I often have athletes coming to me because they want to improve their run off the bike. Often times 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 low 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 get on the treadmill. It’s helps with turnover as it’s almost impossible to over stride. 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 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 runs 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 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 fueling 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 off season when the training intensity/load isn’t too high.
Michelle Barnes is a 13 time Ironman Finisher and 7 time Kona Qualifier with over 30 AG podiums in all distances. She was recently the 35-39 AG Champion at Ironman Australia, where she had the fastest overall female marathon, including the pros. Michelle understands the challenge of training at a competitive level and need for balance while holding down a full time job.
Join Michelle in Vernon, British Columbia for two training camps in July.
As we move into February, most athletes are back into their training routines. For those who earned a good off season and are just starting back up, they may be feeling somewhat out of shape. They may have also gained a few kilos enjoying their holidays or simply from training less – which I think is a good idea for most. This is also the time that I see a lot of athletes wanting to rush into getting their fitness back straight away and wanting to see the “old” paces from before their big builds to key races or their “old” numbers on the scale.
Hurrying anything in triathlon in my opinion leads to nothing but burn out, injury and a short life in the sport! I have personally spent five years studying sports science at University, ten years working in the fitness industry helping people get fit and lose weight, six years treating clients as a Massage Therapist and I’ve been coaching since 2009. So, I have LOADS of personal experience learning the best ways to prevent injuries and burn out before they start!
I’m also someone who spent my first two years in Triathlon with several injuries and a stress fracture by not doing things right with my eating and recovery methods. I’ve learnt a lot since then and now as a coach I have built a reputation of helping people come back from injury and burn out. So here are my top 10 tips for preventing injuries before they start:
1. Listen to your body
We’ve all had times when our body gives us little niggles, which are often ignored resulting in a full-blown injury. I’m not saying worry about every little tightness, but if something is causing you to run differently or doesn’t work itself out after 15 min of running or cycling then don’t ignore it! Get a proper diagnosis from a professional and talk to your coach about what should be done.
2. Proper Fueling
It’s important to be well fueled (this includes carbs!) especially during and after intense workouts.
I see this all the time. It’s no coincidence that most injuries occur when weight is dropped too quickly. I see it all the time- muscles can’t fully fire properly without enough fuel, especially for more intense intervals. If you want to go faster, your body needs carbs, your brain works on carbs and you will not only limit your performance but limit recovery as well without them. It’s doesn’t mean we are jamming down massive calories for a 45 min morning jog but for anything over 90 min you should be fueling. There are always exceptions, but I can say that most females under fuel, which is why they seem to be more prone to things like stress fractures etc.
3. Adequate Warm up
Don’t skip your warm up, especially when running intervals.
If you are pressed for time and can’t get your whole workout in, you are better off skipping the cool down rather than the warm up. This is especially critical if you are doing running intervals or some sort of fartlek workout. I’ve seen many running injuries occur with people who hop straight onto the treadmill for their fast 30 sec intervals with zero warm up. Fartlek and faster running needs ALL the big muscles working and they take longer to warm up. The more training you are doing, the longer the warm up. I won’t advise any running intervals without at least a 15 min warm up, unless it’s straight off the bike, in which case the bike is the warm up.
As a side note, for harder run sessions I often prefer my athletes to walk or hop on the bike for a cool-down, as this this is often safer than trying to force a slow run when fatigued.
4. Run Frequency
If you are a female and prone to injuries, I recommend running every second day and mixing it up with the treadmill. Now I say females just because their bones don’t usually have the same strength as males, but this can apply to both. If you are prone to injuries, run every other day and incorporate lots of treadmill sessions. You will recover better and give your bones a rest on the days off.
I have a rule that if you are doing decent run mileage, keep at least 50% on a soft surface, so either track or treadmill. I use to give this advice to my massage clients all the time, then one year I broke the rule myself and ended up with a stress response in my sacrum. For the males or stronger females, we go one day hard, one day easy and one day off running.
