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Resistance Training


Resistance Training by Bruce Thomas

As you come to the first hill on the bike in the triathlon you are competing in, you dig deep and pass the athlete in front of you. Feeling good, you continue up the hill, giving it everything to get to the top of the rise. As you punish yourself, another rider comes past at a significantly faster pace, appearing to deal with the hill effortlessly. Your initial reaction is to think, “Wow, that person is strong on the bike”. If “strong” is the right word, the question is: “How do you get strong?” The best way to improve your strength is through overload.

If you have never been to the gym before to lift weights, your first visit will be a learning experience. Even if you lift relatively light weights you will find that you are quite sore for the next couple of days. More interestingly, if you visit the gym a few times a week for a couple of weeks, you will be surprised at how much more you can lift compared to you first attempt. Does that mean that you have had a dramatic increase in strength over a short period? Effectively the answer would be no. Despite making some very minor strength gains, the reason that you can lift more weight initially is due to your body adapting to the task of lifting the weights. Your body is an amazing thing and adapts very quickly to the stresses under which it is placed. The initial adaptation that it makes is to recruit muscles at a more appropriate time. When you first lift weights your body, under new stress doesn’t use its muscles in the most efficient manner. This results in small muscle tears and, more importantly as far as the reason for your post-exercise discomfort, strains on your ligaments and tendons. As you continue to exercise at the gym, your brain learns to recruit more muscles in concert and to recruit them at the right time, putting less strain on individual muscles and enabling you to lift greater weights with less effort. This Neuro-muscular training (teaching your brain and muscles to work together more efficiently) is where the initial advance in strength occurs. Beyond this, an athlete also gains strength at a slower rate from the small muscular tears that stressing the muscles results in. These tears heal stronger giving an overall improvement in strength.

Does this mean that triathletes should spend time in the gym to improve their strength? I would suggest “No”. While there are certainly benefits in going to the gym to address specific areas of weakness and to improve general condition, there is very little proof that strength in the gym will carry over to strength in the water, on the bike or on the run. In fact, muscles adapt specifically to the stress under which they are placed. Thus, to improve strength for swimming you should employ resistance training while swimming. Similarly bike and run strength should be addressed through riding and running. While there is a cardio-vascular carry over from different types of training (hence the value of cross-training) the improvement in muscle fitness and strength is not as great. This does not mean that there is no place for weight training in a triathlete’s training diet; however, given the time constraints on most athletes, the time can be better spent improving strength through sport specific activities.

So, how do we approach resistance training for triathlon? The basic idea is to perform the tasks of swimming, cycling and running slowly so that we learn to use our muscles to propel ourselves forward and we eliminate momentum as the main factor in our progress. Firstly, this teaches our body the muscles that need to be used and when they need to be activated for the best result. Secondly, it overloads our muscles so that they develop micro-tears that heal over time giving a stronger muscle. These two factors generally mean that the time spent doing resistance training provides adaptations that are invaluable for improving overall performance in an athlete.

Swimming: Talk to a swim coach and they will tell you that good swimmers can swim at different paces and, more interestingly, good swimmers know how to swim slowly. This means that they know how to hold their body position and know how to work with the water rather than fight against it. Less talented swimmers are more concerned with staying afloat and consequently try to stroke as fast as they can aerobically maintain. If you can increase the resistance on a swimmer then the swimmer will either slow to almost a standstill or start to think about the swimming process so as to be able to get the most out of each stroke. The resistance can take various forms.

  • Hand paddles. These can be useful if used correctly. Some triathletes, however, are tempted to use their strength on the larger area of the paddle to pull themselves through the water rather than think about feeling the water on their forearm. None-the-less, as far as increasing resistance is concerned, the paddles do help and make the body work harder to get the arm through the water.
  • Bands are often used on a swimmers legs to stop them form kicking. Many coaches use cut-up car inner tubes to make cheap and effective bands. For weaker swimmers a pull buoy can be placed between the legs to give some buoyancy. Not kicking obviously means that the arms have to do more work getting the swimmer through the water. To propel the body in this state the swimmer must think about getting a good catch on the water and holding the water throughout the stroke by using the lats to rotate the arm back through the stroke. The lats are much bigger muscles than those in the arm and will fatigue more slowly, so, if they can be utilised the swimming process becomes far easier. Wearing bands on the legs also forces the swimmer to think about getting good body position, as you cannot kick as much to keep the legs afloat. This helps you to think about pushing down on your chest (which is buoyant as it contains two lungs full of air) and using your abdominal muscles to help hold the legs up.
  • Another cheap means of resistance training is to don a pair of baggy shorts or tracksuit pants. This increases resistance and consequently causes you to think about stroke efficiency to get through a session.
  • Stretch cords are also another useful device for working on the swimming stroke. These are dry-land training devices that provide resistance for the underwater portion of the swim stroke. Stretch cords are basically large “rubber bands” that have paddles attached to one end and the other end is secured to a wall. The swimmer then performs the swimming action against the resistance of the bands. The greatest benefit of this is that the swimmer can see exactly what they are doing in the stroke and can be given immediate feedback (by a coach or a mirror) so they can more quickly master the correct technique.

