programs I use with the athletes I train.

However, these are important as not only will they help with improving performance in strength and endurance but also with improving breathing and technique efficiency for all three stages.

Cat and Camel or Pelvic Tilts – important to improve and maintain proper mobility in pelvis. With the change in pelvic demands between stages important to have pelvic mobile especially coming off the bike into the run. Dysfunctions in the pelvis lead to dysfunction in the hips, knees, ankles and low back which leads to decreased performance and injury.

Trunk Rotations, Lateral Flexion or Bending, Chopping and Diagonal Chopping – These exercises activate the muscles of the core to work together.  The muscles of the side of the core are now being strengthened to provide stabilization and support during all stages of the triathlon. These muscles can now support the movements of the pelvis arms, legs and upper core.

Rowing and Lat Pulldown. Both work the upper back particularly the muscles of the scapulae, (shoulder blade). The lat pulldown exercise works the latissimus dorsi muscle which runs from the shoulder and upper back area down to the hip.

Together these exercises prevent rounded shoulders which inhibit proper/efficient breathing, inhibit proper shoulder movement in the swim and can pull the rib cage upward during overhead movements inhibiting proper/efficient breathing.

These exercises will help with the pulling action in the swim, will decrease the stress in the upper back and shoulders in cycling and will promote a relaxed arm position and swing during the run.

By improving the position of the upper back the neck will be in a better position instead of the head pulling forward straining the neck.

Forward, Lateral and Reverse Dumbbell Raises – Performing all three of these raises are important for strengthening all three sections of the deltoid muscle. The forward raise and lateral raise strengthen the front and side sections of the muscle.

This aides in a relaxed swim stroke and arm swing as the arm is lifted into these positions. The reverse raise strengthens the section of the deltoid on the back of the shoulder. This section is very important in the pulling back action of the arms and decreases stress and strain to the rotator cuff and neck muscles.

Walking “Barrel” Lunge – activates the hip flexors used in cycling and running and allows for the hip muscles to move through a full range of motion.

Lateral Stepping – Keeping the feet and knees facing forward sight side in a slight mini-squat position. This exercises works the gluteal muscle group important for good hip stabilization during the swim kick and for good hip endurance in cycling and good running mechanics.

Calf Raises – Important during kick in swim with prolonged plantar flexed position and for good toe-off in run.

Shin Raises – Important for relaxed lower legs during swim and for toe up position in cycling and run.

Including these exercises in your training program will create more balance within the muscles decreasing stress and strain and encouraging more efficient movement.

You will improve your breathing, stability, endurance and stamina to allow you to train and compete at your best. Best wishes as you continue to reach, achieve and surpass your goals. If you have any questions or would like additional information on these or other related topics please contact me at any time.

Also check out Rebecca Romero’s Ironman Challenge

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