Swimming, cycling, and running will inevitably take up most of your time as a triathlete, but hitting the gym and doing strength training is just as important. We chat with two professional triathletes to get the low down on how they strength train to improve their performance and get the most out of their training.
Matt Leeman - professional triathlete
Matt doesn't do strength training in the typical sense. Instead of hitting the gym and lifting weights, he uses natural factors like hills to help him improve his strength and increase his muscular endurance.
Triathlete strength training
Strength training is a big component of any sport, the common definition of strength is "the ability to exert a force against a resistance". Each sport has different demands and hence requires different classifications of strength, triathlon predominantly requires strength endurance - the ability to express force many times over.
Although I personally do not lift weights, which are commonly associated with strength training, I do triathlon-specific strength training, adapting the training of the disciplines to a strength based way of training.
There are swim specific tools that can be utilised to enhance swimming strength, the main ones I use are the pull buoy, hand paddles, and band. The muscles used in swimming are predominantly the lats (side of the back) and triceps. The pull buoy enables swimming with less kicking to maintain the body position so that the upper body can be worked more. The hand paddles create a larger surface area to increase the resistance of a stroke. The band is used to take leg kicking out of the equation and rather get propulsion from the overall movement of the body and core muscles.
The majority of the time in a triathlon is spent on the bike so having good bike strength is essential for putting together a good race, both directly, making you ride faster, and indirectly, the less the bike takes out of you, the more you’ll have left for the run. The two things that can be utilised for bike strength are the bike's gears and hills.
By doing specific intervals ‘over-gearing’ i.e. using a bigger gear than you would usually use to train your leg muscles to produce a greater force so that when we are racing we are working at a lower percentage of our overall capacity. Hills obviously give a great stimulus for developing strength, ensuring you ride on different terrain is important for developing a well rounded strong athlete.
The main ways in which I train my running strength is using hills and mixed surface terrain. I will often do a specific hill repeat session where one specific hill is targeted and run up multiple times. The beauty of hills is that it prevents you from over-striding and promotes glute engagement, which improves our ability to utilise the bigger muscles in the legs such as glutes and quads that handle fatigue better than the smaller muscles of the leg, which is very important in an endurance sport.
Claire Steels - World Champion duathlete
Claire tells us about her three favourite strength training exercises and why they are well suited to an endurance athlete.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This exercise is great for running and cycling power but also glute, hip and core stability. Unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are fantastic for developing the individual leg strength required for sports such as running and cycling, where each leg is required to produce power independently.
TRX Mountain Climbers
This exercise requires core stability and control whilst moving each leg independently. This replicates the physiological control that is required in a duathlon as a strong core is essential for efficient running and cycling.
This is a fantastic exercise for developing power through the posterior chain along the back of the body. It challenges the strength of the whole body but primarily the glutes and hamstrings. It is also a fantastic exercise for testing the cardiovascular system while also trying to produce power making it yet another great exercise for duathletes.
We take a look at some of the most common inconveniences and issues that swimmers face when in open water and give advice on how best to tackle them so that you can enjoy and thrive when swimming in open water.
1.Your goggles get knocked off
It's a nightmare situation in an open water swim, especially if you are a contact lens wearer or have sensitive eyes. Having your goggles knocked off your face during the panic and rush of a mass swim start can leave you feeling exposed and frantic, especially if you can't find them again and have to complete the rest of your swim without goggles.
To prevent this situation from ocurring, put your goggles underneath your swim cap so that even if they do get knocked, they won't come all the way off your head and you can pull them back up to your eyes. It's normal and expected to get bashed and knocked around during a mass participation swim such as that of a triathlon, so it's important to be prepared.
2. The water is too cold
If you live in the UK, it's pretty much expected that the water temperature will be on the chilly side and that it'll probably be a wetsuit-mandatory swim for your triathlon. To stop your head getting cold, double up on swim caps to increase insulation and make sure it's pulled down your forehead to minimise the amount of skin you have exposed to the cold water.
A great idea is to acclimatise first so that the shock of the cold water doesn't make your breathing difficult and irregular. If you can, fully submerge yourself in the water before you begin the race. If you're not allowed to do this, at least splash some water over your head, face, and into your wetsuit so that your body has a chance to get used to it and it's not such a shock when you jump in to start the race.