This is your best recovery aid on the market hands down. This is when your body repairs, this is when your natural Growth Hormone (GH) is at its best, which is critical for recovery. Pre-midnight hours are your best bang for your buck- so 8 hours from 9-5 is going to be way better quality than 8 hours from 12-8. The more training you do, the more sleep you will often need. It’s no coincidence that you will hear about a lot of the pros saying they need 9-10 hours of sleep every night! Not all age group athletes have that luxury which is why weekend naps or a little extra sleep in on the weekend will massively benefit your recovery and performance.
6. Regular Massage
Get a regular massage. Now this is not me being bias because I’m a Remedial Massage Therapist, but I believe me if you find a good one it makes a huge difference. Especially if you find one who can actually check that all the muscles groups are firing properly (most importantly the glutes!) and potentially stop an issue before it starts. Also, any method that’s moving blood around the body will certainly speed up recovery and help bring nutrients to all the tissues..
7. Bike Position
A poor bike position can lead to many issues. If you are one of those athletes that will stop at nothing to get as aero as absolute possible, but you can barely touch your knees when you bend over; 1) You probably won’t have your full power while being super aggressive, 2) You likely won’t stay in aero for the whole 180 km because it will be too uncomfortable/painful.
Now we are all about being aero, but it needs to work with your own personal biomechanics and the type of riding you do. At Trisutto we do heaps of big gear work, this doesn’t fit with a more cyclist type position and a saddle that’s too high. It will stop you from being able to use the glutes and push the heal down to mash the pedals. Most hamstring issues I see coming from the bike are almost always when saddle height is too high. How do you know? Well your hips rock when you ride, if your saddle is too high and when you push the pace you will likely feel your hamstrings. We like to save the hamstrings for the run, so I advise to lean towards a lower seat rather than a higher one.
8. Run Technique
Pay attention to run form. At Trisutto we pay very close attention to swim, bike and run form. Some may call our methods unconventional, but they work. For running we get off our toes, stand more upright and pick up our cadence to get faster. I have a great athlete from the UK, big fellow, big engine, that came to me last year with calf injuries. I asked him to send me a run video and I could see right away, his 90 kg body was running very much on his forefoot. This same athlete had his saddle to high on the bike as well, so every run and ride he was doing was way over using his calves. We fixed this straight away and he hasn’t had an injury ever since, while having his best runs off the bike ever last season.
Change shoes often, but don’t swap between different shoes. This is especially important if you wear a very protective shoe, such as something with a lot of cushioning or motion control, like the Hoka. Shoes wear down, like anything, and any small change in biomechanics can cause issues. For example, any extra wear down to the outside of your shoe can be just enough to put extra strain on certain muscles.
If I have an athlete saying their shins or peroneal muscles are getting tight (anything lower leg), and they have changed nothing in their training, the first thing I ask is how old are their shoes? Almost always they are completely trashed and a new shoe in the same make and model fixes the issue straight away. Another note is that we like to race in what we train in. I see so many have one shoe for training and a different shoe for racing which I think is insane. We race in what we train in- I made this mistake once and got an injury during a race that stopped me from running for a few weeks after.
10. Slow Down!
Never train through pain, go at a pace where you have no pain. This is critical. I’ve seen so many athletes with issues who won’t slow down and wonder why their niggles won’t go away. If you have an injury and can train easy with no pain then this is the best rehab. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, water run. It keeps the muscles from wasting, keeps the neuromuscular system active and is a great way to keep bringing oxygen and blood flow to the area to speed up healing. I’ll never forget my friend, Phil Buchli, who came to a camp in St Moritz. Phil had an Achilles injury and he was fine just jogging all the track sessions and faster running sets. He had no issue putting his ego aside and running 6:30 min/km, when everyone was going faster. I followed him on Strava up until Ironman Switzerland and he just kept it up and slowly got quicker. It was obvious that his Achilles fixed its self- he ended up running a 3:12 marathon off the bike! I know in the past Brett has had some of his pros with injuries, put on a backpack and go for a long hike instead of running if they were injured.
The one thing you should take away from all of this, is to listen to your body and train smart. Nothing in triathlon happens quickly, slowly build your fitness and speed leading into the season.
Michelle Barnes is a Canadian Trisutto.com coach.
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