I regularly have athletes coming to me because they want to improve their run off the bike. The first response is the athlete thinks they need to run more. Sometimes this is the case but often it's not. Running for a 1500 m track event and running off of a 90 km or 180 km bike are two completely different things. I've seen athletes hiring a run coach to improve their running, then see their 400m times improve, but still fall short when it comes to having a good run off the bike. Here are my 10 tips to helping you have a better run off the bike in triathlon:
1. Get off your toes
I'm not sure when the forefoot running first came out but I'm almost certain it wasn't discovered in triathlon! Teaching athletes to strike from the front of the foot leads to nothing but lower leg injuries and for most is not sustainable, especially for a 42 km run off the bike. This style of running takes the key muscles out of the equation (glutes) and puts way too much pressure on the lower leg and calf. When an athlete is tired and completely depleted it makes no sense, in my opinion, to keep loading up the smaller muscle groups. Now there is still the odd runner out there who can sustain an Ironman marathon on their toes, but it's more than likely that they’ve been running a high volume for most of their lives and can get away with it. Even Haile Gebrselassie, a former marathon world record holder, when asked what he changed to improve his marathon times, said he needed to move to more of a heel strike.
2. Work on high run cadence
In general, increasing run turnover will help an athlete run faster. In the second half of the run when the body is out of "spring", a long stretched out stride just takes too much energy out of the athlete. We aim for a cadence of 90 strides per minute for most people. For people with shorter legs, it is often higher at around 95-100.
3. Improve run efficiency
One of the most important factors for a good Ironman marathon is being as efficient as possible. The best ways I have found to improve run efficiency is to increase your turnover (as mentioned above), staying upright (not leaning forward), reducing your vertical oscillation (the amount you bounce up and down every step), keeping your arms up closer to your chest, and keeping your legs low (reducing the amount of hamstring kick at the back of your stride). It’s important to always focus on holding a good technique as you get more fatigued at the end of your sessions. We call this TUF (technique under fatigue). If you ever notice the best runners in the back half of a race, you will almost always notice a similar thing, they still look good even though they may be hurting because they are efficient!
4. Get on the treadmill
If your main problem is either needing to get your cadence up or you struggle from running injuries, then my suggestion is to get on the treadmill. It helps with turnover as it's almost impossible to overstride. The surface also helps lessen the impact on the body. Also, when athletes are trying to improve their bike, treadmill running works well as they are able to recover faster from a treadmill run so they can hit the bike hard enough on the non-running days.
5. Get your bike stronger
When I won my age group at Ironman Australia in 2015 with the fastest female run split, I did not do more running that year, in fact, it was the opposite (it was 65 km/week max). I actually did less running and just worked on my bike strength with a tonne of big gear work on the bike. I recently had an athlete run a 2:57 marathon (a 12 min marathon PB) after a PB bike this year. The main thing we worked on was proper fuelling and more big gear training on the bike, NOT more running.
6. Run more hills
This is fairly obvious, but long-distance triathlon is very much a strength sport where strength endurance is the key component to a successful race. Running hills, just like pushing big gears on the bike, will help you run faster on the flat. It also helps prevent running injuries. At Trisutto we generally like to run hills every 3rd run or so.
7. Build mileage slowly
You can only get better if you’re not injured. One of the best ways to reduce the chances of injury is to build up the mileage slowly. I recommend increasing run volume by no more than 10% per week. At Trisutto we say “hurry slowly”. For most females, it’s best to only run every second day, in order to rest the bones on the non-run days.
8. Double or triple run days
Double or triple run days is a great way to get the mileage up instead of just a really long run on the weekend. This also helps keep the run quality up and generally less risk for injury as opposed to just going long and slow every weekend.
9. Make most of your run’s progressive
There are a few reasons for doing this. The first is there is less chance of injury when you start your runs slower. If the muscles are tired from the training load, they often need more time to warm up and get all the big muscles firing. If you step out the front door and go straight into a hard run (which needs the large muscle groups) you increase the risk of pulling something. Also, I've never seen it work in a race to start too fast. You will almost always finish a race/session better if you start easier and finish fast. It seems to work ok for the Kenyans.
10. Stay fuelled
Staying well fuelled in my opinion is the key factor for staying injury-free. Any injuries I've seen have almost 100% of the time happened from under fuelling or losing weight too quickly. It's a tough subject because the main thought is “if I lose weight I will run faster”. Yes, this can be true, but if you are injured from losing weight and can't run, you obviously won't improve. Do some athletes need to stay bigger to improve? Yes. Could some athletes lose weight to improve? Yes. It all depends on the size of the engine and frame of the athlete. If you are an athlete who may have a little bit too much extra weight, my advice is to try and lose it slowly and more in the offseason when the training intensity/load isn't too high.