Swim, Bike, Run, Eat, Sleep, and Repeat: That is the mantra of many, if not most, triathletes, right? But is there something missing from this formula? Yes, and by adding this “F” factor, you will be able to swim, bike, and run longer, faster, and without those nagging pains that years of this repetition has given you. The “F” factor is Functional Strength Training. So, how does this type of training fit into the weekly regimen of a triathlete? Why should all triathletes and athletes in general, add it to their mantra? These questions and more will be answered and we investigate the “F” factor.
Functional Training: Ask any exercise professional and he/she will tell you what their definition is, each one more elaborate and confusing than the last. Simply put, functional training is exercise designed to improve activities of daily living. Are you the kind of person who sits at a desk all day, never exercises, and thinks unloading the groceries is hard work.? The chances are, if you’re reading this article, that’s not you. For active individuals, and more specifically, triathletes, functional exercises can really benefit not only your daily living activities, like unloading the groceries, but also increase flexibility, decrease pain, and prepare you to be a faster, stronger, more efficient racer.
For most triathletes time is of the essence, so a day in your life might look a little like this: Wake up at 5am. At 5:05 you jump right on the bike until 5:55.You transition to a run until exactly 6:28 and are in the shower by 6:30. You grab whatever leftover pastry is on the counter for breakfast, sit through meetings all day, and at 6pm you drive to the pool. You arrive at 6:18 and are busting out hard 50’s by 6:20. At 7:25 you’re done with your last set and by 7:30 you’re back in the car driving home. By the time you get home, your body is exhausted, feet hurt, quads sore, back on fire, and the only thing there to eat is leftover spaghetti and one lonely meatball. Sound familiar?
Putting the nutrition aside (that’s in the next article), by adding a few dynamic warm-up, strength, plyometrics, core, and flexibility exercises to your routine that desk job and drive home will be more comfortable, not to mention the improved performance you’ll see, even at 5:05am. A study from the University Of Nebraska School Of Health said that “results indicate that anaerobic power is significantly related to distance running performance and may explain a meaningful percentage of variability in 10-km run time. Therefore, it may be beneficial for distance runners to supplement aerobic training with some power and speed development such as plyometrics and sprinting.”
First, let’s discuss the warm-up. As you probably know, it’s never a good idea to go straight into a hard physical activity without a warm-up of some kind. The Q-10 rules states that for every 1 degree Celsius your body temperature increases, enzymatic activity increases by 10%. These enzymes increase blood flow to the working muscles and improve the pliability of the connective tissue. A few, very simple, body weight exercises are the first part of the “F” factor. March forward with tall posture, then change that to a knee hug, by actively pulling your knee into your chest as you walk forward. Next, try a traveling lunge, keeping your front knee over your ankle and reach both arms up to help stretch your lats and hip flexors. Lastly, jog 10 yards with high knees and then 10 yards with heels up to your backside. In as little as 5 minutes, your blood with be flowing, your muscles will be oxygenated and tissue’s lubricated.
If you are the type of athlete who “doesn’t have time for strength training”, not only are you setting yourself up for an injury, but let’s face it….yes you do! A 2007 study from the University of New Zealand found that “high-intensity training may improve performance but the combination of high-intensity training and explosive resistance training in the competitive phase is likely to produce greater gains in trained cyclists than high intensity cycling alone.” Twice a week for about 30 minutes is all the time it takes to maintain strength and see benefits from functional training. After a dynamic warm-up, putting together a few full body, low weight, and high repetition strength and plyometric exercises is a great way to increase cardiovascular endurance as well as improve how your body moves as a unit. Why would you sit on a bench and do a bicep curl when you could stand on one foot and alternate the curls, or perform a full body squat and stand up into an overhead dumbbell press? Pick a few more exercises like these, put them together in groups of three or more, and you will have yourself a functional circuit. By doing 12-20 repetitions of these with 30-45sec rest after the last exercise, you will not only increase your muscular endurance, but will also be improving your lactate buffering system to help you finish a race with a strong kick.
Core training goes hand-in-hand with the functional exercises. Your core, or all of your body not including your appendages, must be strong in order to support your movements while you are swimming, riding, running, and yes, even unloading those groceries. If you have weakness in the center of your body, you will be drawing energy from other places, making movements more challenging when they don’t need to be. Think about it: imagine if you were trying to shoot a canon from a canoe (I know, just go with me on this one). If you’re in the canoe and the cannon goes off, you and the canoe will be shot backwards across the lake, right? Now imagine that you’re shooting a canon off a solid block of concrete. Nothing moves, right? So if your core is strong you will be able to accelerate, or shoot off the canon, in the direction you want, not backwards into the reeds somewhere! By adding 5-10 minutes of exercises to strengthen your core (including shoulder joints, abs, glutes and hips) you will help to create a more balanced, stable environment where no energy will be lost. Scapula/abdominal/gluteus activating exercises such as planks, glute bridges, straight leg lifts, and pushups can be done in 1-2 sets of 10-20 repetitions 2-3 times per week. With this small investment of time, you will see a decline in back pain, improved posture, and an overall improvement in performance.
Lastly, static stretching should be an integral part of the triathlete’s mantra. After your workout or training session is done, before you hop back in the car for the commute home, take five minutes to statically stretch (without movement) those major muscle groups that you just worked. Try to hold each stretch for 30-45 seconds. This gives the muscle time to adjust to the length and after 45 seconds, no added benefit has really been seen. You will feel better and chances are when you wake up tomorrow morning for your 5am bike ride, you won’t be as sore.
So, now that you’ve been introduced to the “F” factor let’s rewind that day in the life and see what’s changed: 5am wake up, 5:05 dynamic stretching, 5:10 on the bike, 5:55 full body strength circuit completed three times, 6:20 full body static stretching, 6:30 in the shower….work, meeting, lunch, call home, drive the pool, 6:18 arrive at the pool, 6:25 finish a few core activating/dynamic stretches and in the pool, 7:25 out of the pool stretching back, quads, and shoulders. 7:30 drive home. You are feeling refreshed, tired but invigorated, loose and ready to go home with enough energy to cook a healthy meal. So it looks like there’s a new triathlete mantra: Swim, Bike, Run, “F” Factor (as in functionally training my entire body to perform better), Eat, Sleep, and Repeat!