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Physical Therapy for the Triathlete and Triathlon Performance

Written By Pro Physio on April 6, 2018

Physical Therapy: Helping Prepare Your Body for the Rigorous Demands of Triathlon


triathlon training physical therapy in Bozeman Montana

Triathlons are one of the ultimate endurance races an individual can participate in. While competing in any form of a triathlon you are not only testing your body’s maximum performance at a global level, but are also challenging your mind and it’s will power to push you forward in the race. In this blog we are going to address the different types of triathlons you can participate in, how to prevent overtraining, and how to reduce excessive energy expenditure while competing.


Types of Triathlons

For those of you that have not competed in a triathlon, there are four different types you can choose from. Each type of triathlon varies in the distances that you are required to complete for each leg of the race. The levels of difficulty begin with the Sprint race, and end with the most difficult being the Iron Man. Each of these races can fully test your endurance levels and it is always best to perform multiple Sprint or Olympic level triathlons before attempting a Half Iron or Iron Man race. The distances for each of the races is shown below with the Sprint race often having a slight variation in distance usually dependent on where it is held at and estimates can be seen below.


Swim Bike Run

Sprint: 0.5mi (750m) 12.4mi (20km) 3.1mi (5km)

Olympic: 0.93mi (1.5km) 24.8mi (40km) 6.2mi (10km)

Half Iron Man: 1.2mi (1.9km) 56mi (90km) 13.1mi (21.09km)

Full Iron Man: 2.4mi (3.8km) 112mi (180km) 26.2mi (42.19km)




How To Prevent Triathlon Overtraining

Due to the demands of a triathlon, participants are often confused with how much they should be training before the first competition and how much time of that training should to be devoted for each leg of the race. When preparing for any of the triathlon races the distance splits are always the same. You should always expect to swim for 20% of the race, bike for 50%, and run for 30%. These values are nice to know because they can help you properly prepare with a detailed training routine. If you are a beginner and are at an average American activity level, you should plan on spending 12 weeks prior to your first race properly training. Therefore, if you are spending 10 hours a week total training time, you should be devoting 2 hours for swimming, 5 hours for biking, and 3 hours for running. These times can then be spread out over the week however you like. For example, swimming for 30 minutes 4 times in the morning, biking 2 times for 90 minutes and 1 time for 2 hrs, and running for 45 minutes 4 days of the week. The variety of training you can choose for your workouts are endless, just try to incorporate the percentages spent for each event into your total training time and you are off to a great start. Remember, if you are starting from ground zero do not over push your body. As therapiusts we commonly manage injuries that are caused by overtraining from a deconditioned state. Take rest breaks as needed during your training and always make sure to stay adequately hydrated. Of utmost importance, make sure you’re getting proper amounts of sleep each night, ideally between 7-9 hrs. Your training will be demanding and difficult as our body performs its daily repairs while we are sleeping. So, if you are not sleeping properly, you can increase your risk of burnout or injury during you training period.


Preventing Excessive Energy Expenditure While Competing

Regardless of whether you are competing in your third Sprint race or attempting a Half Ironman for the first time, energy expenditure will be vital to your level of success. It’s common knowledge that swimming, biking, and running are exhausting events when performed on their own, but when performed back to back the participants begin to understand the meaning of “hitting the wall”. So how does one prevent hitting that wall or even decrease the multi-event’s energy zapping effects on performance during the race? The key here is energy expenditure. When simply standing still without moving our body is burning energy to keep proper posture and preventing us from collapsing to the floor. We don’t notice these small energy losses throughout a normal workday, but when competing in a triathlon lost energy from weak endurance muscles, improper mechanics, poor posture, or riding a bike that was not properly fit to your body, can be the difference between finishing in the top 25 or barely making it in to the top 100. This may not be a big deal for some of the weekend warriors, but if you want to perform at your highest level, you have to manage the smallest details when competing.

