Seasons change, the weather cools off but still a hot topic with athletes is running. Everyone wants to improve their run. There is something sexy, powerful and sleek about finishing a triathlon strong. No one wants to start their race with a bang and fizzle (poor swimmers!). Or, rock a fast bike split then shuffle the run (poor cyclists!). The run is where it’s at. If you can do all that – swim, bike and still run, you are something very special in triathlon.
So what is the secret? How do you improve your run? Is it a winter marathon? Wearing a Garmin? Biking with a power meter? Plyometrics? Losing weight? Let’s take a look...
Any discussion of how to improve running has to start with the basics – body composition. Running is a sport that requires moving your own body weight and absorbing the impact. How much impact? A runner comes down with 3.5 times their body weight in each step. Consequently, no fancy shoe, no magic training, no amount of marathoning will drop more time than dropping body fat. Extra weight increases the energy cost of running. Those who carry less body fat can run more, reduce their risk of injury and therefore make quicker progress from the frequency and consistency of training. For every pound you lose, you drop about 1 percent from your time. Let’s say you run a 53:45 for the 10K. Lose 1 pound and 32 seconds disappear no work necessary. There is a fine line, however, between lean and too lean. When body fat drops below approximately 5 - 7 percent for men and 12 - 14 percent for women, the immune system becomes impaired. When you are sick more often, you cannot train consistently. And without consistency you do not make progress. If you are looking to lose weight, track your body fat and not weight on the scale. Weight fluctuates often due to muscle mass, hydration and hormones. Tracking body fat is more appropriate.
Varied Races & Paces
Marathons, to triathletes, make sense. More is more. Right? No. Marathoning tends to cause the opposite reaction of what you are seeking. Not only do you risk injury with a more intensive run schedule but you lose the time to focus on the precursors to better running: the swim and bike. Remember, you can be the best runner in the world but if you cannot swim and bike efficiently, your strength becomes lost in miles of weakness before the run. Not only that but in the course of marathon training you become good at locking in that one steady pace. In turn, you become a very monotone runner. When you spend a few months locking in one pace, you lose the ability to switch gears. The best runners have many different gears; easy, steady, tempo, fartlek, threshold, all out. Monotone runners have one pace where they might deviate 30 seconds from on both ends. Therefore, if you want to become a better runner, include several shorter races of varied distances 5Ks, 8Ks and 10Ks into your plan. Skip the half and full marathons, for now.
Run economy is the measure of how far a person can run using a given amount of energy. More economical runners can run at a given speed with less oxygen consumed. More economical runners will be faster runners. How do you improve your run economy? (1) High-Intensity Interval Training (short pops to promote neuromuscular adaptation), (2) Hill Training (for power & form), (3) Strength Training (getting strong helps you to hold form when fatigued), (4) Explosive training (plyometrics and power moves allow you to develop more force in your stride), (5) Periodized training (log in the right miles, the right work at the right time). Again, you can see the advantage of varying your training and performing work specific to improving run form, strength and power. Doing this work the right amount and at the right time is where most athletes struggle. There is where a coach or any educated resource can help.
If you showed me the HR graph of a good runner and a not so good runner, you would see this: the good runner would warm up at a pace about 1 to 2 minutes slower per mile than their peak pace for that workout whereas the not so good runner would start out at the peak pace or slightly faster and then hold it. In running, the warm up is everything. Even in a race coming off the bike you have a warm up time. In a sprint it might be the first ½ mile, in Olympic the first 1 to 2 miles, in a half IM you might take the first 3 miles and in an Ironman you are looking at the first 6 to 8 miles at an easier than your goal pace. Pacing allows your body to ease into the workload. Studies have shown that negative splitting a workout or race is a much faster strategy than going out at the same pace or going out fast to only fizzle. Practice negative splitting all workouts – even just a little, even in the easy runs. Keep in mind that learning how to run well in a triathlon also requires pacing well on the swim and the bike. If you overswim or overbike, you will be so fatigued by the time you get to the run that your good run will not have a chance to come out.
Running efficiency is a measure of how effective your form is with each step. In other words, how much of your energy is being directed to actually running instead of being consumed by errors in your form. Just like with swimming, if you have inefficiencies in your form, the faster you go, the more they add up and cost you. If you have ever found that your “fast” 50 is the same speed as your “easy” 50 in swimming, then you have experienced the cost of inefficiency. Running is very similar. Inefficiencies add up, quick. There are several key factors to improving run form; foot strike, stride rate, stride length, arm carry. Do a quick internet search of each term to see the optimal form. Remember, improvements in form lead to more energy being directed to moving forward with the least energy cost. For a great video on what efficient run form looks like, go to the “5:45” mark of this video:
How do you improve your form? Like swimming or biking, drills, practice and mindfulness. Start by taping yourself in your current run form. Consult with a coach on what needs work. Identify drills to improve your weaknesses, practice and then tape again. This constant loop of practice and feedback is critical for making progress.
Consistency in Training
One of the most important factors in mastering any skill is frequency. If you want to get good at something, you have to practice it and practice it often. That said, it’s better to run 4 times a week at 30 minutes then 2 times a week at 1 hour. Especially at this time of year, your time is better invested in focusing on shorter sessions that emphasize drills and form rather than “logging in the miles”. Shorter runs allow for more neuromuscular adaptation. You can integrate change in shorter sessions without losing your good form due to fatigue. Beyond that, vary your training, routes and paces to get the most out of your running. Not only that, but run more often off the bike. Include a few short runs (ie.,10 minutes) off the bike that focus on holding your form – and nothing else. Above all, be consistent. Consistency is one of the single most important factors in making training progress. You are consistent when you are committed and healthy. Work on your run form and follow smart training to stay healthy and consistent.
Become a Better Biker
Simply put, to run better, bike better. The longer the race, the more important this becomes. The easiest way to bike better? Use a power meter. Trust me, it works. Not to make you magically fast but to properly pace yourself out there and ride within your limits. Overbiking gives you that slick bike split but then…raise your hand if you’ve ever walked part of the run. Other than pacing and riding realistically, bike progress takes time. It takes time (and practice!) to develop the skill, power, muscular endurance and strength required to bike well. First, focus on the skill of riding. Learn how to pedal a bike properly and hold over 85 rpms. Then, develop the strength to pedal strong without getting fatigued (hip flexors, glutes, core). Power development comes after all of that (and is a result of all of that!). In addition to riding stronger (and better), you also need to fuel smart on the bike. Errors in hydration or fueling in the bike (or even before) will come out on the run. It all adds up – so, have a plan, practice it and execute that plan on race day. Don’t just be a better biker, be a smarter biker to run well.
To achieve faster running in triathlon, recognize that it is more complex than just going out and running more. Consider the smaller things that make up for bigger gains – body composition, technique, pacing, bike ability, address those, then structure your training appropriately. Here's to many fast miles in 2010!