Swim, bike, run, write.

Triathlon Training - The Extra 1%: Strength and Conditioning (Home Workout Routine)

As an endurance sport, triathlon can be incredibly tough on both the body and the mind. With three disciplines to master and - when it comes to age-groupers - up to 17 hours of constant movement to contend with in Iron distance races, race day success relies upon a body that's not only fit but also strong and resilient. This is where conditioning through strength training is a key factor in helping your body to cope with the demands of swim-bike-run training, so you can produce a powerful performance come race day. As we head in to the off season, now is a great time to start introducing some strength work to your regime.

There are heaps of great articles out there which give detailed examples of gym-based strength programmes. 220 Triathlon is great place to start for training advice (on a side note - guess who's wetsuit clad butt made it into the 'your pictures' section of the November issue. Totally fan-girled). My other half and I have also found The Triathlete's Training Bible by Joe Friel really handy when it comes to adapting your strength work according to your phase of training.

As a general pointer for getting started, identify your weak areas and work on them. For me this is definitely my upper body - years of ballet classes have made my legs pretty sturdy but my arms are notoriously weedy. I'm working on it! Include a mixture of strength work, to build muscular force and endurance, along with some plyometric exercises (such as box jumps, burpees and jump lunges) to build power and turbo-charge your fitness. Short, sharp high intensity stuff is a good way to keep your fitness whilst reducing your overall training volume over the winter. Core work is a vital component too - a strong core is going to help you keep an efficient body position in the swim, on the bike and during the run. It's your body's powerhouse so make sure it's nice and strong. When it comes to what sort of weight to use, if you're just getting started opt for something slightly lighter - that goldilocks level of challenging but manageable - and safely build your way up to lifting heavy. As with all things fitness related, diving straight in at the deep end is a big injury risk factor so start at an intensity that's safe and appropriate for you. If you're not sure and need guidance, or if you just want help switching up your routine it's always worth speaking to a PT who has some knowledge of how your strength work needs to fit in with your triathlon training. (Hi, hello, over here!)

Okay, so that's a quick note on gym stuff. Great. But for most age groupers, triathlon training has to fit in with an already very busy lifestyle. When you're already squeezing numerous hours of swim-bike-run alongside work and family commitments the thought of having to fit in even more sessions and spending time travelling to a gym can be off-putting. Strength training is quite often neglected by us age-groupers and I totally get it: when time is precious you'd much rather spend it out on the bike or stomping the trails than picking things up and putting them down again in the gym.

That's why I've put together a quick video (featuring a cameo appearance from my sausage dog) with a time efficient, no equipment, full body workout that you can do in the comfort of your living room. It's designed to help you build strength, power, stability and core control to make you resilient and efficient so you can swim-bike-run harder, for longer. 

The workout:

Warm up: Spend 5 minutes or so getting warmed up - this could be walking (try going up and down the stairs a few times - you'll be feeling warm in no time!) or taking a gentle spin on the turbo trainer. Follow this up with a few dynamic stretches to make sure your body is ready to work.

Perform each circuit three times through, taking 1-2 minutes rest in between each circuit. 

Perform each exercise for 30 seconds (you can ramp up the intensity by increasing this once you're comfortable with the routine)

Circuit 1:

Squats - step the feet wider than hip distance, bend the knees and push your hips back (imagine you're doing a poo off the edge of a cliff!) keeping your back straight and your chest up. Use those powerful lower body muscles to push back up to standing.

Lowering phase push ups - great for building upper body strength and control. Start in a push up position and slowly lower down until you hit the mat, keeping your body parallel and maintaining control throughout. Reset and repeat.

Spiderman climbers - strengthen up that core whilst getting some mobility in the hips and working those shoulders. Adopt a push up plank position and then take your knee to the outside of the elbow on the same side, keeping your core muscles tight and your back straight. Just like old spidey-pants scaling a wall... kind of.

Burpees - the one we all love to hate. Start with a jump (go for a tuck jump if you want to make it harder!) then come down to a crouching position before jumping your feet out behind you, keeping your legs straight, and jump them back in ready to go again. Burpees are revolting but they're great for building explosive power.

Circuit 2:

Side lunges - by strengthening up the outer and inner thigh muscles whilst challenging your balance, side lunges can help you to remain strong and efficient on the run. Start with your feet together and lift one leg. Step it out wide to the side of you, bending the knee and keeping the other leg straight, pushing your hips back so your knee isn't pushing forwards. Power off of that working leg to return to the centre, using your core muscles to stay balanced.

Tricep dips - you can do these from the floor like I have in the video, or perform them using a bench or a sturdy chair if you prefer. Place your hands behind your bum with your legs stretched out in front of you and your fingers pointing towards your toes. Lift your hips and straighten your arms (make sure you don't let your shoulders creep up towards your ears) to adopt a reverse plank position. From there, bend your elbows keeping them tucked in behind you (rather than flaring out to the side) and lower your body before returning to the straight arm position. To really get those triceps burning, hold the reverse plank position for 30 seconds before going into the dips.

Step through planks - another core exercise that gets your shoulders working too. Start in a push up plank position and step your leg through to the opposite side, twisting in the waist but keeping the shoulders stable.

