This piece first appeared in LAVA Magazine Issue 1, August/September 2010. See also Part I and II.

By Matt Dixon, MSc

Whenever the subject of strength or weight training is discussed in conjunction with endurance sports, it seems to evoke fanaticism, with people devoutly defending their “turf.” For many the term “strength training” elicits images of pumping iron in a sweaty, testosterone-filled gym. Believers tout its benefits of injury prevention and improved power and pace, while doubters claim that speed is gained by simply swimming, biking or running. Both sides are wrong. In this article I will unravel much of the confusion that surrounds functional strength as a component of endurance performance, and I will help you understand how it can and should be integrated into your own training program.

Functional strength is one of my pillars of performance (see sidebar below), and I incorporate it in training programs for all my athletes, from newbie to professional. Functional strength is specific strength training in which the movements relate to the motions utilized in a given sport. Each exercise engages the central/core muscle complex in conjunction with the muscle(s) of primary focus, and each includes an element of instability to force continual neuromuscular balancing.

The primary purpose of including functional strength as part of an overall triathlon training program is to make an athlete just that—an athlete. Creating a platform of muscular balance, synchronized muscle firing and optimal ballistic output of the muscles can translate across all sports, and can certainly be applied to triathlon. This improved platform allows you to gain maximum benefit from your sport-specific training. When combined with work on biomechanics (drills) and speed work, it can have dramatic benefits on overall performance, with the added benefit of reduced risk of injury.

WHAT TO INCORPORATE. A proper functional strength program should consist of exercises that will facilitate improvements in neuromuscular recruitment, joint stability, transfer of power in sport-specific movements, and range of motion.

Neuromuscular programming: Much of functional strength training is related to teaching athletes how to control their movements and fire muscles in coordination. By isolating specific components of movement and forcing the athlete to control their movement and actions, we are maximizing the utilization of muscle that is already there. It is tough to isolate those actions when actually participating in the sport, and too often I see triathletes who seem to have little real control over what their bodies are doing when swimming, biking or running. Instead of having the athlete distracted by all the motions involved in, say running, we can isolate specific movements or actions and allow them to focus on learning motor control. This always has positive benefits for their actual running over the long term.

Stabilization: The elements of triathlon are each performed in effectively a single plane. However, when fatigue sets in, the first thing you will notice is the athlete’s inability to control slight lateral (out-of-plane) movements. Hips and shoulders rock from side to side, efficiency drops and the metabolic costs rise. Once this instability sets in, it is extremely hard to reverse.

To achieve your optimal performance in a race (and in training), much of the focus should be on being able to hold form (biomechanics) throughout the event. By working on the support crew of stabilizing muscles that can aid in maintaining optimal planar movement, you will be more able to maintain biomechanics for longer. Any slowing during a race should be due to fitness or pacing issues (much easier to get right), and not inability to hold form.

Power Production: Simply swimming, biking or running more will never allow you to fully maximize your potential to produce more power or speed. Although triathlon doesn’t demand maximum power or speed, a greater potential correlates well with a higher steady state. Including functional strength in your program can teach you how to generate power more effectively and efficiently. Focused exercises can teach your body to generate power from the support muscles as well as the prime movers. It is this effective movement that lays the platform for more efficient movement and biomechanics.

Mobility: Not all functional strength exercises will specifically aid mobility, but it must be a major focus. An improvement in mobility will allow you to get into positions that result in improved biomechanics and form, but it is close to impossible to improve mobility by simply doing the actual sport. The clearest example of this is running, in which the mobility of the hips is a barrier to many people’s improvement. While speed work and hill running will have some beneficial effect, the surest method is to isolate the movements related to hip mobility and work on them specifically. Over time mobility will improve, allowing natural improvements in form and biomechanics.

HOW TO INCORPORATE. With the performance benefits hopefully established, you should be ready, even anxious to include functional strength in your program, but the big question is how? What are the methods and components of progressing to big improvements?

The answer is simpler than you might think, as you can achieve nearly all benefits by following exercises using just your own body weight (see the sidebar: “Key components of a functional strength program”). Endurance athletes seldom have optimal control of their own movement and therefore, you should have a program that allows progression. You should be able to master the full range of exercises using only your body weight. Then you can include an unstable environment (out-of-plane forces you must react to) and finally, consider including additional weight.

There is no single answer, or tool, to address every component of functional strength. The best tool I have found is the TRX Suspension Trainer. Not only is it highly portable, but it can be scaled to an individual’s fitness level, and therefore suits a range of athletes, from newbie to professional. This means the all-important progression of exercises can occur as you improve. Nearly every exercise with the TRX Suspension Trainer is functional, forces recruitment of the full chain of muscles, and will put you in an unstable environment to force additional neuromuscular recruitment. There are other options out there that provide similar environments (such as BOSU balls and balance tools), but none that allow you to focus on the full body. You can also achieve plenty with just yourself and a floor. I have all my athletes do a lot of movements on the floor, including lateral hops (to provide lateral stability), hopping and skipping in grids (neuromuscular foot speed), and a range of lunges and squats on single and double legs (strength, stability and neuromuscular recruitment).

Any exercises that you include are only beneficial if you remain healthy and injury free. I like to remind my athletes that they do not have to “break through barriers” or set PRs in their functional strength program; egos should be left at home. The key is patient and smart progression, as well as completely mastering any exercise before evolving to more complex movements. Progression is improvement, and that is all you are trying to do. If you avoid chasing bigger, heavier and stronger with that “no pain, no gain” mentality, then you have every right to assume you will not do any harm to yourself … and that you will see improvement.

WHEN TO INCORPORATE. Traditionally strength is the focus of the off-season only, but this is the wrong approach. The off-season is a perfect time of year to begin your functional strength program because a greater emphasis and time commitment is possible, but it should be a part of your training year-round. Continual progression is key, and simply having two or three short sessions each week will keep providing gains. It is a marvelous tool in conjunction with drills and speed work, so there is nothing wrong with following a short functional strength session with a series of drills or speed work. You will be translating your strength training directly into your sport, and there is no better programming than that.

CONCLUSION. I often hear people claim the best way to get better at triathlon is to simply swim, bike and run more. While I appreciate the thought behind this philosophy and agree that swim, bike and run training are critical components to improved performance—they are, after all, the first pillar of performance—it is not quite so simple. The benefits of functional strength training have been clearly established, but it is even more effective when included as part of a comprehensive training program. Considered alone, it will not necessarily make you a better triathlete, but combined with sport-specific training, you cannot lose!

Functional strength is one of your pillars of performance—and one that you ignore at your own peril.

Author’s note: The following figures (1-5) are a collection of movements that embrace all the components of functional strength, providing an excellent, balanced program. These exercises employ the TRX suspension trainer, as that is what I use with my PurplePatch athletes. They can be readily adapted to whatever system you choose to use. Missing are sport-specific drills, which must be included to gain the complete benefits of any functional strength program. I leave it to you (and your coach) to select appropriate drills to complement your specific program.

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Purplepatch Fitness founder and owner Matt Dixon has worked with pros such as Chris Lieto and Linsey Corbin. His coaching philosophy extends to a wide range of abilities and goals, and he is one of the most well-respected coaches in the industry.