Essential advice on why strength training is crucial for Ironman success from Strength For Endurance coach and founder Kriss Hendy.
Strength training comes as second nature to some triathletes, but for many of us, it’s a chore to squeeze in around swim, bike and run. We spoke to Strength For Endurance head coach Kriss Hendy about why strength training should be a priority if you want your best Ironman performance.
“Durability and resilience are the key words,” says Kriss. “Whenever you increase intensity – going longer, faster, whatever it is – you’ve got to think about how your body is going to withstand those types of work. Otherwise, you’re cranking up the training volume on a body that isn’t conditioned to that stimulus, creating more work for muscle tissue that isn’t ready to work.
“Even if you’re not suffering from problems now, you will! It’s just the way we are. I won’t be having this conversation a lot with 20- to 30-year-olds because they just don’t understand what we’re saying. But you hit 30 plus and then you start to really understand what it’s like to be working for 10 years in a career or training full time, potentially 20 hours a week for a decade. It’s only then do you really start to respect your body.”
“Durability and resilience are the key words”Kriss Hendy, Strength For Endurance
“We live in a world where we’re very sedentary. We sit on our bums all day and then you’re putting yourself on a bike for four and a half hours, putting out a wattage of 200, or whatever. If you already know you’ve got a niggly lower back from current programming and you’re looking to increase your volume, putting more strain or stress on your body, you are going to be exacerbating that tenfold. So we are looking to get ahead of any issues that potentially might arise.”
One of the biggest benefits of strength training for triathletes is in helping you to better understand your body and its physical limitations. Kriss regularly sees several common issues with Ironman triathletes that help identify the area’s athletes should focus on to improve their swimming, cycling and running.
“Muscular imbalances that are brought about by lifestyle habits are very common. Right versus left and just as much in the upper body as the lower body, muscular imbalances are a massive flaw in most people.
“Or if someone comes to me with a bad back. It’s generally because they don’t have my much of an ass! No glutes and hamstrings, so their body is leveraging off the wrong muscle groups. So, we have to give them a butt, giving them band work to increase glute activation. Then we have to give them strength work to then develop more glute and hamstring strength.
“So, for us it’s about making sure that athletes are mobile through their lower backs, working on their abductors, their hamstrings and glutes. It’s all about mobility in the hips, upper thoracic, and general upper body mobility.
“Lower limb issues are also huge. Plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinopathy, calf strains, knee issues. Most people who come in with those types of issues generally have problems doing basic things like calf raises. Their balance and proprioception are generally pretty bad. So, we need to work on those sorts of things.”
A Different Mentality
As well as physical results, Kriss also sees the positive mental implications of strength training in triathletes – both in terms of meeting training targets and taking a pause from the main three triathlon disciplines.
“Progression and variety keep you engaged and excited about training. Triathletes love to swim, bike and run all the time, but actually it’s quite nice to come into an environment and do something very different.
“You’re still working towards your triathlon goal, but you’re doing it in a different way. It’s a nice place mentally to go to – to think differently, to behave differently, slow things down to identify weaknesses.”
Strong To The Finish
Through good technique and holding good shapes, consistent strength training can not only keep you clear of injuries but help maintain strong form right to the finish line – even in an Ironman event.
“People want more – they want to be faster, fitter, stronger. But if you can’t do a pull up, how do you expect to be quicker in the water?
“At the end of the day it’s all about building a strong enough chassis to do whatever you want to do with it. Like when it comes to running, it’s about maintaining your running form and improving that running economy so that you limit the amount of energy wasted. So the stronger you are, the easier it is to hold better shapes when you run.
“The best of the best look good even when they’re dying inside. Aerobically, they’re cooked, they’re burning out, but they still hold good shape. Flip that to look at age groupers and they’re buckled! Knees are collapsing, shoulders have gone, core is broken. Everything’s just collapsing on itself and that’s pure lack of strength.
“it’s all about building a strong enough chassis”Kriss Hendy, Strength For Endurance
“Like everything you do in here [in the gym] when you put a weight on your back, when you lift away, when you do core work – it’s about resonating strength and holding good shape. And in terms of running economy, holding a better position on the bike, in the water, it’s the same.
“If you can’t hold a shape for long in the gym under load, you’re probably not going to be able to hold these shapes when you’re cooked out there. As soon as you lose shape, your body starts to compensate, you start to overload and that’s when injuries happen.”
About Strength For Endurance
Strength For Endurance is a performance strength coaching company specifically tailored to the needs of endurance athletes and has worked with some of triathlon’s top professional athletes.
The Strength For Endurance gym is based in Bath, UK, and the team also offers virtual training through its Training Lab online platform. The online community features daily live Zoom strength workouts, weekly Pilates sessions, physio-led rehab sessions, unlimited training plans and regular webinars with leading endurance professionals along with plenty more training and coaching support.