Long-distance racing is a battle of attrition, with the win often going not to the one who goes out fastest, but to the one who slows down the least. Strength rather than pure speed is key to success in triathlon, says four-time triathlon world champion Chris McCormack. “Triathlon is a sport of strength and endurance,” he says. “For this reason alone the importance of this key element of the sport is critical. Doing it right and getting this blend correct within your training plan is what’s important.” When you are strong, you can hold a pace or effort for a longer period of time.

“Triathlon is a sport of strength and endurance.”

Macca does strength work in each of the three disciplines. “In running I add a component of hill work to my running programs to add strength to my foundation. I do big gear, gradient climbs for long periods of time to add some solid foundation strength and power to my bike legs. The same can be achieved in the pool using paddles, pullbuoys and bands.”

The bike leg gets longer in proportion to the other disciplines as you move up in distance from Olympic to ironman. What you do on the bike will impact your run to some degree, so when you want to improve your run you may want to assess your bike fitness.

Strength training on the bike builds leg power and makes you a better climber. A lot of people don’t have the strength to get over hills and still have enough left for the run. This cycling-specific work also toughens your tendons and ligaments, reducing the chance of injury.

“I do a lot of sessions that are strength-orientated on the bike,” Macca says. “You can get a lot of strength on the turbo trainer, you can get a lot of strength doing hill work… To improve that bike strength you need to do volume, you’ve got to climb, you’ve got to get your position right, and you’ve got to do structured sets over a long period of time.”

You can do strength work all year round — the offseason is a great time to start working on this because it takes months to build leg strength. Macca recommends hill repeats as the biggest bang for your training buck. “Find a one-mile hill with about a five-percent gradient — not steeper because you want to be able to climb it seated. Then do repeats, pushing the biggest gear you can — it should be one gear bigger gear than what feels comfortable.”

“Hill repeats are the biggest bang for your training buck.”

Five-time world champion Terenzo Bozzone says hill efforts helped him power to his first win on the legendary (and hilly!) Wildflower Triathlon course in 2006. “One of the hills where I choose to do my hill efforts is a hill called ‘Stunt’. I was first introduced to this hill by Macca and [Paul] Ambrose. I’d just finished racing the weekend before, so they took off up the hill and I slogged all the way up.” He eventually built up to doing 6 to 8 reps of 15- to 20-minute hill climbs done within a long ride once a week or once every two weeks.

“My bike hill efforts along with the running hill effort workout that I did which was quite similar — those were the key workouts I did leading into Wildflower,” says Terenzo.

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Not only did Terenzo win Wildflower that year, but he also broke the course record and held off his competitors with a strong bike AND run.

Noelle De Guzman
Noelle De Guzman
Noelle De Guzman is a freelance writer with ten years of experience in the field of fitness and wellness. She blogs at KikayRunner.com about endurance sport in the Philippines and beyond.