If you are looking to add power to your race, now is the time to start working out differently.

Here’s how. Words: Michele Beltramo Images: Rosie Hallam.

As well as keeping on top of your regular bike, run and swim cardio workouts during the winter, your racing form can be transformed by two good sessions of strength training a week.

But don’t fall into the trap of using traditional resistance machines as you will not achieve the maximum results you’re looking for. When it comes to strength exercises, your aim is to be light and explosive. The best way to achieve this is to focus on complex training, which involves a mix of good resistance exercises followed by a matched plyometric exercise (different types of jumps using your body weight).

Studies have shown that complex training is the best way to get faster, even in endurance events. The rationale is that resistance work gets the central nervous system into action, while the fast muscle fibres (type 2B) are then able to fully activate for the explosive plyometric movements (jumps).

This type of training is beneficial to you on race day because it will add power to your legs and arms when required, which means you can step up your speed in all three areas of triathlon. While we train our fatigue-resistant muscles fibres (type 1) with long steady efforts, such as long easy runs, there will be situations when the explosive or fast component of your muscles will come into play.

So whatever your race goal or your ability, complex training will help you achieve faster times by helping your muscles become more explosive and efficient.

How to change your training

To achieve top results you will be training not only your legs, but your whole body by using sets of resistance and plyometric exercises that complement each other. A typical complex training session alternates a heavy-load exercise to a natural load one (body-weight load only).

For example, you may start with a back squat using a loaded barbell and then after a short rest you will move into box or vertical jumps. For the upper body you would use the bench press and then do plyometric press-ups immediately afterwards.

These upper body workouts will add power to your swim. According to experts, strength gained through complex training is up to three times more effective than traditional training methods. To support this, a team of researchers asked 11 experienced male cyclists to do a timed ride of 20km on two different occasions.

One of the timed rides started 15 minutes after the cyclists had done four sets of leg presses with a weight at which they could manage five reps. The athletes rested for five minutes between sets. The cyclists finished the ride in a quicker time after doing the leg press sets.

On average they completed the 20km bike session in 28 minutes without the leg press sets and in 26.6 minutes after the leg press sets. But don’t worry, you don’t need to whip a barbell out of your car just before your race to benefit from complex training.

Your muscles will be ready to switch on after regular sessions.

The moves – Upper body

Bench presses

You will need a 15-20kg bar with plates (adjust weight depending on your ability). Ensure movements are faster as you lift and slower on the way down. Always use a spotter.

bench press

Plyometric press-ups

Only do this one if you are confident with a regular press-up. Start in a press-up position, and in one explosive move, push up and then away from the ground as quickly as possible. Immediately land on your hands to perform the next plyometric press-up.

Try with only three to four to start with. You might even be able to clap your hands when in air off the floor!

press up

As an alternative throw a 3-5kg medicine ball against a wall. Stand about one metre away from the wall and catch the rebound. You can also work in a pair by throwing a 1kg medicine ball between you, throwing and catching the ball at chest height. This should be done for about 20-30 seconds.

Swim session

Do this session on a different day to focus on your speed. Break down your distance (500-1000m depending on ability) into 100m segments with rest. Push to level 8-9 for the hard sessions and keep to 6-7 for easy. Remember to include three minute rests between each 100m.

Lower Body –  Back squat

Rest a 15 or 20kg bar across your shoulders (adjust the weight for your ability), bend your knees while keeping your back flat. Squat down until your hips are level to your knees, and keep your knees and feet pointing slightly outwards.

Then stand up faster than the time taken to squat down. Lock your knees. For safety, always ask a friend to assist by standing behind your back.

back squat

Vertical Jumps

Start in a semi-squat position and jump high on the spot using the energy of the legs, bringing your arms up to help reach maximum height. Perform three to five consecutive jumps without stopping. As an alternative, try box jumps. Choose a box with a comfortable height (about 30-70cm) that you can jump onto, landing with both feet in a semi-squat position.

If you land with your bottom too far down it means the box is too high. Do six to eight jumps with 10 seconds rest between each one.

vertical jump2

The Rules

Each cycle has a three-minute rest between sets apart from sets four and five, which has a 10-minute rest. Make sure you have another rest of 10 minutes after you complete all five sets (four sets for upper body).

During the winter you can build up to four cycles on each training day. During the racing periods (usually summer), do no more than two cycles each training day.

Ensure you have no complex sessions in the 10 days before you race and make sure you don’t do a heavy or intensive session the day before or after your complex session. Instead choose a low intensity session using a different area of your body.

For example, after a lower body complex session, you might do a long but easy swim. How much you should lift is expressed in kilograms as a percentage of your one maximum lift. So if you can squat 50kg only once then 50kg is your 1RM.

A 50 percent effort will be 25kg lift. Easy lifts are those where your effort on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the hardest) is about 6-7. Hard lifts are those with an effort of around 8-9. Two full cycles will take you between 70 and 90 minutes including all your rest times detailed above. Always remember to warm up first.


Michele Beltramo is a strength and conditioning trainer at Lee Valley National Athletics Centre For more information visit beltramofitness.com