Triathlon Running Knowledge


Triathlon Disciplines: Triathlon Running

Running is the last of the three disciplines in a triathlon and therefore has a special place in the race. In triathlon we often hear the term, “bike for show, run for dough”, due to the critical part it generally has in the outcome of the race. By the time the run portion of the event comes around, many triathletes are already exhausted from swimming and cycling and have to mobilize their last reserves. Therefore, experienced triathletes in particular train with this circumstance in mind. The combinations of endurance and strength is the most important factor for a successful finish in the running leg of the triathlon. Ideally, triathlon running training therefore takes into account the fact that the running leg takes place at the end of the triathlon and to meet these circumstances often includes long endurance running workouts. It’s also helpful in triathlon training from time to time to train the specific transition from cycling to running to replicate conditions similar to those in a race. In the following we will go into detail about the general differences in different triathlon running workouts and their characteristics, and we will also try to get you familiarized with running fundamentals and give you a good start with the most important general information about running in a triathlon.

Running Training for a Triathlon - Running Workouts for Each Skill Level

Triathlon running workouts are anything but simple and easy. They are workouts where you run mile after mile, often four or more times a week. The goal of running workouts for a triathlon should be to get ready to successfully complete the course, but this should quickly evolve into completing it in a certain amount of time and with a certain amount of effort. Efficiency is key! So don't think that for a good triathlon running time it's enough to focus on endurance running workouts and just repeat your standard 5k and 10k training plan over and over again. Simply, you need to run faster while your heart beats slower. For this reason, triathlon running workouts involve five core aspects: endurance, strength, speed, technique and aerobic foundation. These five aspects of triathlon running training should be targeted in every triathlete's training and adapted according to skill level and triathlon distance.

Running Training plans and Workouts for Beginners

For beginners, the biggest challenge might be that in a triathlon, the running leg comes after the swim and bike portions. Even those who may already have experience in running simply must train to endure more and keep going for longer. For beginners, the focus is still primarily on low intensity endurance running workouts (about 70-80% of the total training time) and technique. Working on aspects like speed, strength and aerobic capacity also plays an important role for triathlon, depending on which distance triathlon you plan to compete in. To really succeed and achieve a good finish time, a polarized training intensity distribution with about 20% of high intensity training (above critical run speed) like speed and strength endurance workouts is especially important to prepare successfully for shorter triathlons. Since these distances are more likely to be chosen by beginners, as the overall preparation time, required fitness and training amount is lower, it’s still helpful to train basic endurance with spikes of high intensity workouts in between.

Running Training Plans and Workouts for Intermediates and Advanced Triathletes

For intermediates and advanced triathletes the concept of performing three sports in a row is already more familiar. Since most triathletes also strive to move on to longer triathlon distances there are new priorities for them to set regarding triathlon running training compared to beginners. On the one hand, aerobic endurance will be trained even more, as it also lays the foundation for longer triathlon distances such as the 70.3 or the long distance. On the other hand, since we can assume that experienced triathletes have developed their basic endurance a bit further, it is important to train running more at intensities close to race pace intensity. The exact pace, of course, varys in accordance to the targeted race distance. For event distances such as Full Distance and 70.3, this mid-level training intensity (which is avoided in strictly polarized training approaches) is important to include. However, the goal also remains to keep feeding the body new impulses to adapt to. This can be achieved by workouts with increased difficulty like hill runs for example. Just like triathlon beginners, intermediates and advanced triathletes can also implement workouts from 5k or 10k training plans as long as they monitor their intensity and combine these sessions with other endurance training as stated before.

Different Kinds of Triathlon Running Workouts

As previously discussed, there are several aspects to consider in triathlon running training, which are weighted differently depending on skill level and experience, for example endurance, speed, strength, technique and aerobic fitness. These different aspects can be trained and developed with different running workouts. Here are three of the basic triathlon running workouts that you should know in order to pass the running leg of a triathlon.

