Here's what you need to know...
  • Training for an extreme endurance event requires you to throw away all hopes of orthopedic health.
  • Nearly 90% of triathletes are "broken" in one way or another. But some weight training could fix that.
  • Triathletes must master a few key movements to stay healthy and strong: overhead squats, deadlifts, front squats, and back squats.
  • Each movement can be repeated in sets of 2-6 with > 80% 1RM to gain strength and power without adding unwanted mass.

A Special Kind of Crazy

Ironman Tattoo

The world of fitness is a diverse place, packed full of cultish followings from CrossFit to Core Power, powerlifting to Pilates. But the one activity that draws the most passionate fanatics is the monotonous specialty of endurance sports.

It seems that every endurance athlete, sooner or later, slips into a deep, dangerous hole. Those afflicted by this malady are generally recognized by the tattoo they sport on their shaved calves, a tattoo that reads "Ironman Triathlon."

That ink represents more than just a race – it represents a neurotically emotional and physical feat that necessitates a special kind of crazy to train for, let alone compete in.

This kind of insanity requires you to throw away all hopes of orthopedic health and any social life in order to have a chance to complete this 10+ hour nightmare.

Add to that the lack of cross training, intelligent programming, and restorative and regenerative therapies needed to minimize the damage caused by the training alone, and you have a group of Ironman competitors physically ruined for life.

It's a good thing traditional strength and conditioning is here to save the asses of triathletes and other extreme endurance athletes from long-term pain and injury. Proper training will allow you to get the most out of your body while reducing your time on the road, thus giving you a fighting chance to survive.

It'll involve minimizing your sport specific work and maximizing your body's strength and endurance potential by picking up heavy things and training like a real athlete for once.

The Problem With Traditional Tri Training

Ironman Run

Many naive triathlon programs focus solely on the swim, bike, and run. Triathletes shy away from any non sport-specific training because they live in mortal fear of the soreness produced by anything other than saddle burn.

It should also be mentioned that for the most part, triathletes don't do any type of cross training, even if it's been shown to yield optimal results come race day. Ignorance can only remain bliss for so long until it bites you in the ass.

An often-overlooked aspect of triathlon programs is the notorious requisite of clocking extreme training hours while rarely calling for a true rest day. The body wasn't engineered for repetitive movements at extreme frequency and intensities.

This causes imbalances, injuries from overuse, and in turn, lack of effective muscular activation and function. These are all bad things if your goal is to do this sport for the long run.

Orthopedic Outrage

Ironman Bike

It's no surprise that Iron-distance triathletes are some of the most injury-prone individuals on the face of the earth. The exponential workload and time spent training are enough to make the average lifter break into convulsions at the very thought of saddling up on the bike and going for a cruise.

But how and where does all this cardio carnage actually occur? The actual rate of orthopedic insult is largely unknown, but there have been a few recent studies published to shed some light on the issue at hand.

A study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that the average prevalence of overuse injuries (non-traumatic in nature) for triathletes training and competing was 56%. More so, substantial overuse injuries were found in 20% of Ironman distance triathletes!

The most common areas of pain and dysfunction secondary to triathlon training and competition are pretty evenly dispersed between the knee (25%), lower leg (23%), and lower back (23%).

To trump it all, these athletes' rate of illness was found to be higher than the average sedentary adult, especially within a period of five days after a strenuous workout. Since the average triathlete trains six-plus times a week, it can be inferred that these athletes are susceptible to illness on a daily basis.

In my professional experience as a sports performance physical therapist, I believe the injury statistics are lowball at best. After working numerous Ironman events, along with treating and training athletes competing at amazingly high levels, I've observed that nearly 90% of these athletes are broken down to one extent or another.

So if being chronically hurt, sick and lethargic sounds like a great time, it's as easy as signing up! Um, tell me again why you love training for the tri?

Enhancing the Energy Systems

Ironman Swim

If you want to compete in a triathlon or similar endurance event without killing your body, you better enhance your anthropometric efficiency by any means possible. The simplest way to do this is by increasing your power-to-weight ratio.

Triathletes, for example, have to haul their emaciated carcasses around for 10+ hours during a race, making that ratio the difference between PRs and disqualification. Simply said, extra bodyweight in the wrong places results in the waste of precious energy, which then equates to slower times.

That extra soft tissue also requires the utilization of more oxygen to those areas, siphoning blood flow away from highly active musculature that's in dire need of nutrition.

The need for power and strength is an absolute necessity in a highly effective tri-training program. Having trained and coached through a 12-month period without sustaining a single debilitating injury, I can attribute this ultra health and performance to intelligently programmed strength and conditioning, most of which took place within the walls of my gym.