Cycling: the most efficient means of strength training on the bike is to do hill repeats at low cadence. This causes the cyclist to think about each pedal stroke and about which muscles should be recruited when to climb the hill efficiently. The idea is to pedal slowly, thinking about pulling back at the bottom of the pedal stroke to aid the rising foot to come over the top of its’ pedal stroke. The greatest efficiency comes when the torque (turning force) on the pedal is similar throughout the pedal action. This is not easy to do, but striving for it will result in surprising improvements in your cycle strength. For triathletes it is useful to perform the hill repeats in the saddle on the aero-bars with the hands loose and relaxed. This prevents the athlete from using their hands and arms to pull them up the hill. Further, taking the upper body out of the equation also forces the athlete to drive from the hips. The hill repeats can vary in duration from a minute or so to 15 minutes (if the hill is long enough).
The cadence you are looking for will vary, depending upon the athletes cycling history, initial strength and technique. The weaker or less experienced the athlete, the higher the cadence should be. An athlete should be very careful that the necessary base work is in place before attempting this style of strength session as the stress on the body, particularly the knee tendons and ligaments can be quite substantial. With the correct preparation, the correct attitude and technique this style of workout will have a significant impact on a cyclist’s strength and efficiency.
If there is not a convenient hill to do hill repeats on, they can be simulated on flat roads using a high gear, by riding into a strong wind or by setting up the bike on a wind trainer. All will have the same effect of making the cyclists recruit the appropriate muscles slowly and so learn when is the best time to activate them. At the same time the overload on the muscles will help them to get stronger.

Running: Running resistance can be achieved in a number of ways and there have been some innovative methods used by a variety of coaches to increase the resistance on a runner.
·      Hills. These are the simplest and cheapest form of resistance training. Running hill repeats will improve an athlete’s strength if performed properly. For the endurance style running that triathletes are involved in, the hills do not have to be sprinted. The strength training comes from running the hills with good form, holding a good stride length. This overloads the muscles and also allows the runner to think about the muscles that are being activated to get them up the hill. Repeating the hill run after jogging back down, also overloads the body and helps the body to improve in fitness.
·      Running on sand is another form of resistance training. This again makes it harder for an athlete to run and will, ideally, cause them to think about technique to get them along the sand most efficiently. The one drawback with sand running is that there is a different technique required for running on sand to road running. This therefore does not have a 100% cross-over effect; however the resistance training benefits are still there.
·      Partner resistance. This is not running resistance in the form of you partner discouraging you from going for a run so that they can spend more time with you. Rather, this can take the form of a harness (or bike inner tube) around the waist and a partner trying to hold you back as you run. Again the resistance training benefits of slowing down the running process and causing the muscles to work harder are apparent.

A word on weights: Weights can be a useful tool, as mentioned, for improving strength and aiding in correcting any muscular imbalances. For those with time constraints, the best resistance training is sport specific training. However, if you want to do some off-season training or wish to vary the training schedule, then the gym can be a good place to visit. If you are going to do weights, then use free weights where possible as these help with balance as well as with improving strength. You should always start a weights programme by having someone qualified show you the correct method to perform the exercises that you wish to do. A 3-4week period in which you lift light weights with a reasonably high number (10-15) of repetitions is also advisable to allow your body to adapt to the new style of training.

Exercises: Swimming: Lat-pull-down, seated row, triceps curl, bench press

Riding/running: hamstring curl (1 leg at a time), squats, lunges, quad extensions, leg press, calf-raisers.

Resistance training, by its very nature, is not easy. It puts the body under a significant amount of stress to encourage useful adaptations. The human body, if properly prepared and given the appropriate stresses, will adapt very well to resistance training. One of the prime considerations when attempting resistance training is recovery. For improvements in strength the athlete must overload the body and then allow the body to recover to gain the most from the training. When embarking upon a strength training block, be smart – more is not necessarily better. Recognise that gradual adaptation through consistent training is the best way to gain the edge over the long term.

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