Long Run Workouts

Long run workouts are used to train and build your aerobic endurance. Aerobic endurance is when the body uses oxygen to produce energy. When this is trained, the body can run long distances more efficiently without exhaustion. With this type of training, it can also be observed that your cardiovascular fitness improves. The goal is to keep the intensity sufficiently low to maintain a constant speed over a long distance without an increase in heart rate or breathing. A typical long run consists of extended periods of time (depending on the level of the athlete) running at a heart rate below the aerobic threshold or in other words “conversational” intensity.

Speed Run Workouts

At a certain point, speed run workouts become an important part of triathlon training for every triathlete. Especially for experienced triathletes the time in which the run portion of the race is completed is in the center of attention. Generally the term “speed” means running above threshold speed.

Speed session can mean intervals or fartlek in running. Fartlek training involves increasing and decreasing speed while on a continuous run, while interval training involves running at a quick pace for a short period of time and then coming to a full stop for a break. Both are great methods of training and often included as integral parts of running training programs.

Brick Run Workouts

Brick workouts are traditionally continuous back to back bike/run/bike/runs,  but more recently triathletes use this term for any run after cycling, or a “run off the bike” (ROB). ROB workouts are a very important part of running training for triathlon. By changing from a cycling position to an upright running position, blood circulation is initially disturbed and you can get a jelly-like feeling in your legs. This can affect your running during the first 7-15 minutes, which is why the so-called ROB workouts are very important. With ROB training, you do a running workout about 2 times a week with the duration being dependent on the targeted event. This way your body gets used to the fast change between cycling and running and the strange feeling in your legs should decrease more and more.

How to Improve Running Efficiency, Technique and Form

There are many different techniques for running, and the choice of running style is usually innate or trained. This includes the heel and forefoot strike, which describes whether you run mainly on the heel or on the forefoot. Both techniques are equally fast and equally efficient, although a small study by Oxford University found that the risk of injury is significantly increased for heel strikers. Nevertheless, both techniques are used by triathletes as well as marathon runners and other athletes. Posture as well as your leg position can greatly improve your running efficiency. Here are a few tips on how to improve your running technique and run more efficiently.

1. Knee Ankle Position

An important aspect of running is the position of your body during contact with the ground, as a wrong position of your legs or body can lead to a strong deceleration. For this reason, regardless of whether you are a heel or forefoot striker, you should always make sure that your knee and ankle are in line when you step. This will minimize braking by your own body and increase your running efficiency.

2. Tall Posture

Many athletes need to practice the correct upright posture, as frequent sitting causes them to lose much of their flexibility in the hips and torso, resulting in a naturally curved posture. However, to increase your running efficiency it is of great importance to keep the whole body straight and in a slightly forward leaning position while running to achieve the correct running posture.

3. Shoulders and Arms

In addition to your posture and leg position, your shoulders and arms also play a large part in your running efficiency. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to your arms and shoulders when perfecting your running technique. Loosening your shoulders and neck will relieve tension and increase the overall flexibility and mobility of your shoulders, neck and back. This allows your arms to better stabilize you while running, keep you in step and also produce additional power for running.

Running Intensity

Running intensity is one of the basic variables used to classify the training intensity of runners. It describes how fast you are currently running compared to the athletes individual capacity (e.g. threshold running speed or maximal aerobic speed).

In running training the running intensity is roughly divided into the zones low, moderate and high. Depending on the zone in which you train, the running training has a different influence on your physiological response. The division of the zones is clearly defined. Low intensity running is the intensity at which the athlete can run without much effort and with a normal calm breathing (below the first aerobic threshold). As soon as the breathing becomes faster and the workload increases, we are in the moderate zone (this is between the aerobic and anaerobic threshold). Once the athlete has surpassed the aerobic threshold, we speak of high intensity running.

The importance of Measuring Running Economy

Running economy is one of the most important physiological measures for endurance athletes and describes the energy demand of the race at a constant speed, which is below the maximum load. The more trained the athlete, the less oxygen he needs to maintain the constant speed. The running economy is therefore a good predictor of the performance and therefore the running efficiency of an athlete. Running economy is measured by measuring VO2 during running (usually on a treadmill) where the runner has to run for about 15 minutes at a constant speed.