3. You have a panic attack/feel like you can't breathe
If you're not used to open water swimming, a mass start race can easily induce a panic attack and make you feel like you can't breathe. Make sure you get plenty of practice in open water before you take on a big race to minimise this risk. It's also a good idea to get friends or club mates to make a big splash around you when training so that you can get used to the disorder of trying to find a line, pace, and breathing rhythm amongst the commotion of hundreds of other swimmers.
If you do find yourself struggling to breathe, tread water until you calm down or do some breast stroke to help you relax and find your sight. Stay well away from the pack when starting the race and find your own space.
4. It's hard to navigate without a line to follow
If you do most of your swim training in a pool, you'll be used to having a line to follow on the bottom and you only have to swim in a straight line. When it comes to swimming in open water, going the wrong way and swimming further than you need to is a common mistake and is something you can expect without enough practice.
Make sure you look up from time to time and practice sighting, checking out landmarks on the horizon. Don't just follow the person in front and recce the course before the race so you have a mental plan of where you should be going.
5. You get tired and can't stop to put your feet on the bottom
This is a common worry among those who are new to open water swimming; you feel like you have no safety net and it's scary not being able to touch the bottom. Keep a steady pace and if you get tired, don't be afraid to do some breast stroke or just tread water for a short while.
If you really get into difficulty, lie on your back and float and try to stay calm. However, keep in mind that for triathlon races, if you do this and raise one arm in the air it's a signal to the marshals and paramedics that you need rescuing so this should be a last resort.
6. There are unknown monsters in the deep
Possibly the most common reason for not wanting to swim in the sea or in rivers: not knowing what creatures might be lurking beneath the surface. This is a perfectly rational fear and it's true that there might be things like jellyfish and other marine animals in the water with you.
Unfortunately for this one, the advice is just to keep calm and carry on. A race organiser would not allow you to get into water that has dangerous creatures in it, so try to ignore anything that might be there. Substances like seaweed and waste can be known to get stuck to triathletes when they're swimming, but again, you have to just ignore this and carry on with your swimming. Your wetsuit, goggles, and hat should protect most of your skin from contact anyway.
Becky is a swimmer who is now progressing through university championships. She talks to Sundried about training and racing.
Have you always been into sport?
Yes, I have always been involved in sports. At a young age I made it my mission to tackle as many sports as I could and kept them up until an age where specialising was important. This lead me primarily to swimming and running.
What made you decide to enter the world of swimming/cycling?
Swimming has always been my strongest sport and one that I grew up doing in Qatar and Kuwait before moving to boarding school on a swimming scholarship. Since then, I have continued to progress and compete for the University of Bath. My new venture of cycling came about after a close friend encouraged me into the sport and coaches encouraged this as a form of alternative training and racing in my off season.
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
Most recently my favourite races have been the BUCS series held at Ponds Forge, purely for the standard of swimming from the UK universities and the level of inclusion too. However, my favourite race abroad was in 2014 at the Dubai International Championships where I had the pleasure of racing against and meeting some of the world's best swimmers.
And your proudest achievement?
The achievement I’m currently proudest of is coming back from an injury to return to the national stage and final first time back in the pool.
Have you ever had any racing disasters/your toughest race yet?
My hardest race to date was a national race in 2015 where I unfortunately locked out my back as I did my backstroke start, leading to an asthma attack and subsequently I passed out in the pool. Needless to say this race was a write off after I was pulled out of the pool.
How do you overcome setbacks?
I use the amazing support system I have around me from family, friends, university and sponsors to find the best solution to get me back on track as soon as possible.
What advice do you wish you'd been given before you started competing?
In retrospect I wish I hadn’t specialised in the pool at such a young age. As a sprinter in the pool I dedicated training to working on enhancing my sprint rather than longer distance work. However, as I’ve started competing more and more in open water races I regret not being given advice to stick to a variety of distance training.
What are your goals for 2019 and 2020?
I’m aiming to return to all BUCS rounds once again this coming season, along with knocking time off my personal bests. Alongside furthering my cycling experience both in races and training. All whilst persisting with treatment for long lasting injuries.
