Running Strength Training

When you look at the build of some of the worlds great endurance runners the benefits of building "strength" and muscle mass for the run leg of the Triathlon may not appear immediately obvious. In this article Bruce Thomas, level 3 Triathlon coach argues that specific resistance training

When you look at the build of some of the worlds great endurance runners the benefits of building “strength” and muscle mass for the run leg of the Triathlon may not appear immediately obvious. In this article Bruce Thomas, level  2 Triathlon coach argues that specific resistance training for the run leg will reap it’s rewards on race day.

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.

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.


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.