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7 Ways to Make Your Triathlon Run Strong and Fun

by Deanna Pomfret

A runner turned triathlete once told me “the best thing about his swim is his run.” He was that poor a swimmer and that great a runner that he could make up for it on the run and still place in his age group. 

About nine years ago he was swimming 25s in the pool and resting a lot in between them. I’m sure he would have rather been outside running than in the pool swimming. 

His time in the pool paid off. This runner turned triathlete is now an excellent swimmer, cyclist and runner. He has won first place in is age group at IRONMAN Florida in 2013, qualified and went to the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October 2014 and I could go on. He’s still a great runner too. He recently won his age group with 3:19 at Providence Marathon. Needless to say, this guy is no longer a poor swimmer and still a great runner and overall world-class triathlete. 

As a runner coming to triathlon for the first time you get to finish the race with your strength, the run, but not until you complete the swim and bike. Here are seven things a great runner can do to make their first triathlon run strong and fun. 

  1. Get in the water as soon as you finish reading this article. Swimming is very different from cycling and running. If you are new to swimming it will require time, practice and patience. Like the athlete mentioned above, the swim is an opportunity to continue to grow as an athlete both physically and mentally. Get a swim coach or find yourself an experienced triathlon swimmer who can share their passion, enjoyment and advice with you.  
  2. Cycle instead of some of your runs. If you are running five to six times per week replace at least two of those runs with a bike ride. If you are new to cycling consider three of those runs as a bike instead. Spend time in the saddle. Understand that your aerobic engine is still getting fired up without the wear and tear running can do on the body. This means quicker recovery between workouts and more potential to challenge yourself on your training runs. 
  3. Run 10-20 minutes right after you ride. This type of training ride and run will help you get used to the fact that though your legs may feel heavy to start, you will feel better usually within 10 minutes.  
  4. Pace smart when you run off the bike in training and racing. You may have great run legs but your bike legs are faster! You cover a lot more miles on the bike than you would running, and without the impact on your body. Then you hit the ground and it’s like one of those slow-motion scenes in a movie. Gravity hits and you slow down and there you are with these legs trying to figure out what happened. Don’t be fooled. You are likely running faster than you think. Your legs and brain want to keep going at that bike speed, rather than at your best run speed. Look at your watch, count your steps, listen to your breathing. Do what you need to do to slow down. Practice this every time you run right after you bike.  
  5. Work on your mental game and perception of yourself as a strong triathlete. Your run leg actually starts with the swim and bike. Learn how to problem solve, laugh, let go, make mantras on the fly. Do everything it takes to keep things moving forward for that run. 
  6. Do some of your training runs later in the day. As you get closer to your race, if you are racing in hot weather, do some training runs later in the day to acclimate.  
  7. Practice progression during your runs. This is a triathlon-specific run workout. Warm up about 20 minutes, start easy and build to moderate effort. Then run 3 minutes somewhat hard, 3 minutes hard, 3 minutes harder, 1 minute hardest. Easy jog 5 minutes and repeat. This kind of workout helps you keep patient and distribute your energy and effort across the workout. So with each of these increases in effort you can distinctly feel and observe the difference in your breathing, your turnover, your pace, your heart rate and your mental state. This is within the run but the skill you are learning can be applied to the entire triathlon race. 

The best thing you can do for your triathlon run: back off your runs a little bit and swim and cycle instead. Know that this will be a huge part of your continued growth as a runner. Embrace it, enjoy it, give it time and attention and you will find that your strength is in you — not in a specific leg of your race. 

Deanna Pomfret is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and owner of Athletic Pursuits LLC. She has coached since 2005 and is currently pursuing a master’s of science in health and wellness with a fellowship in sports nutrition.