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December 14, 2010 | Triathlon Training Blog

Functional Training for Triathletes

‘Tis is the season for Holiday treats, family time, and strength-training.

Fitness professionals have long known that helping clients to improve balance, stability, and movement efficiency isn’t about heavy lifting, but about training functionality of the total body.

Now leading cyclists, triathletes and other endurance athletes are reaping the benefits of functional training to help strengthen weak links, prevent injuries, and raise their performance.

The ACE Integrated Fitness Training™ (ACE IFT™) Model, discussed in more detail in the 4th edition of the ACE Personal Trainer manual, is designed to help you develop safe programming to achieve all goals above. This article provides a brief overview on  functional programming to help you design your own basic strength-training program this winter.

First of all, what defines joint stability and mobility, and why are they important?

Joint stability is defined as the ability to maintain or control joint movement, which is critical to injury prevention. Mobility is defined as the range of uninhibited movement around a joint or body segment. Naturally, there is a synergistic relationship between mobility and stability. The better the relationship between the two, the better the joints and muscles work together.

For example, while the lumbar spine demonstrates some mobility, it is generally stable. While the foot should be stable to provide a solid platform against ground forces, the ankle needs to be mobile to help us push off the ground. In very basic terms, the ankle, hip, upper back and shoulder joint favor mobility as these joints are still stable; the foot, knee, lower back and scapula favor stability. 

The IFT model looks at functional movement and resistance training in four progressive stages building upon each phase:

Stability and Mobility; Movement; Load; Performance

Phase I: Mobility and Stability Training

This first phase looks at proper posture and core function and aims to build muscular endurance, which is key for triathletes.  A strong core is also critical for running, swimming, and biking, because the torso is responsible for stable transfer of forces and movements between the upper and lower extremities. A well-conditioned core will also reduce incidences of low-back problems.

An ACE-certified Personal Trainer can help you assess core activation to see if there are weaknesses. The following exercises however, are a great first step: Glute bridge (12 reps; 2-3 sets); bird dog (12 reps; 2-3 sets); plank (hold 15 sec.; 2-3 sets); side plank (5 sec. hold; 2-3 sets). Great stretching exercises in this phase include a calf stretch (hold for 30 sec.); hip flexor stretch (hold for 30 sec.); hip rotators (hold for 30 sec.).  

You should be able to perform these specified exercises, sets, and repetitions above, before moving onto the second phase. Be prepared to spend 2-6 weeks in this phase performing exercises 2-3 times a week.





Phase II: Movement Training

Human movement can essentially be broken down into five primary movements that encompass all activities of daily living:

  • Bend and lift (squatting)
  • Single-leg movements (e.g., single-leg stance and lunging)
  • Pushing movements (primarily in the vertical and horizontal planes)
  • Pulling and pushing movements (primarily in the vertical and horizontal planes)
  • Rotational (spiral) movements

The idea in this phase is to train the five movement patterns using body weight as resistance, gradually increasing lever lengths, such as bent arm to straight arm, to increase exercise intensity.

The following exercises are some examples of how to train for more efficient movements: Hip hinges (12 reps; 2-3 sets); Forward lunges with arm drivers (10 reps; 2-3 sets); bodyweight squats (12 reps; 2-3 sets); standing row (12 reps; 2-3 sets); push-ups (8-10 reps; 2-3 sets).

Note: Rotational exercises represent the last of the primary movements and are perhaps the most complex movements. Depending on your ability and fitness level, you want to spend 2-6 weeks in this training phase.

Phase III: Load Training

Once you are able to effectively perform movements on a stable surface on the ground, including single-leg movements, the next step would be to introduce added resistance, such as medicine balls, cables or bands that increase the challenge during stabilization, core function, and balance, the latter of which is especially key for biking.

The following exercises are an example of load training that would benefit triathletes: Stability ball knee tucks (12 reps; 3-4 set); Barbell deadlift (8 reps; 3-4 sets); Lateral lunges with medicine ball (8 reps; 3-4 sets); stability ball glute bridges (12 reps; 3-4 sets). 

Phase IV: Performance Training

Performance training is the last phase of functional movement and resistance training, because it is truly reserved for athletes with performance goals. The benefits of performance training are multi-fold: with a primary focus on improving power, speed, agility, and quickness. It also improves our ability to buffer lactic acid, which in turn, helps with delaying fatigue (which is especially critical for long distance athletes) while enhancing recovery. It also helps with muscular development, neural adaptations and increased force production.

Exercises of power training include squat jumps, slams (slamming a ball against the wall via an overhead movement); jumping cones; and kettlebell swings. 

Timing is critical here: Triathletes should make this type of training a primary focus in the off-season. This will allow for maximum gains in functional movement, strength and power that can be transitioned to sport-specific training as the season approaches.  


By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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