Strength training is an essential component of a well-rounded triathlon or run training program, but for busy athletes, it can be tricky to fit it into your program without jeopardizing your other workouts. Emma Vaillancourt, a registered physiotherapist and running coach in Thunder Bay, Ont., explains how to effectively incorporate strength training into your running or triathlon routine to maximize gains and minimize burnout.
Should you strength train before or after running (or biking or swimming)?
Vaillancourt explains that the order of strength training and other workouts depends on your goals and where you’re at in your racing season. During the off-season, when swim, bike and run training is less of a priority, you may choose to strength train first. In contrast, during the in-season, when your focus is on building volume or intensity in the other sports, those should usually come first.
If you plan to do strength training on days when you have intervals or speedwork, it’s generally better to do strength work after your harder effort. This helps avoid fatigue and a possible negative impact on your workout. Vaillancourt also notes that, for example, running immediately before lifting can moderately impair lower-body strength gains.
“If your goal is to improve strength, lift before the run,” she says. “If you aim to enhance endurance adaptations like aerobic capacity, the order doesn’t matter as much.”
Is it better to leave space sessions or can you do them back-to-back?
“It is recommended to allow at least three hours after high-intensity running before engaging in strength training,” says Vaillancourt. “During this recovery window, it’s important to refuel with a high-carb and protein meal to replenish your energy stores.”
Vaillancourt recommends at least 24 hours’ recovery after strength training before engaging in high-intensity efforts, but if you’re pairing strength training with easy workouts, you can reduce the time between them.
Of course, most of us can’t plan our day around our strength training and training plans, so if scheduling becomes an issue, doing one activity right after the other is still beneficial.
“Something is often better than nothing!” says Vaillancourt.
Alternatively, she suggests splitting your strength training into smaller blocks, focusing on shorter, more frequent sessions throughout your week. This approach causes less fatigue and can be more manageable for some runners and triathletes.
“The idea here would be to do 10 to 20 minutes of strength work (maybe two or three exercises) but more frequently in your week, compared to the traditional 30 to 60 minutes done two or three times per week,” she says.
How often should runners and triathletes strength train?
The frequency of strength training depends on several factors, including your experience level, the point in the season, and the time you can commit to training in a week.
In the off-season and early season, Vaillancourt recommends strength training two to three times a week, focusing on higher volumes of training.
“If you’re training for a single race, such as a half-marathon or marathon, you will likely want to drop down to one to two times per week as your mileage peaks,” she says. “As you get closer to your race and are entering your taper, you can drop to once a week for maintenance.”
The key is to find a strength training approach that works for you and fits into your schedule. Consistency is crucial, and even if you can’t follow the ideal strength training and running combinations, doing some form of strength training consistently is better than none at all.
“Ultimately, strength training is designed to support and complement your training, not take away from it,” says Vaillancourt. “So finding an approach to strength training that works best for you is key.”