Who do you take your inspiration from?
My main inspiration came from a team mate of mine in Kuwait who achieved incredible things for her country and continues to have a big influence in Kuwaiti swimming. A true friend and very inspiring athlete.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
I love how Sundried kit looks and feels good whilst being ethical, sustainable and affordable. The kit is of such good quality and there is such a range to choose from that you can’t go wrong with any of it! Currently my favourite bits of kit are the Sundried women’s padded jacket because it is perfect to put on pre and post training or racing to keep me nice and warm. Also the women’s Sundried knit shoes are perfect for my gym sessions and incredibly comfortable whilst stylish (so much so I already have multiple pairs!)
Looking to start swimming? Return to swimming and improve? We have provided an easy-to-follow 2-week training plan that will help your fitness and technique. Drill demonstrations are included. Just watch, print and take to the pool. One of the best things you can do is take a session to the pool to help you accomplish more, swim further, and feel like you completed something worthwhile.
How important is technique when you are learning to swim?
Swim technique is harder to change later in life so the fewer mistakes made earlier when learning, the more effective you will be later in your swim career.
If you've never had swimming lessons/coaching, does this necessarily mean you will have poor technique?
Swimming is highly technical and not easy to change, even for advanced swimmers. It is actually an illogical and counter-intuitive movement and we naturally want to fight the water, so to get proper swimming technique right without instruction can be very hard. Some people are naturals but it is rare. On the upside, this means there is lots of scope for big improvements with some guidance.
Can you teach yourself better swimming technique?
This is not the easiest since most people struggle to imagine what they are doing right and wrong while in the water since it is such an alien environment. You can watch good technique, read good technique, even picture good technique in your mind but this is rarely translated into correct movements performed. Most of your swimming stroke happens behind you so you can see how hard it is to get it right. Video analysis can be a great help to narrow the disparity between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing.
What are the main benefits of having a coach to help you improve?
They will be the eyes you need to guide you and describe the mistakes you make. They will help translate the technical points you might be misinterpreting into fluid swimming movements.
Which stroke is the hardest to master and why?
They all have their complexities but perhaps Butterfly is the most difficult due to the very specific timing issues; if your timing is out, you will struggle to take in air. There is also no slow option for Butterfly such as there is with the other strokes. An amount of momentum is needed for it to work and this can be tiring.
What are the benefits of good swimming technique? Does it improve fitness as well as performance?
Good technique will exhaust you less than swimming with poor technique, so you can do more of it at a steadier pace. The fitness benefits are well documented but until the mechanics of your strokes are efficient, it will be hard to do much more then a few lengths. You are also less likely to injure yourself if the correct movements are made with the correct muscles.
If you've never thought about technique before, which stroke should you start with and why?
Front crawl and Backstroke are perhaps the two least tiring if done well. Backstroke removes the need to time a head turn, allowing for air to be taken when you want so could be considered an easier starting point. Front crawl can create concerns since to do it well you need to put your face in the water. Depending on fitness levels and starting point, Breaststroke might appear simple but done well is highly technical. Confidence, the ability to relax, and timing of the breath should be early aims regardless of stroke.
Are there different techniques you should employ for pool swimming versus open water swimming and why?
Swim movements do not necessarily need to change due to being in open water, but you will need to add in a method for sighting and looking where you are going. If you are swimming in a wetsuit, this will impact body position so we might take into account this change but legs still kick and arms still pull.
What do you think is most important and why: stroke technique or breathing technique? Or do you need to have everything working together to swim effectively?
The two are inextricably linked. Controlled breathing allows you to swim relaxed with a stroke that can be reproduced over and over again. Swimming well with good technique allows you to breathe when you want. On dry land, breathing is not an interrupted stop/start function due to only being allowed a short window of opportunity to inhale when swimming. In the water, until you have better control of your swim technique, your stroke will dictate when you get to take a breath and that can only lead to further frustration.
What is your top technique advice for:
A swimming novice: Swim more frequently but perhaps for shorter periods. Tremendous gains can be made if you reduce the amount of time ‘unlearning’ between swims.
A swimming enthusiast: Work with a coach. Huge gains can be made for modest changes to your swim technique.
