Strength training is such an important part of improving your performance in endurance sports, yet is often overlooked. Here’s how building strength can enhance your swimming and cycling – and keep you injury free.
Insanity, so they say, is doing the same thing day in and day out and expecting different results. So if you want to get better and more confident swimming or cycling, you can’t keep turning up to the lido to do the same 20 lengths or cycle the same route and expect to get faster or stronger.
If you got into wild swimming this summer or cycling has become your go-to form of exercise, it should come as no surprise to learn that in order to be a better swimmer and a faster cyclist, there’s more to it than just time in the pool and on the bike.
The misconception that racking up more miles delivers improved fitness and performance is deep rooted. But if you’re increasing your swimming and cycling mileage and tempo – and you want to stay injury free – you need to think about other ways to strengthen your body. That means following some sort of strength programme with exercises that improve not just your strength, but your flexibility, power, agility and co-ordination, too.
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I know first hand how hard it can be to juggle training for more than one discipline – this summer I’ve been training for my first ever 70.3 IronMan (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run), which means spending anything from seven to 13 hours training every week. And a large chunk of that time is being spent on strength and conditioning.
It’s no secret that triathlon training can take a toll on the body, but strength training can help improve muscle strength, endurance and lean muscle mass while also preventing injury and, ultimately, keep you doing what you love for longer.
Why is strength training important for cycling and swimming?
“Specific strength training exercises for swimmers and cyclists have a number of benefits from mobility, preventing injury and boosting recovery to improving technique and endurance,” says personal trainer Laura Lane. “Swimming and cycling recruit different muscles – so choosing specific exercises that target the primary muscles for swimming and cycling respectively will only aid progress and improve performance.”
A general workout in the gym may make you fit, she says, but it won’t necessarily make you a better swimmer or cyclist. Swimming and cycling place demands on specific muscles, so specific strength exercises need to be considered – “resulting in a greater pace, power output and increased endurance (being able to ride or swim for longer at a certain pace),” she adds.
Whether you’re training for an IronMan, planning a cycling holiday or simply want to swim in the local lido without feeling exhausted, all endurance athletes can benefit from regular resistance training. Here are some specific exercises to include in your strength programme.
3 of the best strength training exercises for swimmers
“Squats are a fantastic strength exercise for swimmers due to the power needed in the legs when pushing off the block and power needed when kicking,” says Lucy Freeman, PT, barre and spin instructor at the newly opened fitness studio Sweat Society.
“Squats can be performed both with body weight or by adding weight, such as a barbell, and will help strengthen the full body, targeting the glutes, core and upper body muscles.”
How to do a barbell squat:
- Start with your feet in parallel or with a slight turn out shoulder distance apart underneath the barbell.
- Use the grips on the bar to find an even hand position either side of your shoulders.
- Brace your abdominals and safely lift the barbell onto your traps.
- Perform the classic squat movement sending your glutes back behind you focusing on the knees tracking in alignment over the toes.
- Push through the feet and squeeze the glutes to stand.
- This can be performed with many tempos, start with an even tempo of two counts down two counts up.
“Dumbbell reverse fly works the rhomboid muscles in the upper back and shoulders. This exercise is fantastic for swimmers to increase strength in the back, shoulders and arms to help execute swimming strokes with power,” says Freeman.
How to do reverse fly:
- Start this exercise without weights first. To perform this exercise, start with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Hinge through the hips sending the glutes behind you with the chest forward.
- Bend the knees brace the abdominals and lift from the elbows engaging the back and find a pinch in the shoulder blades.
- Keep a slight bend in the arm and a neutral spine.
“This exercise is a fantastic exercise for swimmers to execute power,” says Freeman. “The start can be one of the most important parts of a swimmers race so adding an exercise that is explosive can complement your training.”
How to do a broad jump:
- Stand with the feet shoulder width apart.
- Execute the hinge motion sending your hips and arms back behind you and explosively jump up and forwards into air off the toes, creating distance swinging your arms forwards.
- Land in a squat position.
The best strength training exercises for cyclists
“Dumbell lunges are great for increasing leg strength,” says Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates, who works with cyclists at her practice. “They load the muscles of the legs and make them work together to control the hip, knee, and ankle as well as manage ground reaction force and gravity so working all the leg muscles. As a cyclist, you need good leg strength to get power on the bike to convert this to increased speed.”
How to do a dumbbell lunge:
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart, one dumbbell in each hand.
- Keep a long neutral spine, step forwards with the right leg and bend both legs to a 90 degree angle.
- Keep the chest lifted. Engage the glutes and abdominals, drive through the front foot and step back to your starting position.
Reps: 8-10 on each leg
“Although the leg muscles are the primary movers in cycling, cyclists shouldn’t disregard the importance of a strong core and upper body to support themselves both on and off the bike,” says Lane. “The renegade row (a personal favourite of mine) has great benefits for cyclists to help build stability and strength in the upper body (especially the Rhomboid – upper back) and the core, including the obliques.
“The movement in a renegade row will also help improve a cyclist’s ability to transfer the power they generate from pulling on the bike bars into their legs to drive the pedals, especially in those hill climbs!”
How to do a renegade row:
- Opt for light dumbbell weights for this exercise.
- Start in a press-up position with a grip on the weights underneath the shoulders and feet hip distance apart or wider.
- Brace the abdominals and row the right arm keeping the elbow tracking past the ribcage on the way up.
- Slowing come back down to the press up position.
- Remember to keep the hips still as you row the arms.
“Deadlifts are a fantastic strength exercise for most athletes,” says O’Leary. “The particular importance for cyclists is that it works the back of the leg – the hamstrings and the glutes which are often less strong compared to the quads in cyclists. For optimum performance, you want to use the whole push/pull cycle of the pedal rotation. Deadlifts help you to have the strength in these muscles to be able to do this.
“It is also a good idea to do the single leg version of this exercise as it helps you to have a good balance between each leg to make sure you are not favouring one side,” she adds.
How to do a deadlift:
- Stand with feet shoulder distance apart, toes underneath the barbell.
- Hinge and squat down grabbing the barbell with an over hand grip.
- Engage your latissimus dorsi, glutes and abdominal muscles, pull your shoulders back and lift the barbell keeping it close to your shins and look straight ahead.
- Safely squat back down placing the barbell back on the ground.
Reps: 6-8 (depending on weight choice)
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