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Solving the Run Riddle

By Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis

"I had a solid swim, I tore it up on the bike, and then I fell apart on the run!  What happened?  How can I avoid this and have a strong run?"  Triathletes typically respond to this question and problem by running more, running harder, or both, figuring they are just not very good runners.  Sometimes this works - if the athlete's problem is simply that they are not as strong of a runner as they'd like to be.  If that sounds like you, then keep at it - there is not substitute for hard work.  But what if you already are a strong runner and you still seem to fade or fall apart on the run in triathlons?  What if you run great in running races, but don't run so well in triathlons?  In this case, we need to identify what is holding you back and go over how to solve your problem.  Here are five common issues that cause weak triathlon runs and their solutions. 

Poor Swimming and Cycling Technique

Poor swimming and cycling technique are often the cause of poor running performance in a triathlon.  This can be difficult to grasp if you think of a triathlon as three different sports.  In reality, you encounter a triathlon as one race, with three different disciplines, or methods of movement, linked together.  In any endurance-sports race, how much energy you expend (physical, mental, and emotional) during the first half of the race greatly affects your performance in the second half of the race.  Consider what it would be like to run a marathon or ½ marathon if you were forced to run the first half with your hands tied behind your back, and then the second half of the race with your hands free. This would affect your performance not only in the first half of the race.  Yes, you would run more slowly over the first half of the course as a result of your impaired movement abilities, but even with your hands free, you would run with great difficulty over the second half of the course because you would have just run over the first half of the course in a terribly inefficient manner, using up a lot of your stored energy.  This is what happens to you when you complete the swim and bike portions of the race with great effort (and sometimes great speed), but with poor economy of motion from your underdeveloped swimming and cycling technique.  It's simply taking you too much energy to get through the swim and the bike. 

If this is your problem:

1. Make it a priority to patiently and systematically develop your ability to swim faster with less effort by learning to swim with good technique.  The books, videos, and other materials from Terry Laughlin's company Total Immersion (go www.totalimmersion.net) are among the best sources of help in this area.

2. Make sure your bike fit allows to you pedal your bike with a high level of efficiency.  Consider an expert bike fit from a bike fitter experienced in fitting triathletes.  For more information on what is involved in a comprehensive bike fitting for a triathlete, visit the websites of professional bike fitters.  A great place to start is Ian Buchanan's Fit Werx website (www.fitwerx.com). 

3. Make it a priority to learn to pedal with greater efficiency.  This means learning to apply force evenly throughout the entire pedal stroke.  Drills such as single-leg pedaling, high-cadence pedaling, and similar drills, as well as methods such as periodically riding a fixed-gear bike can all help with pedaling efficiency. 

Poor Strength/Power

All endurance sports require the cyclic production of strong/powerful movements.  Running is no different.  It is often a triathlete's lack of strength/power that limits him/her on the run of a triathlon.  For many triathletes, years of an overemphasis on "long-slow-distance training" slowly deteriorates their neuromuscular system, diminishing their capacity to perform strong/powerful motions.  For many who run out of steam on the run, unable to hold a strong pace, this is the case. 

To improve your strength/power:

1. Incorporate hill workouts in both cycling and running in your training plans. 

2. Incorporate gym-based strength/power workouts into your training plan.  Use free-standing, total-body exercises that train movements not muscles.  Exercises like all forms of squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, standing pushing exercises, standing pulling exercises, Olympic lifts, medicine-ball throws, plyometrics, and similar exercises are ideal for developing usable, athletic strength/power.  Keep your workouts under an hour and focused on strength/power, not endurance.  To do so, keep your sets per workout to 15 or less, keep your reps per set to 10 or less, and take rest intervals of 2-3 minutes between sets. 

Poor Running Technique

Running is not solely a metabolic activity as many think.  Like swimming and cycling, running has a larger technique aspect.  You may be having problems in the run of a triathlon, not because you have not developed the endurance to cover the distance at a good speed, but because your running technique is poor and you are wasting tremendous amounts of energy when you run.  If you have not worked to create optimal running technique, this could very well be your downfall.

If this is your problem, work on establishing an efficient mid-foot landing under your center of mass, on establishing a quick, rapid turnover where you are light on your feet, and keeping your stride compact in both the front and back.  Learning to run well is a fun process of reconnecting with how your body is designed to interact with the earth and with gravity.  Doing so allows you to run in a way that takes advantage of, instead of fighting, the natural forces of gravity as well as inertia, momentum, and the stored elastic energy in your muscles.  For a thorough discussion of improving running technique and materials to help you, the books, videos, and other materials of Nicholas Romanov's company Pose Tech (www.posetech.com) are excellent resources. 

