Even though triathlon is the fastest growing sport on the planet, and the 1.2 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run Ironman races sell out thousands of slots in just a few minutes, it can be a bit depressing when you realize that conventional triathlon training doesn’t really give you a nice body – and instead just makes you really skinny or skinny-fat.
Apprehension about having that emaciated, marathoner-like appearance is a legitimate concern if maintaining muscle mass important to you. Having personally come from a bodybuilding background to compete in Ironman triathlon, this was a major concern for me– I didn’t want to watch in the mirror as my hard-earned muscle wasted away and I ended up looking like a skinny weakling.
But the truth is that to do Ironman triathlon successfully, you don’t actually have to lose precious muscle, get extremely skinny, or become a scrawny endurance athlete. You can still swim, bike and run fast while maintaining high amounts of functional muscle.
Here are three keys:
1. Separate Strength and Endurance
Traditional hypertrophic training can be extremely catabolic when combined with high amounts of aerobic training, and for this reason, any strength or mass building sessions need to be timed properly in relation to endurance training sessions.
This is because the primary protein stimulant for muscle growth and strength development, which is known as mammalian target of rapamycin complex-1 (mTORC1), is a protein complex that is turned on by resistance exercise. On the flipside, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) increases the rate at which we can burn fuel aerobically and is amplified by endurance training. Unfortunately, AMPK switches mTORC1 off, so for maximal strength or muscle gains, any resistance training should be timed separately from aerobic training, preferably by around 6 hours.
So to maximize strength gains and recovery from resistance training, either do endurance training at a completely separate time of day (preferably aerobic in the morning, strength in the afternoon or evening so that mTORC1 activity is maximized while you are sleeping) or train the two on a separate day.
2. Avoid Chronic Cardio
That AMPK protein complex you were just introduced to can maximize your response to aerobic training by increasing mitochondrial efficiency and oxygen utilization – but it responds just as well to high intensity interval training and anaerobic exercise. When you combine this with the fact that the longer you train the more amino acids and protein you tend to dip into for a fuel source (up to 18% protein after 3 hours of aerobic exercise), it simply makes sense to prioritize shorter, more intense interval sessions rather than long bouts of swimming, cycling or running.
For Ironman triathlon, you don’t need to be performing the traditional 60-90 minute swims, 70-100 mile bike rides and 15-20 mile runs every weekend. Instead, include these type of monster weekends just once every 4-6 weeks, and instead use short bouts of high intensity intervals to achieve a similar effect.
3. Reduce Sets & Reps
When you introduce moderately high doses of swimming, cycling and running, you’re going to discover that the increase in capillary density from enhanced glucose and oxygen delivery to exercising tissues will give you a pump and vascularity that is very similar to hypertrophy training with 12-20 rep sets. Just look at any Tour De France cycling quadriceps to see what I mean.
For this reason, when training for triathlon, your goal in the weight should be mass and strength, and not muscular endurance. Lift high weights with 3-8 reps, which will also limit metabolic stress, hormone depletion, and too much AMPK activity. In other words, save any metabolic conditioning work for your triathlon workouts, and when you’re in the gym, lift heavy weights.
Completing an Ironman triathlon doesn’t have to be just a pipe dream for you, but if you want to maintain muscle while you’re doing, use these tips.
Author Ben Greenfield teaches triathletes around the world how to get ripped for triathlon at http://www.Tri-Ripped.com