Efficiency and Form vs. Strength and Power

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This subject really goes hand in hand with the recent guest post on my site from Dave Cameron entitled “Looking Fast vs. Being Fast”. Dave talked about how being fast doesn’t always look fast and showed a before and after video of Shinji (the new CEO of Total Immersion). I want to dive into this subject a little deeper and from a slightly different angle and talk about how much you should focus on improving your efficiency or form and how much you should focus on increasing your power output.

So, what IS more important? When you are training for a sprint triathlon, an Olympic distance triathlon, a half ironman, an ironman, a 5K, a marathon, a hilly bike race, or any other event, should you concentrate more of your training on form and efficiency or on building strength and increasing power? This is an interesting question because you will likely get different answers from different people. In fact, I have written blogs about how using P90X can increase your triathlon performance (strength training) but, I also emphasize the importance of form and efficiency…especially in swimming.

I recently sat in a seminar and listened to a Level III USAT, highly respected triathlon coach say that the number one focus of triathletes in their swim training should be to build upper body strength and power. I also heard a Level II USAT coach say that power and technique should be equal focuses in your swim training. Then, the very next day, in the same seminar I heard another highly respected Level III USAT coach and highly educated health professional speak of the importance of neuromuscular activation exercises and warm up drills that focus on form. Confused? How could there be such different opinions on the subject?

Being a certified Total Immersion Teaching Professional, I was quite honestly appalled by the notion that your number one focus in swim training should be developing upper body strength and power. I find that to be ridiculous and unfounded. Most of my swim training has been focused on streamlining and balance with only a little on power production. In the last few years, I have cut my ½ mile open water time from 23 minutes (before Total Immersion) to 10:45. I consider that significant.

However, I have noticed significant increases in my running speed and performance from doing P90X and other strength building exercises. That is one of the reasons that I built my free 5K plan around certain portions of the P90X program. So, strength training has worked for me for my running, but will it work for everyone?
Does this mean that I believe that you should focus on strength for running and form for swimming? Not exactly.

Here is my take on the subject:

Whether you should focus on efficiency and form or strength and power in your training at this particular point in your racing career is dependent upon how good your form is and how strong you are already. This is when you say, “oh, thanks…that helps a lot” in a very sarcastic tone. OK, OK, just let me finish.

If you are a beginner to the three disciplines of triathlon or whatever discipline you are training for, fundamental form focus should always come first. I firmly believe that more can be gained (especially in swimming with running being a close second) by focusing almost completely on efficiency and form for the first year or so in your sport. I don’t want to downplay the importance of having power and strength too much but just take a look at the picture below. It doesn’t matter how strong of a biker you are, those square wheels are so inefficient you will make little to no speed gain by increasing power and strength. However, if you simply change the wheels out for round ones, you gain “free speed” by becoming more efficient. This is how I see the issue of form vs. power. If you have glaring form inefficiencies like “square wheels on your bike” then increasing your power is futile. Decreasing the amount of energy required to complete a task should always be the focus for the beginner.

square wheels

So, what about if you are not a beginner? If you are a veteran or at least have a couple of years of experience in your discipline, you need to evaluate (or have someone else evaluate) your form to make a decision on what portion of your training should be focused on form and what portion should be on building strength. If you have significant form inefficiencies (and I would say 75% of the triathletes that I see do have significant inefficiencies in swimming specifically), focus mostly on correcting those before working on strength. If your inefficiencies are minor, you may try a balanced focus on tweaking form while building strength. Just like the picture of the biker with square wheels…if your wheels are still square, focus on rounding them out…if your wheels are mostly round and just need a little more tweaking then building strength and power will probably be beneficial. Just be careful that your power and strength increases are not implemented in ways that decrease efficiency. If you apply more force but apply it in a less efficient way, you are working against yourself.

In my case, when I started triathlon, my swim form was horrible. The inefficiencies were many. Therefore, working mostly on form and technique over the last few years has paid off immensely. In running, I worked on my midfoot strike and posture for about 3 years before doing P90X and finding significant gains from strength training. Does this mean that I don’t have to work on form anymore and I can just work on strength? No! It just means that I can increase my strength training a little while making sure that I maintain or improve my form at the same time. In other words, my focus doesn’t have to be as much on form as long as the strength and power doesn’t detract from my form or efficiency.

Want help evaluating your efficiency and form? Contact me at ryan@tribasetraining.com today!

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