Advanced, Beginners, Training

Fast-track your triathlon running with these 11 tips

 July 23, 2016

By  Mikael Eriksson

Do you find running a pain in the rear end? You’re not alone.

Many triathletes find the final leg of triathlon a big challenge. Which isn’t surprising at all, given the fact that running is difficult.

In this article, you’ll learn why running for all its simplicity can be so damn hard. And you’ll get 11 tips that will help you improve your running. Five of the tips are geared towards beginners, and five are for more advanced runners and triathletes.

The bonus tip #11 applies to every single triathlete on the face of the earth and you must not under any circumstances skip applying it in your training.

Why do triathletes find running difficult

Running is a very natural thing to do. Mankind has been running since the very beginning of time. And we haven’t been swimming and biking. Why then do a lot of triathletes find running so hard?

Part of the answer is, running actually requires decent technical skills.

What running really is, is a series of one-legged jumps, with alternating legs for every jump. This makes it very different from just a faster walk. The movement patterns are completely different.

And it doesn't stop there. Even with the right technical skills, there is so much more that goes into running. Endurance, obviously, but endurance at an easy pace is different from endurance at high intensity. Many triathletes just don't train the right way to build endurance. And suffer the consequences.

Additional factors such as core strength can also completely ruin your run, even if your endurance is good. You're probably not even aware that these other factors are what's holding you back if that is your problem.

With this foundational information about how multi-faceted a problem running can be, let’s move on to the actionable advice.

What follows is my 11 top tips for how to improve your triathlon running. Almost invariably, whatever an athlete’s problem is, one or a combination of several of these tips can dramatically improve his or her running abilities.

The tips are categorized as being more on the beginner side of the running spectrum or on the advanced side That said, whatever your ability level, read all the tips, and think about what applies to you. There is a fair bit of overlap.

Running tips for beginner triathletes

1. Slow down your runs

Many beginners run way too fast on most of their runs. The majority of your runs should be at an easy pace. You should be able to hold a conversation and complete your sentences without getting out of breath. The reason is that you need to improve your base fitness, and that is best done by consistent training at a low intensity.

2. Run more

This goes hand in hand with tip number 1. By running more, you'll slowly but surely increase your base fitness and you'll become more efficient as a runner (expend less energy at any given pace) by just teaching your body the movement patterns of running.

Don't do sudden increases in running volume, though. Increase your volume by at most 10 % per week, and drop back down a bit every third or fourth week.

3. Increase your cadence

Another common problem is that runners overstride. This is an inefficient way of running, since every time you land with the feet out in front of you instead of directly under your body, you will automatically have braking forces slow you down. This also greatly increases the risk of injury.

By increasing your cadence (number of steps per minute) to around 180 you're almost forced to stop overstriding, so your efficiency increases.

4. Add some intensity

As a continuation to point number 1, many runners run too fast on most of their runs, but they don't run fast enough on the few runs they should run fast!

Once a week, do a high-intensity session with intervals where you really work at a high-intensity, and not just a moderately hard one. There's a gazillion ways to do this, but one example that you can do is 5 x 2 minutes hard, with 2 minutes easy jog in-between. Always warm up and cool down with easy jogging of course.

5. Run tall

The most common technical error that beginner runners do is to run in a slouched position.

You should try to "run tall", with good posture throughout your body. Your hips should be above your feet when you land, your upper body should be aligned with your hips, and your posture should be good all the way up through your neck and head.

Keep your gaze fixed 10 meters or so in front of you, not down at your feet. Try to imagine that you are a puppet, and there is a string that holds you upright in a good posture all the way from your pelvis through your head.

Running tips for advanced triathletes

6. Do strides

If I could just give one tip to any runner or triathlete (besides tip #11 of course…), it would be to add strides to their routine.

Strides are simply accelerations of 20-30 seconds, where you build up to and hold around 95 % of your maximal speed. Then you have a full recovery (walk or very easy jog) until you're ready to do the next one.

Start by just doing 4 or so once a week, but you can build up to even doing 8 of them twice a week as part of a workout or an easy run. They shouldn't be very taxing. Strides are extremely good for learning good run technique since at the speed you run them the technique will be naturally better than at an easy pace. But, it's important to not do them too hard. If you tense up, and you're not completely relaxed in your entire body, slow down just a bit so you can be relaxed.

7. Do a mobility check

If you have restrictions in your range of motion, you're running will suffer as a consequence. For triathletes, the most common problem areas are the hip flexors and the hamstrings.

You can do a mobility check yourself (with the help of a buddy who's checking you) - see this video for guidance.

I also strongly recommend the book Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dichary. It has a whole lot of tests, fantastic illustrations, and all the remedies you need if you find that you do have mobility issues.

If you see a physio, then ask them to do it for you, specifically in terms of running. I recommend choosing a physio who is a runner or triathlete themselves or work with runners most of the time.

If it turns out you do have mobility issues, make sorting them out a top priority!

8. Think of your legs like wheels and not pendulums

One thing that helps running with better form is to visualize your legs being like wheels, that do an almost circular pattern around your center of gravity. This is quite the opposite of how many people think of their legs while running - pendulums swinging back and forth.

By trying to run with a wheel-like motion you'll most likely improve your running form by getting a better knee lift and hip extension, which serves to make your running more efficient.

9. Run fast-finish long runs

Especially for triathletes focusing on the longer distances, fast-finish long runs are gold. Simply put, they give your endurance a massive boost by getting you used to run at a high-intensity when you're already fatigued.

There are some great metabolic advantages as well, that I won't go into here, but just know that these are among the most beneficial workouts you could possibly do.

Don't do them every week, since they're taxing, but every other week in your competitive season is all right.

An example of how to do them would be a 1.5- to 2-hour run, with the first hour at an easy pace, then run the next 40 minutes at a moderate pace, and finish off with 15 minutes at close to your lactate threshold pace. The final 5 minutes are for cool-down. This is a tough workout, but immensely satisfying afterward.

10. Add plyometrics

As a final weapon in your arsenal, plyometrics can help your run by improving your explosive strength (power), by making your stride more springy, and as a consequence improve your running efficiency.

Take it easy with plyometrics, though, as the risk of injury is high.

Examples of plyometric exercises are box jumps, running up stairs, jumping up stairs, one-legged rocket jumps, jump rope exercises, standing long jump and so on. This article has instructions on how to perform some of the most effective plyometric exercises.

Plyometrics can be particularly useful in the base phase when you aren't doing as much hard running workouts yet. A 20-minute plyometric session once a week is plenty, and can be hugely beneficial!

Every triathlete and their granny should do this:

11. Add core strength

If your core is not strong enough, you can have the best running form in the world, but you won't be able to keep it up very long. And that is all very theoretical because most likely it would just be impossible to achieve good running form in the first place.

You won't be able to run tall if your core is not strong enough. Core strength for runners and triathletes does not mean that you go out and do a gazillion crunches and get super-ripped (you won't get ripped from doing crunches anyway, but that's a different story).

Core strength means strong and durable hips, glutes and deep-lying core muscles (such as the obliques) that will keep your running posture good and will reduce unnecessary, uncontrolled rotation and other movements.

I could write a gazillion words about the importance of core strength and how to improve it, but to get started, you can just go to this post on Strength training for triathletes and skip ahead to the section about core strength.

If you do nothing else as a result of this article, at least do this. Start strengthening your core.

I hope you found this useful and don't hesitate to ask for clarifications if you need it!

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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