My Top 6 Ways To Improve Your Run for a Triathlon
Do you want to improve your run times off the bike this season?
Coaching triathlon is a challenging sport to coach as each athlete will have different strengths and weaknesses in each of the three disciplines, therefore different needs regarding how best to train for them.
Triathlon is centred around being able to resist fatigue for a long period of time, and comes down to strength (not speed). Therefore being able to manage this accumulative fatigue build up on the run is important.
Part of the reason why achieving a faster run off the bike is difficult 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 different and for running you need strong and durable hip muscles (Core strength!).
Even with the right technical skills, there are so many additional factors that make up good running. A lack of specific core strength can completely limit your ability to improve your running, even if your endurance is good. More often than not, most triathletes will not even be aware that their core strength is one of the main factors holding them back.
Race pace endurance is another key factor. However, endurance at an easy pace is completely different from endurance at high intensity. Many triathletes simply don’t train correctly to build endurance. And suffer the consequences.
What follows is my 6 top tips for how to improve your triathlon running. Whatever an athlete’s shortfall is, one or a combination of several of these tips can significantly improve their running abilities.
1.Ensure Correct Pace and Heart Rate Zones in Training and Racing
Knowing your threshold heart rate will help you both plan workouts as well as measure progress in your training. Performing each workout and workout segment at the right intensity is crucial to enable faster progress with your run.
There are four ways to measure intensity: pace, heart rate, power, and perceived effort. Be able to go into your race knowing roughly what intensity (pace, heart rate or perceived exertion) you can sustain on the run. This pace or effort is going to be different depending on what distance you are racing.
My triathlon coaching programs use simple lactate threshold (LT) testing to determine training zones. Lactate threshold is defined as the exercise intensity at which lactate, an intermediate product of glucose metabolism, begins to accumulate in the blood. In practical terms, it’s the highest exercise intensity that can be sustained for around 60 minutes (approx Zone 4-5a Heart rate). Any increase in intensity beyond this threshold level requires a reduction in effort because the body starts to produce lactic acid more quickly than it can remove it. The higher your lactate threshold, as a percentage of aerobic capacity, the faster you will be able to ride and run.
Calculating your Pace and Heart Rate Zones:
Providing you have completed a Lactate Threshold Run test, your personal intensity zones can be automatically calculated based on the protocols described here. You can also use a simple pace zone calculator online.
Running Pace Zones will be our main focus throughout training, but HR data also provides useful information. Typically, a threshold test is a 20 minute all out time trial. Your estimated Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is 95% of your average heart rate during the final 10 minutes of the test.
As a rough guide, ensure you incorporate a threshold workout into your weekly training:
- Intervals at Threshold Pace during your individual bike and run workouts. Your goal is to build up from 3 x 5 minutes at Z4-5a LT (2.5 mins recovery) to 3 x 15 minutes with 5 minutes of recovery between hard efforts; however, this is not set in stone. You can build up to 2 x 20 minutes with 5 minutes of recovery. You can also increase the number of intervals you perform in a workout and make them a bit shorter such as 5 x 10 minutes with 5 minutes of recovery between hard efforts. In addition, you can boost your fitness by incrementally reducing the length of your recovery period.
2. Ensure a Consistent ‘Base’ Phase of Training
Are you incorporating bike and run sessions that focus on developing a specific element of fitness based on the phase of training you are in?
A properly constructed and executed base phase prepares an athlete for a lengthy training and competitive season as well as for each type of training for event-specific goals. It’s also critical to connective-tissue strengthening, giving an athlete the ability to work harder and at a higher intensity with less risk of injury.
The long run, in all its variations, may represent one of the most important components of the base phase, but I also believe strongly in varying paces, terrain and effort while having an athlete log ‘time on his/her feet’ during this period. I go by having about 80% of my weekly training load as aerobic Zone 2, and 20% with higher heart rates Zone 4-5 heart rates.
I also strongly believe that many beginner and intermediate age group athletes don’t place enough emphasis on becoming stronger on the bike. Being strong on the bike will allow for fresher legs running off the bike.
If you are just starting out or are getting back into training after time off, the BASE PHASE is where you need to start.
WHY: Enables you to better prepare for higher intensity sessions to come, and gain more benefit from them.
WHAT: Develop aerobic endurance and lays a solid foundation for strength work to come. An athlete should be training the majority in their easy aerobic heart rate and pace zones (Z1 – Z2) for roughly 4 – 12 weeks. The duration of the training block varies depending on the athlete’ss initial fitness and experience. Again, ensuring your base training is done at the correct heart rate zones is key. This is where using a heart rate monitor will allow you to know that you are spending the right amounts of time in your aerobic heart rate zones to ensure your base is built properly.
Among the important benefits of using a heart rate monitor is the ability to objectively measure your aerobic progress. Measuring aerobic progress can be easily achieved using the maximum aerobic function (MAF) test.
Aerobic endurance is the key to everything else in running. You can’t get the most out of the hard repeats, hill workouts and tempo runs until you’ve built the base to handle them.
3. Run Off The Bike Often (at Target HR & Pace zones):
Weekly brick sessions are a great way to make running off the bike progressively easier. Depending on what phase of training you are in, a good way to train your body in a time-effective manner is to add a short easy ROTB (Run off the Bike) after one of your weekly bike rides, then progress into more race-specific brick sessions.
Besides pacing/intensity on the run, you can also adjust the intensity and length of the preceding bike and the terrain you ride and run on, to cover as many race scenarios as possible.
You don’t need to make every brick workout race specific but include them at least once per week in the build-up to your race.
