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Strength and mobility training for triathletes: An interview with coach Krista Everson

Strength coach Krista Everson
Strength coach Krista Everson

— By Michael Liberzon

How often have you been told you should incorporate strength and mobility work into your triathlon training routine? It’s one area of training that multisport athletes often choose to avoid, but that will provide major benefits in the short- and long term if you stick to it. We spoke to a strength specialist who has lots of experience working with multisport athletes to ask her about the best ways to include strength work in your week without getting overwhelmed.

Krista has been a strength coach at Toronto’s X3 Training Lab for almost a year and has a four-year background of instructing functional fitness at one of Toronto’s premier CrossFit gyms. During Krista’s coaching career, she has worked with all types of endurance athletes looking to build strength, power and mobility.

Everson's athletes strength training at X3 Training Lab in Toronto
Everson’s athletes strength training at X3 Training Lab’s kettle bell studio in Toronto

What are the most common injuries and limitations you see in  endurance athletes and how can strength and mobility training help address them?

The most common injuries I see tend to be shoulder and lower back issues. Limitations include lack of muscular engagement in glutes and restricted mobility in shoulders and hips.

I address injuries and limitations by focusing on improving range of motion and mobility. That’s why all of our strength sessions include substantial mobility practice. The duration devoted to mobility changes according to the training macro phase but typically comprises 20 to 30 minutes of each hour-long session.

I will also refer clients to a trusted group of physical therapists and chiropractors when injuries fall outside of my scope of practice.

Triathletes are a relatively new cohort for you. What tools and techniques do you use most when working with us?

I like to keep things simple. Basic movements under load – such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead work, combined with muscular engagement work with kettle bells are most effective. Training these compound movements translates well into performance gains in the pool, on the bike, and on the run.

Why should triathletes make time in their schedules for strength training?

Triathlon training is truly a balancing act. With the volume of endurance training that a triathlete must perform to do well in the sport, it takes some serious schedule-juggling to add strength training. I feel that in the long run, strength and mobility work can be extremely beneficial!

The obvious benefit is a stronger athlete. This translates directly into better performance on race day. My focus on mobility and addressing limitations helps to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury common to this community.

What are the particular muscle groups that triathletes could benefit from in strength training and how can neglecting these areas diminish your ultimate performance in the sport?

The muscular demands of swimming, cycling, and running are diverse. The swim obviously places greater demands on the upper-body. Important muscle groups in the pool include lats, shoulders, pectorals and triceps. Cycling relies heavily on quads and glutes. Proper running technique will utilize pretty much every muscle in the lower body. I pay special attention to muscles in the lower leg where many of the running-specific injuries occur.

Neglecting strength training means two things. The first is submaximal performance. The second, and probably most important, is the elevated risk for muscle or tendon injury. Strength work is terrific at making those force-generating and connective tissues more robust and resilient. As we all know, an injury keeps us from training, and that has a substantial negative impact on performance.

For a triathlete interested in starting out with strength training, where should they begin and what’s the minimum commitment to see results?

A consultation with a strength coach specializing in work with endurance athletes is a great start. This conversation should include goals and any current injuries or limitations. A movement assessment comes next. Here, the coach would evaluate existing movement patterns and come up with a plan of action to remedy existing issues.

Following an assessment is a structured, periodized training program. Weekly training frequency should vary with the training phase. During this time – as most triathletes are in their off season – I like to see people at least three times each week. If that isn’t possible, and I’m seeing them less frequently, I prescribe programming that they are asked to do on their own.

Some triathletes worry about getting too “big” from strength training. Should this be a legitimate concern for endurance athletes?

Weight gain from strength training is a common misconception. While hypertrophy (muscle growth) is one possible consequence of strength work, when coaching endurance athletes, I manage training load and rep count to avoid it. Nutrition factors actually play a more significant role in mass gain than does strength training. Specifically, a large increase in overall caloric intake is necessary for significant gains in muscle mass.

TMC contributor Michael Liberzon is an NCCP-trained triathlon coach, certified personal trainer, kettlebell instructor and owner of the X3 Training Lab. His degree in mechanical engineering supports his evidence-based approach to coaching.