Star plank with squat thrust - call me a sadist, but this is one of my favourite exercises right now. It's a great plyometric exercise that works your upper body, lower body and core all at once. Start in your regular plank position and then jump your hands and feet out and in like a star jump. Then keep your core and upper body strong whilst tucking your knees in towards your chest. Keep your back neutral and try not to let your hips creep up too much.

Circuit 3:

Split squats - not only does this exercise really work into the quads, hamstrings and glutes, it also gets all the little stabilising muscles in your foot and ankle working while you balance which helps to promote good running form. Lift one foot and place it behind you on a chair or a step. Bend the supporting leg and perform a single leg squat - make sure you sit back into the movement rather than pushing your knee forwards.

Elbow to push ups - get those shoulders working hard whilst thinking about core control at the same time. Start in an elbow plank and then move up into a push up position, placing your hand underneath your shoulder where your elbow started. Keep your core strong and try not to let your hips swing, so that your shoulders are doing the bulk of the work.

Single leg extension cross crunches - working your abs and your obliques, this exercise also works on stability in the pelvis and you get a nice little hamstring stretch. Lie on the floor and think about drawing your tummy button in towards your spine to engage the core and keep your lower back imprinted on the mat. Lift the legs and bend the knees so that they're at a 90 degree angle. Inhale and lift your head and shoulders from the mat, with your hands at your temples. Exhale and take your elbow towards the opposite knee, extending the other leg out straight horizontal to the mat. Inhale to return to the centre and repeat on the other side. 

Mountain climbers - stabilise and strengthen the shoulders whilst working the core and getting your heart rate up. These are essentially like doing high knees in a plank position. Start in push up plank and then bring one knee in towards your chest before quickly alternating with the other. 

Once you've done all three circuits three times through, take some time to perform some gentle stretching. 

Need help? Email me at jennifersophiefitness@gmail.com!


Exercise, Anxiety and Me: How Triathlon Has Improved My Mental Health

We have our falling outs, my brain and I. In 2014, during my final year of University, I got diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Having a name for how I was feeling was kind of a relief in itself, and on reflection it made me realise that anxiety was something that had been with me for a fair few years before that.

Anxiety is, unfortunately, extremely common - Anxiety UK figures suggest that it affects approximately 3 million people in the UK. Everyone's experience of it is different, making it hard to describe and hard to understand. For me, anxiety manifests as an intense sense of self-doubt, repetitive negative thoughts that make me question my ability - and my right - to achieve anything. It makes me overthink every action and interaction (that silly thing I said 3 years ago? Still worrying about it), explore everything that could possibly go wrong and pick away at anything I see in myself that falls below the mark. It'll throw up 1001 things I need to do/solve/improve, but leave me feeling so overwhelmed and doubtful of my ability to achieve any of it that I'm left feeling inadequate and powerless. And then there's the frustration and guilt about feeling this way. I'm so thankful for the wonderful people and opportunities I have in my life, I frequently think to myself "with everything going on in the world, who the hell am I to feel like this?" which in turn adds to the whole low self-esteem, feeling like a crap useless potato thing. I end up getting anxious about being anxious. It's hard to accept that I'm not consciously choosing to have these thought patterns, so I can't control it. But I can fight back and stop it from controlling me.

There's also the physical effects of anxiety. The only way I can think to describe it is that sensation of real intense fear or nervousness before something that scares you - an exam, an interview, a dentist appointment... Except with anxiety (in my case at least - others have specific triggers) there's nothing specific in that moment causing it and so there's no set time that the feeling will subside. You know that once whatever you're nervous about is over, you'll go back to feeling better. With anxiety it could last minutes, hours, days. My anxiety can range from a low level bubbling where my mind whirls around a little bit too quickly and I'm trying to think about 100 things at once. To a full blown 'attack' where my heart feels like it's racing, I run hot and cold, my lungs feel like they can't get enough air in, my stomach does backflips to rival an olympic gymnast and my tear ducts spring a major leak. Thankfully for me this doesn't happen too often, but the thought patterns and the worry about anxiety creeping up on me are always lurking. After being diagnosed in 2014, I got given some tablets as a short term fix to get me through my exams and trotted off leaflet in hand, fully intending to sort it out properly and never quite getting round to it. It kind of becomes the new normal.

I've mentioned before how taking up triathlon has helped me get back some mental toughness and find my way back to myself. We're entering into Stinking Bishop realms of cheesy here, but the journey to the start line of my first Ironman 70.3 really was so rewarding and it gave me the mental strength to start kicking anxiety up the arse. I've found with triathlon training that as my physical strength has developed, so too has my mental strength. I've gone from 'I could never' to 'yes I can' and triathlon has helped me to get there. Every race I've completed, every hard session I've pushed through. Each time I've gone out and achieved things that have surpassed my expectations of what was possible. It's all felt like building blocks which have linked together to help my mind grow stronger, to help shut down the anxious thoughts more often and to help me believe I can.