An experienced, high level swimmer: Check progress by performing some specific, reproducible swim sets each 6 weeks or so. Measure if you are getting faster, fitter or swimming further. Add some accountability to your swimming. It might help get you to the pool on those days you are not so keen to go.
Tips for breast stroke
- A symmetrical leg kick is important as propulsion comes from the legs returning together and pushing water backwards.
- Tuck the chin into the chest, head down, as you drive the hands forwards to keep narrow and streamlined
Tips for front crawl
- Arms pulling with the palms facing the bottom of the pool send you upwards not forwards. Check the palms are facing the wall you are swimming away from.
- 90% of the people I see need to reduce the size of their leg kick. It is a far smaller movement at the hips than most imagine.
Tips for back stroke
- Your head must remain still with your chin kept high, otherwise you will snake down the lane with your hips sinking (if your chin is low).
- This stroke needs a stronger leg kick than most imagine, helping support the body and keeping the body position high.
Tips for butterfly
- Breathe as low as possible to the water when the head lifts. The mouth just needs to be clearing the water when the head comes up for air. Excess height sinks the legs.
- Attempt 2 kicks to one arm cycle, most ‘general butterfly’ in public sessions involves 1 kick to 1 pull which usually has you swimming ‘uphill.’
About the author: Dan Bullock has been coaching since 1990, holding qualifications with the ASA, BTF, ASCA and the World Open Water Swim Association. Dan’s accolades include being National Masters Open Water Champion frequently since 2008, Former British AG Record Holder for 800m Front crawl and a European & World Masters medalist.
Once you’re comfortable in the water and swimming further and easier than before, the next challenge is to get quicker! Either because you want to beat your friends, set personal bests, finish further up the results, or potentially even qualify for age group teams.
There are three keys to getting faster at swimming:
- Reducing frontal resistance to the water
- Pulling/kicking with purpose
- Not rushing your stroke
Reducing your resistance to the water
This will mean that you can move faster and further with the same level of effort and this is a real foundation to strong and fast swimming. If you are able to focus on good posture in the water – i.e. looking down, lengthening your spine and engaging your core, then you’ll be in a really good place.
A simple trick to focus this is to streamline when you push off the wall every time. This is not cheating – a comment that I get from many athletes! This is a skill that will help you travel faster and with better form, improving the quality of your swims. Imagine it like a squat jump. When you push off the wall, if possible, squeeze your ears between your biceps with your hands together above your head. If shoulder mobility doesn’t allow this, just keep your arms in front of you but still aiming to tuck your chin down toward your chest.
All this will help lengthen your spine and keep your head in the right position – it’s your reset point every length. Finally, when you push off, you will automatically engage your core – meaning that your first few strokes will be among your best ever. Your challenge is then to try and maintain that as far down each length as you can!
Pulling and kicking with purpose
With resistance reduced, you can look to engage with the water more rather than moving your arms and legs just for the sake of moving them. Kick drills can teach you to kick smoothly rather than panic splashing your legs around. You can kick streamlined (see above), on your front or on your back, or do side kick to work on body roll – in any case, make sure that your legs are pushing against the water.
With your arms, you can do sculling drills to get used to feeling pressure of the water against your hands and forearms – and transferring this into doing your full stroke. Swimming with fists can have the same effect. Whatever drills you end up doing, mix them into doing full stroke so that you can feel where the drill is trying to work on in your stroke. Focus on each kick or pull having some purpose rather than trying to just do things for the sake of doing them!
Not rushing your stroke
Finally, with regards to swimming faster I like to think of the phrase "less haste, more speed". If you look at the top athletes in most sports – Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter in rugby, Messi or Ronaldo in football, rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, swimmer Katie Ledecky etc – they never look like they are rushing, even though they are doing things at incredibly high speed.
Some of this comes down to the fact that they are very well practised. On top of this though, they know that they have all the time that they need to undertake the skills that they are doing. There is no rush. In the case of Glover & Stanning, or Katie Ledecky, their stroke rates are incredibly high – but they don’t look like they are rushing things. Again, think about connecting with the water and pushing – rather than just trying to throw your arms and legs around aimlessly to go quicker. Effort does not necessarily equal speed!
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.