How Does Weight Training Improve Your Triathlon?

Thinking of introducing some weight training to improve your triathlon times? Pro triathlete Will Clarke advises how weight training can bring performance dividends.

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Most athletes I know are not massive fans of weight training. Gym work is usually an afterthought because of the accumulated fatigue from swimming, cycling and running. However, I must admit I do question this.

Traditionally people shy away from it because they are not able to see their performance increase from strength training as it's not deemed to be specific to the sport. They also think that time can be better spent putting in the miles. And another common complaint is that they're scared of getting 'too big'.  

Regrettably I'm as guilty as anyone on this. I find it mentally hard to go and do another session after doing the hard yards and often the gym is not convenient for me. The best bet for me is to go directly after my swim session in the morning and rush through it and I try to do that twice a week.

I use the word regrettably because I really do see the benefit of gym work. So much so that I am positive that I could cut a swim, bike and a run session from my programme to make room for a weights session instead and I'd be the same level/maybe stronger.

I am positive that I could cut a swim, bike and a run session from my programme to make room for a weights session instead and I'd be the same level/maybe stronger.
-Will Clarke

However, I'm stuck in the tradition of hard miles and if I'm not hitting my volume targets it affects me. Maybe I'll change next year… but that's the point. You have to believe and you have to commit to it. One session every 10 days will make little difference.

Benefits of weight training

Weight training will certainly make you stronger and with it your technique will improve. All of that makes you more efficient with your movements, which ultimately means you'll be able to hold better form when you start getting tired.

In endurance sport efficiency becomes more and more important because as the event gets longer, your weakness will get magnified. If you get tired and lose your technique (i.e hips drop, stride gets longer and slower) then you just won't be able to go as fast. If you can hold onto your technique for longer it will give more back to your performance than perhaps an easy ride or run will in your training week.

Weight training will also make your body more explosive and powerful. I know that triathlon isn't super fast due to the duration of the event and sometimes it feels as if it's predominantly heart and lungs. But a good weight programme will raise your capacity to hold higher power for longer without tiring.

Swimming improvements from weight training

Personally I found huge gains when I used weight training for my swimming. When I was 'just swimming' I always found that during maximum effort 100m reps, my arms would tie up after 75m and I'd creep home for the last 25m in a world of pain!

However, after lifting heavy weights in the gym for a while, I found that I was just as fast or faster in the first 75m, but the big difference was that I could hold that pace for the whole 100m or even push all the way. That helped make me at least another 3 seconds faster. Now I know that if I need to get my swimming back into top shape, then I need four or five weeks of hard work in the gym.

The battle with triathlon training is that running makes you weak in the pool, swimming makes you sluggish for running and cycling makes your legs tired for running. You almost can't win, so you just have to make the best of it.

This is where gym work could be useful because it makes you stronger overall and gives you gains in strength that would take you a long time to achieve by just training. If I didn’t do the weights I would never be able to swim like that because I run and cycle too much which makes me too skinny and weak in the upper body.

Will I get too bulky if I weight train?

Don't worry about putting on too much weight. If you're an endurance athlete I’m assuming you do at least a fair bit of aerobic training, so even if you tried you'd probably struggle to put on the mass.

Believe me I'm not suggesting that you're in the gym six or seven times a week and overloading in protein at dinner. Twice a week is sufficient, once a week will also help and I think you'll be surprised with the gains.

I still think that if you're working a full time job and you only have 8 hours a week to train, that time is best spent on the roads with a little bit of core work to put the cherry on the cake. The funny thing is there isn't a whole lot of evidence for a weight training focus in triathlon because most amateurs don't have the time for it.

The professionals meanwhile are so stuck on racking up the miles, polished off with some body weight, glutes and core exercise, that we don't know for sure either. But overall, I reckon there could be a little secret weapon in the old weight training though, I really do!