As age group triathletes we have a lot to work on. Three sports to train for, usually a job and possibly a family too. Often the first thing to go while trying to fit everything in is strength and conditioning. I’m regularly asked if an athlete should do gym work, yoga or Pilates as part of Ironman training program and I usually advise to train the main sports first and only if there is time or more importantly a specific need for strength sessions should they do them. But there are a couple of important exceptions to this.
I incorporate strength and conditioning into my training for a couple of reasons.
- I have had back problems which resulted in back surgery in 2014 and have had ongoing issues ever since.
- While I don’t subscribe to the belief that at 43 I’m getting old (there’s a blog post coming about this soon) I do acknowledge that as I get older the body changes and requires slightly different maintenance now compared to what it needed 5 or 10 years ago.
The main reason I do regular strength work is because I have to. If I didn’t have any issues I would gladly just go out for another run or ride rather than spending an hour in the gym. My main issue is a back injury I sustained during the 2013 season which resulted in back surgery in early 2014. I still have nerve problems and a weakness in the lower back. If I wasn’t racing Ironman then I would probably get away without doing much at all but because of the extreme training load that Ironman requires it highlights any weakness. In my opinion this is the main reason to incorporate strength and conditioning. The second point, my age is really just another aspect of the same issue. As we age the body changes losing flexibility and muscle mass and I think that S&C is the best way to counter a loss of strength or flexibility.
But how do we know what to do? Prescription is crucial, there’s no point in going doing a load of bench presses or barbell curls unless the aim is to look good on the beach this summer. I knew that my back was the problem and very specifically the nerves where I had the operation but I didn’t know how to fix it. So I went to the most expert person I could find to firstly diagnose the exact problem and then prescribe the correct route to fix it. I went to the Santry Sports Clinic and saw Eamon O’ Reilly who we had dealt with before and Eamon saw me once and gave me a very specific S&C program to do with John Belton of No.17 PT during my weekly gym session with him and some “nerve flossing” exercises to do daily myself at home.
I have also worked with Cillian Moffat who is the Triathlete Physio. Cillian is excellent for triathletes because he not only knows the physiotherapist stuff, he’s also very expert on S&C and understands the needs of us multi sports athletes.
Once I had the plan from Eamon I set to work with John B and over the following 6 weeks he progressed the exercises. Each time I got to a stage that I was comfortably able for them he would add a new level of difficulty. The work is all really specific to my weaknesses and needs and as such should help for a couple of reasons.
- I’m much less likely to break down in training as I’m highlighting the weakest areas and strengthening them before they fail.
- I’m able to train more consistently as I’m not training around niggly injuries.
- The weak areas that would normally break down on race day, for me that’s hip flexors and lower back are now going to be much stronger so the hope is that I should slow down much less and much later and in my experience Ironman isn’t really about going fast it’s more about who slows down the least and the latest.
I think the primary function of S&C for Ironman is to strengthen the areas that are likely to be performance limiters. It’s not to make you strong for swimming, biking or running. The strength work for each sport is best done during each sport, for example; paddle work for swimming, seated big gear climbing on the bike or running hills. Doing swimming, biking and running is the best way to get strong at swimming, biking and running. Bench, shoulder or leg presses should be left to the weight lifters and body builders or those who are happy to just look fast.
If you don’t know what strength work you then before you hit the gym I think the best thing is to work with a strength and conditioning coach who understands the specific requirements, or have a triathlon specific physiotherapist do a strength assessment and write a program for you based on your particular needs. I think time is too short for most of us to waste doing gym or strength work that wont have any benefit to us either in training or racing.
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