That's not to say it's been straight forward. So often the advice regarding mental health is to just 'exercise more' - but it's not that simple. I'd say I'm pretty fortunate in that my anxiety isn't too severe - it's a pain in the arse at times but it's certainly not debilitating. For some people, just getting out of bed in the morning takes a huge amount of effort. Telling people to 'exercise more' as if it's easy, without acknowledging the support and strength required to get to that point, isn't helpful. I can remember times where my training became another thing to be anxious about. I once found myself sat on the bottom stair, in full running gear with tears in my eyes and panic in my chest. Held captive by this intense self-doubt that made leaving the house and completing the run seem impossible. However, as I carried on training these blips became few and far between. Some great advice came from a wise man named Morph on training camp: create a mental filing cabinet. I put the awesome sessions in there to remind me that I can do it. I put the not so great sessions where I pushed through anyway in there to remind me that I can be strong. Things get tough, I get tougher. And some stuff just goes right into the shredder - learn from it then move on from it.

Triathlon helped me to discover the power of 'yes I can'. It showed me in a tangible, quantifiable way how my mindset could impact on my performance. I realised I wasn't going to be able to achieve what I wanted to without first believing that I was capable of it. Being able to actually see - in the form of average bike power or running pace - how I was sometimes letting my mindset hold me back pissed me off. It gave me the fire in my belly to say 'shut up brain yes I bloody well can'. Improving my mental strength kind of became a 4th discipline along with the swim-bike-run whilst training for Ironman 70.3 Zell am See. Triathlon gives me a focus and a goal to really work on my mindset. My desire to be a better triathlete is strong enough to fight back against my brain's anxious tendencies.

It'd be unrealistic to say that triathlon has 'cured' me - the way my mind works is part of who I am and I can't out run anxiety. But what triathlon has given me is the strength, experience and perspective to be able to cope with it more effectively. Plus it's helped me find my alter-ego "race Jenny" who is brave, feisty and tenacious and who I want to channel a little bit more in everyday life. I still have my moments where my brain seems to speed away in perpetual motion and I feel weak. But then I open that mental filing cabinet, look back on what I've achieved in triathlon so far, look forward to everything still to come and I remember that I'm strong.

We're all dealing with things. Whether it's mental health, physical health or just life's little challenges. It's important to remember that no one is perfect. Asking for help does not make you a failure. We are all strong and we are all capable. Be patient and kind - to yourself and to others.

Why I Tri

"Wait, what? All in one day? And you do that for fun?"

Throughout my Ironman 70.3 training, and even more so now I've decided to step up to the full Iron distance, a question I've been asked a lot is: "but... why?" Granted, I can see that from the outside this triathlon malarkey probably seems a little bit mad. Splashing around in a freezing, murky lake at 6am. Spending Sunday mornings riding around in slightly lurid lycra that makes you look a bit like a naff superhero. Obsessively muttering about threshold power and Strava segments. I guess it's not surprising that I've had my sanity questioned a few times over the last year. Triathlon can be such a tough and relentless sport, but it's also incredibly rewarding. It's given me more than just fitness. It's given me confidence, purpose and self-belief. It's given me focus, passion and strength. Despite it's quirks, I'm head over heels with triathlon and here's why

'The race is long and in the end, it's only with yourself.'

I guess part 1 of the 'why' is that triathlon appeals to my perfectionist streak. It's all about working hard to achieve your best. And when you think you've done that, figuring out what you can do next to make your best even better. I'm definitely a little bit competitive, but at the heart of it all you could come last and as long as you've given it your all you've still won. With three disciplines to master, there's always something that can be improved, a new goal to chase. And that's exciting. I love the process of training and racing, celebrating the improvements and working out ways to tackle the weaknesses. There's always something to aim for and that's a little bit addictive. I love it.

'Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.'

Part 2 of why I tri comes down to never wanting to take my body for granted. I do triathlon because I can, and that's a privilege. It's so easy to go through life hating your body. Being ashamed of it. Viewing it as a sack of flesh and bones that doesn't fit in with some arbitrary standard. But actually our bodies are pretty amazing things which allow us to experience so much. I'm lucky that, right now, I'm fit and I'm healthy. For me triathlon is about giving my body the opportunity to show me what it can do. And to appreciate that. One day whether it's through age, illness or an accident, I might not be able to do these things anymore. The thought of reaching that stage and not knowing what my body is capable of scares me. I do triathlon because I'm incredibly lucky that I can - not everyone has the choice of 'shall I go for a run today' - it's important to me that I don't take my ability to do so for granted. Of course, like so many others, I still struggle with body confidence and I can sling insults at myself in the mirror with the best of them. But triathlon has helped me to view my body as much more than just a series of measurements and a body fat percentage. I've learnt to try and appreciate my body for the awesome things it allows me to go and experience, rather than just obsessively critiquing it for how it looks. And that's improved my confidence, my happiness and my wellbeing.

I love Triathlon because it challenges me. It makes me strong, it keeps me thankful and it gives me purpose. The permanent chlorine perfume and quads of steel are just a happy bonus!

I'd love to hear your 'why I tri' stories - if anyone is up for sharing theirs with me to publish on here please do get in touch: jennifersophiefitness@gmail.com

*quotes are from Baz Luhrmann's 'sunscreen'*
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