Expert Richard Smith on how to stay injury free this season with strength and conditioning workouts
Consistency is the key to repeated success in triathlon, and the biggest threat to consistency is injury. Many athletes are happy to hammer their swim, bike and run sessions, while completely neglecting their key strength and conditioning work, which is vital to prevent injury. This workout will help you stay on top of your strength and conditioning (S&C), wherever you are.
Running and triathlon injuries tend to manifest themselves in the legs due to the continuous repetitive linear movements of cycling and running, combined with the impact forces associated with running.
However, the triggers for such injuries can often be a result of poor postures such as sitting slouched at your desk all day with your hamstrings shortened, or running with a lack of functional strength in your upper body.
Other more recent types of injury have come about through the shift towards mid- to forefoot running, and more extreme natural and barefoot running techniques, without the appropriate pre-conditioning of the muscular-tendon structures in the lower limb and foot.
Common triathlon and running complaints or injuries – such as iliotibial band (ITB) pain, runner’s knee, shin pain, calf strains and plantar fasciitis – are largely preventable if an athlete is prepared to incorporate regular strength and conditioning into their weekly schedule – and it doesn’t have to mean a long, boring trip to the gym or lots of expensive home fitness equipment.
The ‘Anywhere Run Strength Workout’ set out below can be incorporated effectively into your other training sessions, and can be done pretty much anywhere. It is designed from an injury prevention perspective that can contribute progressively towards performance enhancement by improving posture, improving and correcting muscle recruitment patterns and increasing functional strength, power and robustness.
1. Single leg ¼ squat:
This develops correct muscle recruitment, functionally strengthens and reduces the risk of hip and knee injuries
Standing on one leg (use touch support for balance initially), squeeze and engage the gluteal (bum) muscles of the supporting leg. Push your bodyweight backwards and, at the same time, bend the supporting knee into a semi-squat position. Work initially on using the correct technique, then build to 2-3 sets of 6 reps on each leg before increasing the number of reps.
- Engage your gluteals before starting to squat, so that you recruit the muscles in the correct way
- Focus on keeping your knee and hip aligned over your foot, trying not to allow your knee to bend in or out
- Make sure your supporting knee doesn’t push out over your foot
- Make sure that your bodyweight pushes backwards and that you maintain a tall back
2. Gluteal monster walks
Activates and strengthens the gluteal muscles functionally, improving hip stability and drive in running and reducing ITB pain
Place a mini-band around your knees (and ankles for increased resistance). Drop into a semi-squat position pushing outwards with the knees, which stretches the band and activates the gluteals. Take a small step sideways with one leg, increasing the stretch on the band, and then step the same distance with the other leg. Repeat this sideways walk over 5-10m and then step back the opposite way using the other leg as the lead leg. From the same starting position, take a small step forward with the right leg followed by a step with the left leg. Again, monster walk 5-10m forwards and back.
- Maintain a tall, straight back and good posture throughout
- Maintain the tension on the bands by squeezing your glutes and pushing out into the mini band
3. Step up and drive
Develops functional strength and power through the triple extension of the hip, knee and ankle used in running
Using a chair or bench fixed against a wall, place one foot up on the chair. Step powerfully upwards, vertically, using your opposite arm to help drive your leg up. Once you can step up successfully, continue to drive your knee into a high knee running posture, and hold and balance before stepping down. The final progression is a more powerful step up so your standing foot comes up off the bench, or switching legs mid-jump, landing and repeating. Build up to 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps and then progress.
- Your knee shouldn’t be bent beyond 90°
- Try to keep a tall back and good alignment
- Stabilise at the top of the step up and control your step down so the supporting leg is in good alignment
4. Power Calf Raises
Develops run-specific strength in the Achilles area, reducing the risk of injury
Standing on a step or stable block with one leg, and working through your full range, slowly lower into a straight leg calf stretch (use touch support for balance initially). Once in this position, powerfully drive up and extend onto your toes. Repeat until you lose form, and then repeat on the other leg, gradually building repetitions and sets.
- Keep your body stable and upright, without dropping your hip to the non-supporting leg.
- Control the downward movement and then be explosive in the upward movement, as you would apply force to the ground in running
5. Lunge and Reach Matrix
Develops eccentric strength in the hamstring and hip muscles, improving stability and muscle balance and reducing the risk of hamstring strains and tears
From a standing position, step into a forwards lunge, with your arms reaching out straight beyond your knees. Step back and repeat stepping out diagonally forwards, to the side and opening out the hips to the rear, each time stepping back in to your starting position. Once you have worked through each set of lunges on one leg, repeat the full set on the other leg. Build from three complete reps.
- Keep your back straight and make sure your knee doesn’t extend beyond your foot
- Start with slow movements and a short reach, and slowly increase speed and reach
- Those with tight hamstrings or poor hamstring conditioning should start with single direction lunges before trying this
Completing three conditioning sessions per week will deliver relatively quick and robust improvements in strength and injury prevention. However, a time-efficient approach is to incorporate your S&C into your daily training routines, as part of dynamic warm-ups. Glute activation and strengthening exercises prior to a run session will help muscle recruitment and will better transfer into your running mechanics.
Often our approach to S&C training is similar to the treatment approach in health care: wait until it’s broken or you’re ill, and then get fixed. You should view S&C as an essential part of a balanced, well-structured training plan – remember, consistency is the key – so view this as injury prevention (pre-hab) in performance enhancement training, rather than waiting for it to become rehab when you are injured.
Finally, the human body has amazing adaptation capabilities, so it is important to frequently change or modify your S&C programme in terms of variety of exercise, repetitions/sets and training loads, to reflect target strengths and weaknesses and training cycles.