Triathletes must master a few key movements to yield amazing benefits for both performance and orthopedic health. These movements include overhead squats, deadlifts, front squats, and back squats.

Each movement can be repeated in sets of 2-6 with > 80% 1RM to gain strength and power without adding unwanted mass.

These movements are relatively easy to learn, pack some muscle armor onto the legs and posterior chain, and also emphasize core stability and posture, as poor dynamic posturing can result in increased rates of fatigue during sport-specific performances. Stick to the basics, master the movements, and reap the benefits!

Single-leg movements can also be specifically advantageous for cycling and running. These movements include lunges, step-ups, split jumps, and single-leg deadlifts.

Iron-distance triathletes are unilaterally dominant because of their focus on cycling and running. As such, unilateral exercises are extremely effective to correct left to right imbalances.

Related:  More on single-leg training

Single-leg movements utilizing heavy eccentric loads are especially beneficial as they increase vascularization, oxygen utilization, and growth factoring in the specific tissues being targeted. Eccentric focuses also counteract the tonic shortening of muscles that can happen with cycling and running.

The Triathlete Program

Note: While this program was created specifically for triathloners, other endurance athletes can benefit from all or parts of it as well.

Monday

Goblet Squat

AM Session

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Goblet Squat 3 15
A2 Long Stride Lunge 3 10 / side
A3 Windmill 3 15
A4 Single-Leg Deadlift 3 10 / side
  Rest minimally between exercises and 90-120 seconds between rounds.
B Box Lunge 5 5
Rest 30 seconds between sets and use slow and controlled movements with emphasis on dynamic stretching and the eccentric part of the exercise.

Related:  More info on the goblet squat

PM Session Done in late afternoon or night.

  Exercise Time
A Swim easy intensity optional 1 hour
B Recovery Work foam roller/hot-cold bath 20 min.

Tuesday

AM Session

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Goblet Squat (light) 6 5 30 sec.
B Deadlifts + Long Jumps 6 5/2 120 sec.
Work up to 90% 1RM deadlift over the 6 ramp up sets. Do two long jumps directly after last deadlift rep of each set.
C Stiff Legged Deadlift 6 10 90 sec.
Use 20-30% 1RM deadlift for stiff legged deadlifts while completing a 2-second controlled hold at the bottom of the movement.
D RKC Plank 6 30 sec. 60 sec.

PM Session

  Bike Intervals Time
A Warm-Up 10 min.
B Max Effort Intervals 30 min., 30 sec. ON / 30 sec. OFF
C Easy Intervals 10 min., 60 sec. ON / 60 sec. OFF
D Cool-Down 10 min., bring down heart rate gradually
E Recovery Work 20 min.

Wednesday

AM Session

  Exercise Time
A Tempo Run 90 min., varied tempos and cadence

PM Session

  Exercise Time
A Easy Recovery Swim 1 hour, keep heart rate below 125 bpm

Thursday

Kettlebell Swing

AM Session

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Front Squat 6 4 90 sec.
Use 3 ramp up sets to get to your 5RM and do it for 6 sets of 4 reps.
B1 Goblet Squat 5 8  
B2 Kettlebell Swing 5 10 60 sec.

PM Session

  Exercise Time
A Bike 1 hour, every 10 min. all out sprint for 10 sec.
B Recovery Work 20 min., foam roller/ice bath/massage

Friday

AM Session

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Goblet Squat 3 5 15 sec.
B Low/High Box Jump 5 10/25 60 sec.
C Box Squat 5 5 15 sec.
D Split Squat 5 5 15 sec.
E Glute/Ham Raise 5 5 60 sec.

PM Session

  Exercise Time
A Easy Run 30 min., heart rate below 135 bpm
B Recovery Work 20 min., hands-on SMR* foam rolling

*Related:  More on SMR (Self Myofascial Release)

Saturday

Foam Rolling

AM or PM Session

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Hang Clean 3 12 60 sec.
B Bike Sprint 3 90/120/150 90 sec.
C Back Squat 3 10 60 sec.
D Treadmill Sprint 3 120 sec. 90 sec.
E1 Pull-Up 3 10  
E2 Push-Up 3 10  
E3 Knees to Elbows 3 10  
E4 Sit-Up 3 10 60 sec.
F Recovery Work static stretching/foam roll 20 min.

Sunday

AM or PM Session

  Exercise Time
A Bike 3 hours, 65-80% max heart rate
B Swim 1 hour, moderate pace

Note: Patrick Gilles contributed to this article.