The swimming portion is the first leg of the race and can account for significant drops in energy levels if it is not performed properly with good swimming mechanics and body posture in mind. Training with a swimming coach and learning the basics for arm/leg strokes and breathing techniques can be a huge energy saver. Once you have learned the proper techniques of swimming make sure to continually practice what you have learned and start progressively increasing your workout whether it be from increasing the distance swam or decreasing the time it takes to reach a set distance. Remember when your body gets tired you will start to deviate from your good mechanics and posture. It is important to push yourself to the limits from time to time so you can see how your body tries to change when fatigued and make proper adjustments saving you vital energy stores before you are in your first race.


The second leg of a triathlon is the biking portion. This leg makes up the largest percentage of devoted training time and is a critical to an athlete’s success. Proper core and lower body strength training can have great effects on energy conservation during this leg of the race. Simply put, you are going to be utilizing your legs to propel the bike and your upper body/core to support yourself on the bike. Weaknesses in the upper body/core will force you to compensate into positions that may not be as aerodynamic, and also causing you to start activating compensatory muscles that should be resting, causing further energy losses. Proper fitting to the bike you are riding is another huge key to limiting unnecessary energy losses. If you are seated to low or high on your bike, you will likely be in a position that does not allow your quads, hamstrings, and glutes to work at maximum efficiency. This improper positioning forces your legs to work harder to maintain consistent speeds, and can exponentially increase the work load on your legs when climbing hills. The last thing you want are completely dead legs when you get off your bike and start the last leg of the triathlon the running portion. See image below for crossed syndrome of bikers indicating common weaknesses and overly tight muscles.

lower cross syndrome core physical therapy rehab bozeman


Finally, we have reached the third leg of the race. While the running portion of the triathlon may seem like the one aspect that is pretty straight forward, developing a proper running technique while training can help you save what little gas (energy) is left in the tank before the upcoming finish. A common problem with many runners is that they lack proper arm swing. An inability to utilize arm swing while running can actually decreases propulsion midstride, forcing more of the work load onto the legs and costing you energy. If you have been told you lack arm swing while running, or notice that your arms just flail around by your sides then you are training you will benefit from some arm specific training routines that are incorporated into your runs allowing you to begin using your arms properly. Check out this video for running tips to incorporate stride length, rate, and tips for proper arm swing. As mentioned in the video, running speed is accomplished by stride length X stride rate. Often runners increase their stride length when starting to fatigue, and this can lead to improper contact of the foot with the ground in relationship to your center of mass (COM). Ideally when your foot contacts the ground during the gait cycle it should be almost directly below your body/COM. When a runner begins to stride out the foot can make ground contact out in front body resulting in a slight jarring friction force that slightly slows down the runner. This will also often lead to increased knee, hip, and even low back pain since you are basically slightly hitting the brakes with each step and the resultant forces travel up your foot into your legs, hips, and back. A common fix for this problem is adjusting your step rate instead of increasing your stride length to maintain or increase your speed. Increasing stride rate while running can be difficult at first, but can significantly decrease unnecessary energy losses, and also decrease aches and pains along the way. If you feel that you are unable to maintain a fluid pattern while running, or are consistently experiencing knee or hip pain, a running gait analysis from a skilled professional could be well worth your time.


Final Triathlon Training Tips

A final helpful hint for upcoming triathletes is to make sure that as you progress in your training, you begin to perform bricks. A brick is when you are training for either the first or second leg of the race and you immediately transition into the second or third leg of the race. This will provide you with the opportunity to experience how your body will react to these transitions, enabling you find how to return to proper technique and posture as quickly as possible during the start of the next leg. Now you don’t have to perform a full biking workout if you have just completed a full swimming training session, but you should for example bike for at least 5-10 miles or run 1-3 miles to let yourself prepare for how you are going to adapt to the next task of the race.

We hope this blog helped answer some of the questions you may be having concerning triathalons, training techniques and how to conserve energy. If you are currently training for a triathlon and experiencing setbacks from aches and pains, the Bozeman Physical Therapy team at Pro Physio can definitely help you get back on track.

Check out the video above from local Bozeman Pro Triathlete Dylan Gillespie, and how he utilizes physical therapy to continue competing at the highest level. For any other questions please visit our website at or give us a call to schedule a full body triathlon evaluation today! 406-577-2730

Posted In: Triathlon Physical Therapy Athletes Physical Therapy

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