Sub-par Overall Health

It's possible that you crumble during the run not because you are a poor runner, but because you are racing in a state of subpar overall health.  Stated another way, you are chronically overstressed (overtrained).  A triathlon places a huge demand on you to perform a very difficult task.  To do so successfully requires you to draw upon every ounce of your physical, mental, and emotional reserves especially in the later stages of the race (the run).  If you get to the start line of your big race, and your physical, mental, and emotional reserve tanks area already half empty, it is going to be very hard for you to sustain a high level effort for the duration of the event.  Usually, through strong willpower, you'll "hold it together" (not a peak performance state) for much of the race, but at some point in the run, you'll hit a wall.  This is often seen in DNFs as well as dramatically slowed paces on the run compared to the rest of the race.  The problem here is not poor running ability; it's subpar overall health.  The problem simply shows up on the run because it is the last segment of the demanding race.  An overstressed, tired athlete tends to fall apart late in races.  A very well-rested, very healthy athlete tends to finish races strongly. 

If subpar overall health is holding you back, you should make it a priority to work to improve your overall health.  Here are some areas to work on:

1. Rest.  Successful training is based around the concept of systematically applying workout stress with alternating periods of rest.  A major cause of sub-par health in triathletes is constant application of workout stress without adequate rest.  Make sure that your training plan is set up in a way that allows for the necessary rest.  Try to carve out some time each day for at least a bit of rest and carve out more when you can (like on weekends).  If you have trouble "doing nothing", learn to!  And by the way, try not to think of rest as "doing nothing".  Instead, think of it as the conscious choice to allow yourself some downtime.  In your training plans, carve out a rest week every 3-5 weeks where you cut your workout load in half, and take a rest day (no workouts) at least one day a week. 

2. Sleep.  Oftentimes, more sleep, not a greater workout load, will greatly improve your performance, by creating better health.  Make it a priority to create great chronic sleep patterns.

3. Nutrition.  Inadequate nutrition can quickly lead to diminished health which will often rear its head in poor triathlon runs.  Make sure your daily diet is full of fruits, vegetables, lean meat, eggs, nuts, and seeds.    

4. Stress Management.  Making the effort to simplify your life can greatly reduce your overall stress load.  Look at your work life and relationships and see where you can make changes to reduce the amount of stress in your life. 

Poor Pacing

Sometimes athletes just go too fast/hard in the swim, bike, and/or early in the run, and it comes back to bite them.  Pacing is vital in any endurance-sports race.  Pacing in a triathlon is a bit tricky when compared to a single-discipline race like a running race, so it takes a bit of experience to really get the hang of it.  Think of the swim like the first fifth of a marathon.  It's no time to be racing like a hero.  Would you ever race real fast/hard-faster/harder than you can sustain-in the first five miles of a marathon?  No way.  Because you know it would slow you down or crush you later in the race.  The same thing can happen in a triathlon.  Avoid thinking of it as three separate races.  Your body (and your mind and heart), perceive a triathlon as one race.  In the transitions, you don't get a chance to rest your muscles, take a mental snooze, or stop giving your all to start fresh on the next leg.  Think of the bike like the bulk of the race (keep your pace consistent; don't go nuts) and the run like the last fifth of a marathon.  The last fifth of a marathon is when it hurts, when you have to dig deep to keep racing well.  The run in triathlon is no different. Pace yourself well through the swim and the bike and early in the run, you are in place to finish strong and have your best overall time. 

If poor pacing is your problem:

1. Do some workouts leading up to your race(s) at are very race specific and practice your pacing.  Directly practice what paces you can sustain for the distances of your race.  Then in the race, stick to paces that you know you can realistically maintain for the distance. 

2. Use recent races to help you gauge your best approach to pacing.  You can use races of the same distance that went well as a good gauge.  Or use races of the same distance where you fell apart in the run as a red flag that you need to ease up a bit.  You can also use races of different distances.  As a solid rule of thumb, when you double the distance of a race, you'll be able sustain speeds/paces that are about 5-10 percent slower.  When you halve the distance of a race, you'll be able to sustain speeds/paces that are about 5-10 percent faster. 

3. When in doubt, slow down a bit.  If you are conservative in your pacing, you will always be able to make up the time later in the race.  However, if you are aggressive in your pacing, you will always pay this back (with "interest") later in the race.  That is, you will give back the time you saved early on and more, often much more. 

There are several other factors besides running more or running harder that can go into solving your triathlon run riddle.  Pick out what you think is holding you back and start working at it.  You'll be on your way to a stronger run and stronger overall race in your next triathlon.  It'll feel so good to finish strong! 

Learn more about Jason Gootman, Will Kirousis, and Tri-Hard Endurance Sports Coaching at www.tri-hard.com

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