Why endurance-only training is not enough to do well at Ironman races

Training, September 14, 2022

Ironman may be the ultimate test of endurance, but triathletes who neglect musculoskeletal strength, mechanical efficiency and mobility will never fulfill their true potential.

Ironman may be the ultimate test of endurance, but triathletes who neglect musculoskeletal strength, mechanical efficiency  and mobility will never fulfill their true potential.

For most triathletes, the benefits of strength training are outweighed by the fear of losing endurance and the ‘feel’ of the swim, bike and run. Unfortunately this thinking keeps many triathletes from engaging in a properly designed strength training program.

Many triathletes tend to have a traditional ‘endurance training’-based paradigm, focused on volume of training. It’s all about wearing a badge of honor for the number of hours spent running, cycling or swimming. Unfortunately this is a pretty flawed approach, not least because there is a mass of research showing that volume of training is one of the main causes of overtraining and injuries in the sport. Basically too many triathletes get to the start line if an Ironman tired *hormonally drained)!!

Triathletes have overemphasized the benefits of endurance-based training and underestimated the benefits of strength training. Triathletes will spend hours completing endurance sessions in the hope that they can squeeze a little bit of extra performance from their cardiovascular system, but are reluctant to spend just a couple of hours a week in the gym or working on skills that brings the REAL gain!

One heart, two lungs, lots of muscles!

Part of the reason for the above is that many triathletes have forgotten about the huge potential that the musculoskeletal system has to offer to performance and pay little  attention to the training benefits. Let’s not forget that the only reason your cardiovascular system is involved in the first place is because of the demand from your muscular system; your muscles don’t move because of cardiovascular demand – the demand on the cardiovascular system is elevated because of muscular demand!!

If the musculoskeletal system cannot handle the stress of thousands of repetitions (which is what happens when you are training for a triathlon) then you need to condition the musculoskeletal system first. In other words, you should train your body based on the movements it’s going to perform – not based on the cardiovascular system, which is an upside down method of training!

Strength training in the gym can make a real performance difference via a direct ‘transfer of training’ effect into the sport specific (swim, bike and run).

The fact is that for many triathletes, moving the body is the biggest problem – not their ability to transport oxygen! I’m currently working with a few athletes who have seen the light and are now benefiting from a full body rebuild! It'a a long term process so it can't be done in 3 months!. 

For years they’ve been focusing purely on improving their cardiovascular system but more often than not, they’ve broken down at some point during their season. Using a car analogy, they were trying to put a new engine in a beaten up old car with worn out chassis and suspension. A better approach is to set to work on improving the chassis and bodywork first and tinker with the engine later.

Shifting the mindset

Specially if you are an older athletes, the key is to ensure that the strength training sessions are quality focused (HEAVY!) and don’t have too much volume in them (2 to 3 sets of 8 reps to fatigue). That said, the risk of overtraining is much more likely to arise from hours and hours in the pool or on the road than a couple of 45-minute gym workouts!

Flexibility, corrective stretching and dynamic movement preparation should play a major role in every triathlete’s training. This is not to say that you need to adopt a ‘stretch everything’ mentality but you do need to recognize that the nature of the sport means you undoubtedly have to address some flexibility issues before you even think about working on developing strength. As we get older we get weaker and less flexible and if we don't address this problem we will only get slower and hurt!

Training the cardiovascular system alone and neglecting the musculoskeletal system and its contribution to performance is a big mistake that will inevitably lead to reduced performance. To improve performance we need to address not just the strength, but the flexibility and stability requirements too.

Have a great week!!!