Training for an Ironman presents athletes with particular challenges. You need to train and improve in not one, but three disciplines. That means you need to be smart about your training regime and do it right so you reduce the risk of injury (and improve your chances of success).
Why Functional Strength Training? For optimal performance in any Ironman, you want to be strong, have great range of motion and be able to perform over a sustained distance with great efficiency. Let’s take a look at how this training method can help you prepare for one of the toughest physical challenges you will ever face:
Functional Strength Training In the Water
Let’s have a look at how functional strength impacts your swim leg, for example. A tight thoracic region (the muscles around your rib cage) will reduce your swim stroke length. You’ll be leaving minutes out on the water if you don’t have the right balance of strength and range of motion. It’s harder to move tight muscles and that’s not helpful in an Ironman race. The key to success is to be very efficient in your energy expenditure. That’s how, ultimately, you shave minutes off your time. A huge bonus here is breathing will be much more efficient as no tight muscles will restrict your breath.
Add these exercises into your training regime to improve functional strength and Ironman performance.
Functional Strength Training On Your Bike
When it comes to cycling, you want strong quads (the large, strong muscles on the front of your thighs). Yes, you want the power of those large leg muscles pumping away and driving you forward as fast as possible, but you also want to maintain an optimally aerodynamic position on the bike. You need to be able to push those pedals with strength and confidence, but you want to do it without gritting your teeth and feeling like every rotation is a struggle. And, you need to maintain your rhythm and momentum for 90 km (55 miles) or 180 km (112) miles.
Functional strength training to support the cycling phase includes squats and single leg lunges. But don’t forget to maintain your full range of motion. And, yes, I hear you – it’s hard to find that sweet spot when it comes to balancing strength, flexibility and endurance. If you don’t know where to start when it comes to integrating strength training into your program (and, trust me, it’s worth it when it comes to both improving your performance and decreasing your risk of injury), have a look at this excellent primer from Complete Human Performance.
The end goal is to use your strength and range of motion to support the endurance you need not only to cycle the distance but then to be able to hop off your bike and have enough life left in your hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thighs) to survive the run leg!
Functional Strength Training On Foot
At this point in the race you are either faced with a 21km (13 miles) or 42km (26 miles) run leg. This is when you’ll be glad you’ve included some work under heavy loads in your leg training. But it’s just as important to include some lighter weights in time under tension (known as T. U. T. training). T. U. T. training focuses on the amount of time the muscle is under load, rather than the number of reps and sets. This article has a pretty good description of what T. U. T. training is all about. The end result is what’s important here – in this type of training you spend a longer time in ‘the burn’ which will help you ‘flatten out the course’ when it comes time for your run leg.
Yes, legs are obviously essential during both bike and run portions of the race, but just as important is your core. It’s tough to hold it all together (on many levels!) as you enter the final stages of an Ironman, and if you need your core anywhere, it will be in that last 30% of the run leg. Lots of people drop out (or start walking) towards the end because of core problems. While you will certainly reap benefits but adding some plank time into your training plan, what is super effective is activating the core and concentrating on correct breathing when doing weighted squats and lunges. In many cases, just doing these exercises correctly (with an engaged core and correct breathing) makes all the difference in the final stretch and can help get you over the finish line looking strong.
CrossFit and Ironman – A Match Made in Heaven
A good, well-planned CrossFit training program will cover all the bases when it comes to incorporating strength training into your Ironman race preparation. I love this story of Revie Jane Schulz of CrossFit Babes and how she has integrated a Crossfit training program into her Ironman preparations.
Be Smart About Recovery !
Just as important as your training regime, of course, is the way you incorporate adequate recovery. Despite how important it is to get this right, recovery is still misunderstood. Not enough emphasis is put on recovery immediately after your workout. And no, I don’t mean the speed at which you can go and chug down a protein shake. Think about it. You’ve just stressed both your body and your mind. Everything has shifted over to the sympathetic side of your nervous system and in order to begin to recover you need to get back over to the parasympathetic side. The faster you get there, the better because that’s when the process of recovery can begin very quickly.
Yes, you’ll hear lots of people talking about the ‘anabolic window’ of opportunity (which is where you also tend to hear about immediately downing that protein shake). The fact is, you are far better off to first bring both body and mind back to a calm, relaxed state before beginning the refuelling process. Once that is done, now you can think about nutrition, whether that be a recovery meal or a full meal protein smoothie.
Here’s a simple technique that will get that recovery process started. Follow this routine and I promise you’ll soon be ready to start another workout.
- Set a timer on your phone for 8 minutes. Lie on your back. Close your eyes.
- Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
- Slow your inhale and exhale, focusing on reducing the volume of sound created by your breath. The slower you breathe, the lower the sound, the calmer you’ll be. At first, because you’ll be in a state of oxygen debt, you will likely feel uneasy. Persevere and steady your breath, slowing it down..
Focus on making each exhale longer than the inhale and soon things will ease up and feel less anxious. By the end of the 8 minutes you’ll be calm and focused. Endorphins will be flooding your system and you’ll leave the gym feeling as if you’ve just done a session of yoga. Now you can grab that nutritious meal or that protein shake. Your body will be much better prepared to handle the incoming nutrition and you’ll be well on your way to optimizing your recovery.
Remember an optimal training for a Triathlon or Ironman distances, will have a strength program included and will improve your range of motion at the same time.
Thank you to the team at Crossfit Amoskeag, they are a great resource and world class training centre you’ll want to check out.
At Life Grip, we want to support you as you strive for optimal fitness and health. Our Grass-fed Whey Protein Powder is made with the cleanest available, natural ingredients produced here in Australia. When you do get around to that protein shake, it makes sense if you eat a clean diet, your supplements need to be clean also.