The distance you are planning to race will determine the length and type of brick session. For example, if you were doing a sprint distance tri (20km bike, 5km run), a good session might be 4 x (3km bike then 1km run), with 5 minutes active recovery in between each bike to run. Set up a mini transition and practise going straight from one discipline to the other – this is the adaptation you are aiming to improve!
Another could be a bike set with 3-5 x 5-minute efforts at race power or heart rate zone 4-5a with a 2.5 minute spin recovery in between each, then transition into a 15 min run off the bike starting easy focusing on higher leg cadence, then adding in some specific race pacing efforts or striders (faster running focusing on good technique) throughout.
Only once I have done plenty of easy aerobic running off the bike in my base phase, will I then proceed to incorporate 20 to 30-second striders in, and then add in any longer ‘race pace’ efforts of 2-4 minutes in duration.
4. Improving your Run and Bike Cadence
Your goal when running out of transition should be to keep your run cadence high. Aim for 180 foot strikes per minute or higher.
With a higher cadence, you’ll become more efficient, by wasting less energy and becoming quicker to adapt to running fast off the bike. It also creates a positive feedback loop that improves many other aspects of your running form, including “running tall” and your breathing pattern.
Research shows that increasing your bike cadence can result in improved run performance off the bike through improving running efficiency and increasing stride rate.
If your normal cadence is lower than 85 revs per minute (rpm), work on getting your usual, comfortable cadence up into the 85-95 range and hit this cadence in your races.
If your normal cadence is in that range already, increase your cadence by 5-10 rpm for the last 2-5 minutes of the bike leg (depending on the race distance) to prime your legs for the run.
5. Improve Running technique
An efficient running gait will improve your transition and run off the bike and includes the following:
- Limiting upper body motion – torso and arms
- Holding your torso in an upright position which is more efficient to maintain
- Slightly shorter steps to ensure a faster cadence of 90+ RPM on all runs.
- Minimising vertical movement
- Improve your breathing with deep belly breathing – Focus on breathing out rather than in
- Beware of uneven arm action and gain a consistent arm swing
- Look ahead and relax your lower jaw—practice on all types of runs.
Everyone runs differently so these will vary for everyone. However, I would strongly recommend getting someone who specialises in running gait analysis to film you running to assess if there are any significant characteristics that could be improved (outdoors, not on a treadmill).
I did a technique session with a run coach and only made one change to my arm position and rhythm and suddenly my hips and glutes kicked in tenfold! Additionally, I’ve conducted many run technique sessions with my athletes and have been very pleased with their pace improvements in as little as a few weeks of training. I am a coach and I swear by a coach, it’s definitely worth the small investment for huge running improvements in such a short amount of time.
6. Consistent Core Strength and Mobility Training
A properly designed strength training program is among the easiest way to bring about improved endurance performance. Strength training assists your body to hold form during fatigue, and overall makes you STRONGER. It is the most important way to help minimise the chance of injury whilst building your training intensity and volume.
If we can be more powerful, get off the ground quicker, push more power, THEN every single pedal stroke, every single stride that we take running is going to push us further – therefore we are going to be FASTER.
All aspects of strength and conditioning, mobility, stability and activation should be incorporated into your training. If performed YEAR ROUND, it will enable you to perform better in training and reach your goals faster:
- Prioritise free weights over machines when possible to get a more functional workout. For example, free-weight squats are better than doing the leg press, because it requires much more balance and activation of more muscle groups, including your core.
- Prioritise exercises that are specific to the swim, bike and run movements. For example, Single leg exercises are specific as with running and cycling you are always transitioning from one leg to the other, so it’s important to train force production unilaterally.
- Prioritise compound (multi-joint) exercises that work multiple large muscle groups when possible.
- Include a PUSH, PULL, SQUAT, HIP HINGE and ROTATIONAL movement pattern in your workout.
The structure of your Strength workout should be as follows:
- Warm-up: Activation and mobility (~10 minutes)
- Strength (20 to 30 minutes) – 3 to 6 exercises, 3 sets, 6-12 reps (or 2 to 5 exercises, 2 sets, 6-10 reps in maintenance phase)
- Core strength and stability training, stretching, foam rolling (5-25 minutes)
Ensure light weights and higher reps when starting your strength training, and progress to lower reps and heavier weights before you get into race season.
As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, I believe learning correct movement patterns and mastering technique is paramount. Moreover, training the right types of exercises with specific weekly overload or progression, will be key to an athletes success in strength training gains. Therefore I will cover this topic in more detail in my next article!
Summing it up:
Improvements to overall pace and speed running off the bike come from a combination of:
- Improved technique and running form
- Improving top aerobic endurance through specific QUALITY run training sessions each week (intervals or reps at your correct heart rate and pace zones)
- Consistent Core strength and mobility training that is targeted towards improving the athlete’s INDIVIDUAL weaknesses and imbalances, and strengthening the major muscles involved in running.
- Planning and Tracking each of the above factors into an athlete’s week to week training, and analysing these over time so they can see what areas they are and aren’t improving.
Triathletes are commonly in different ability levels for the different disciplines. In these instances, I highly recommend 1-1 coaching or a customized training plan, as MOST pre-built training plans will not take this into account.
I hope this article has helped you to improve your running off the bike. Enjoy! 🙂
Radkewich N (2015) 3 Tips for Running Faster Off the Bike. http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/3-tips-for-running-faster-off-the-bike
Wernick C (2014) 4 Keys to Running Faster off the Bike. Accessed at http://ap.ironman.com/triathlon/news/articles/2014/10/how-to-run-faster-off-the-bike.aspx#axzz40N8AZBGM