Are Triathletes Muscular?

At 9:00 am on a Saturday morning, I watched my first triathlon. One of the first things I noticed, is that triathletes look healthier, happier and more muscular than distance runners or cyclists.

Triathletes are Often More Muscular than you Might Think

Triathletes, especially long distance triathletes are muscular.

But, the question is, why are they more muscular than most distance runners and cyclists? I believe this is because triathletes have to have a strong frame. Swimming requires the use of nearly every muscle in the body. Most of the power comes from the upper body and the arms.

Triathletes need to have a strong upper body to endure the swim and be able to keep their bodies in a position to keep going on the bike. Running long distances requires very little upper body strength.

In fact, I would say that running long distances can reduce the size of upper body muscles. This is my personal opinion, but that is what I have experienced. The only way that I was able to overcome that issue was eat more protein and do more push ups and pull ups.

Ross Edgley, Lionel Sanders and Mirinda Carfrae are good examples of triathletes who are very muscular.

Ross Edgley is especially muscular. I would say that he is huge! And he does extreme triathlons. An extreme triathlon is like an Ironman but farther and more intense.

Triathletes Look Healthier and Fitter than Most Endurance Athletes

Mirinda Carfrae looks strong, fit and healthy. She is one of the top women triathletes in the world. She is an Ironman world champion.

This, of course, is mostly opinion. But, generally speaking triathletes possess more muscle than your typical marathon runner. Possessing more muscle is not an indicator of health by any scientific measure.

But, from this athletes point of view, an average amount of muscle throughout the body is much healthier looking than the average super thin elite marathoner.

Above is a picture of an absolutely amazing man and athlete Eliud Kipchoge. He is the GOAT for marathon running. Without question he is one of the fittest men alive. I don’t feel that he looks as fit or healthy as your average elite or top age-group Ironman triathletes.

But, as you can see from my next example, not all triathletes are built the same.

Gwen Jorgensen is an Olympic Triathlon Champion for the 2016 summer games. She has always been very skinny. She is strong and very healthy. In 2017/2018 she transitioned out of triathlon into becoming a full-time distance runner. As a member of the Nike Running Club in Oregon she looks almost exactly the same as she did when she was a pro triathlete.

But, since the transition, I feel that she gotten a little skinnier. She also suffered a pretty tough injury that she has been recovering from. The training lifestyle of just running and cross training has left her looking less healthy than she did as a pro triathlete.

Why do Triathletes Look more Muscular?

My next example shows you how pro and elite cyclists also look too skinny.

Chris Froome is one the best cyclists in the world. He is regarded as the elite of the elite. He has won the Tour De France 4 times. Look how skinny he is this picture from September 2020. Is he healthy and fit? Of course he is healthy and fit. But, because of the lack of muscle throughout his whole body, he doesn’t look amazing.

I think triathletes are more muscular and look healthier overall. Most elite level triathletes workout from 4-6 hours per day. They have many of the same caloric demands as other endurance athletes. So, why do they have more muscle?

It’s because of swimming and the need for more structural integrity to be able to do all 3 sports for such a long period of time. If you don’t have the facia and muscles to contend with the pressure put on your skeletal or cardiovascular systems, then you will be more likely to get injured or perform poorly over a long period of time. Let’s break this explanation into three separate topics.

Swimming Builds Upper Body Muscles

Federico Grabich is one of the top swimmers in the world. Granted, he is more of a sprinter. Sprinters generally have more muscle definition and size than distance swimmers. But, it shows that swimming builds upper body strength.

Ally McHugh is on the US Swim team. She is really good at the 1500 m distance. 1500 meters is considered to be middle to long distance in the swimming pool. As you can see, she has muscle. She is not overly thin. She looks fit and strong.

Swimming sprinters are usually the most famous. The men and women look strong. They are usually more muscular than distance swimmers. But, as you can see in Ally’s case, even long distance swimmers can be muscular and look really fit.

Because swimmers have to use their upper body so much during training and racing, they have more pronounced muscles.

More Muscle for Structural Integrity

Triathletes are more muscular so that their skeletal and cardiovascular system can withstand the stress of doing all 3 sports in one race. Having well-rounded musculature throughout the body aides in distributing weight so that a single part of the body is not overwhelmed.

The cardiovascular system works better when muscles are well nourished and have enough tissue to meet the demands of the stress put on it.

The skeletal system is super important in life and sport. When doing a triathlon, your spine, neck, joints, and bones need to be well protected from the repetitive stress placed upon them. Bone density increases as stress is placed upon the bones. But, the muscles and facia help aid the skeletal system by keeping everything in it’s most efficient location.

Are Triathletes Muscular - Picture of the Statue of David
Statue of David – Ideal body

When you look at the Statue of David in Florence, Italy, you have a depiction of an ideal human form. Body builders have been basing the ratio of muscles compared to one another for decades from looking at David. His form is the ideal.

Male triathletes fit more of this ideal then runners and cyclists.

As a note, every body is different. This is an observation of musculature of triathletes vs other endurance athletes. So, if your body doesn’t look like David, that is perfect. Health is more than muscles and outward appearance.

As a triathlete myself, I find triathlon to keep me muscular for some areas of my body. I still need to do push ups and pull ups to maintain my upper-body strength and musculature.

Muscular/Strong Athletes Endure Skeletal Stressors

The more muscle a triathlete or endurance athlete has, the more likely they are to endure the stress they place upon themselves. This a very simplified statement to address the entire field of sports physiology. I am fully aware of the broad strokes that are being swung here. But, on the whole, this is the reality.

Well adapted muscles will prevent skeletal and cardiovascular injuries. You need to do all the cross training and have amazing nutrition as well.

In Conclusion

As an amateur triathlete, I have found that the most important part of gaining muscle and staying healthy comes down to a few things. Sleep well, eat more vegetables, have a great social/family life, cross-train, go slow and stay consistent.

It’s not exciting to state the sentence above, but it’s true. Being healthy as a triathlete is more than looking muscular and strong. But, looking in proportion to the ideal David is good way to look. Muscle on endurance athletes not only looks good and healthy, muscles are good and healthy.

I hope that I have answered your question in a little deeper detail than a simple yes or no. Giving you lots of information to reference was the main reason I have written this article. Thank you for reading.

Have an amazing day!