Critical Run Speed / Critical Velocity Speed

The critical run speed, also called critical velocity, is a physiological state where a “quasi steady state” can be maintained. However, this is also thought to represent the pace an athlete can maintain for about 30 to 60 minutes. The critical velocity is often the basis for assessing the fitness level of an athlete, from which the intensity and type of further training can be determined. Thus, the critical velocity together with the running economy forms a good information basis for calculating the current fitness level of an athlete. A big advantage of the critical velocity is that no laboratory or other measuring equipment is needed, as it can be well estimated in the field.

A simple way to guess critical velocity speed is to just use the fastest all out steady speed you can maintain in a 5K. The more detailed critical velocity speed test is usually performed in 4 steps. First you should run at maximum speed and hold it for about 90 - 120 seconds. In the second step, the speed is reduced so that you can sustain it for about 3-4 minutes. The last two speeds should be a bit slower again and you should be able to hold them for about 10 minutes. Each of these attempts should bring you to maximum exhaustion and there should always be 10 - 15 minute breaks between the attempts.

To calculate the critical velocity speed, first take the exact times of your four runs that you were able to keep at a constant pace. These times are your so-called Time Limit (TL). Furthermore, you take the distances you have run in the time of the respective run, the Distance Limits (TL). If you plot these data in a Distance-Time-Diagram you get four data points which you connect to a graph. The slope of this graph gives you your critical velocity speed.

Running Cadence - Measuring Your Steps per Minute (spm)

Besides critical velocity speed and running economy, running cadence is another way to analyze your running. The running cadence is often described as the number of steps a runner takes per minute (spm). This is simply measured by counting the number of steps within 60 seconds at a constant running speed. However, it is important to note that it does not make sense to increase the running cadence just to improve the running speed, it does not work that way. The running cadence is rather passively influenced by run training and increases the running efficiency if it fits optimally to the runner. It is thought that  a running cadence of 85-90 SPM (single leg) is optimal for long distance running.

Different Foot Types Require Different Shoes

People’s feet, whether athletes or non-athletes, often vary greatly in shape and mobility. This is usually congenital or can result from the choice of shoes or the way they walk when they are young. Below are the three most common foot types and the different types of shoes that match them.

Foot Type 1: Normal (Medium) Arch

The medium arch is the most common foot type in both athletes and non-athletes, which is why it is also called the normal arch (about 60% of people). The advantage of this foot shape is that when running, the load is distributed evenly over the entire foot, reducing the risk of injury and the stress on the legs and hips. This type of foot can wear any type of shoe well.

Foot Type 2: The Flat Foot

The flat foot is the second most common foot type (about 20%), but it does not distribute the load evenly over the foot like the normal arch, but tends to overpronate, which means that the foot rolls slightly inward. This incorrect loading has the consequence that the risk of injury increases and the knees and hips are heavily loaded when walking. Stability or motion control shoes can help here, as they support the foot in rolling correctly.

Foot Type 3: The High-Arched Foot

The high arched foot is the rarest foot type and tends to underpronate, which means that the foot does not absorb the shock sufficiently when stepping. The foot usually rolls outwards, which leads to an increased risk of injury, especially to the ligaments and the ankle. This can be remedied by well cushioned shoes with strong arch support and a soft midsole to absorb stress.

Shoe Type A: Trainers

Good for beginners, because the shoes are usually cheap, comfortable and reliable. A good allrounder.

Shoe Type B: Flats

Very light shoe with little support, which is very good for fast running. Less suitable for beginners.

Shoe Type C: Carbon-plated flats

Very similar to normal flats only with carbon content, making them even lighter. Suitable for experienced athletes with larger budget.

Shoe Type D: Long-run shoes

Very well cushioned running shoes that are well suited for long distances (half or full distance triathlon).

Shoe Type E: Stability shoes

Suitable for people who overpronate (flat foot) because this shoe prevents the roll-in of the feet.

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