For some great advice on improving your running before you hit your big training blocks, we turned to George Darden, coach with ITL Coaching and Performance. You can also find George on his podcast, The Most Pleasant Exhaustion.
Do you dread the triathlon run? Does your race strategy involve swimming and cycling as fast as you can so that you can “hold off” those who run much faster than you? Do you presume that the people who leave T2 with you are going to make it to the finish line before you do? If so, you would undoubtedly benefit from spending some time working to improve your running.
Often, I hear triathletes say that they are going to focus on running during the transition season. When I ask them what they plan to do to make themselves faster runners, they will tell me about a race that they plan to run in the first three months of the year—normally a half-marathon or a marathon. I am always happy to hear that, because I believe that choosing a running-only goal is a good first step toward improving one’s triathlon running. However, triathletes often make no plans to train any differently than they normally do. During their “running focused period,” they’ll run only a couple of times a week, and they’ll continue to mix in a great deal of cycling, swimming, and strength training. They may do an occasional extra transition run, and they may even add a mile or two of running before they do a trainer workout or swim. But their approach to training remains largely unchanged. In other words, triathletes claim to be focusing on running, but all they are really doing is switching their target race to a running race and continuing to train as a triathlete.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you need to throw out swimming and cycling to improve your running. I’m currently training for a marathon, and cycling and swimming are important parts of my training plan. Yes, of course, you’ll likely run more while swimming and cycling less, but it would defeat the purpose if you had to spend your entire triathlon season regaining fitness on the bike and in the water that you lost in the transition season because you were focused on your running. Moreover, you (like me) may need to include some cycling and swimming to stay healthy during your run-focused builds. These are perfectly legitimate concerns, and by all means, you should spend time riding your bike and doing laps in the pool during the winter. If you really want to improve your running, though, after you’ve picked out a target race, you should spend at least twelve weeks doing these three things.
- Arrange your cycling and swimming such that they serve your running. Your key workouts of the week should be running workouts. As such, when you mix in cycling, swimming, and strength work, do it in a way that either gives you some rest and recovery from your hard runs or strategically builds fatigue for your running sessions. Moreover, if you do hard sessions in the water or on the bike, make sure that they are working in tandem with your run workouts to train the physiological systems that need attention in that particular training block. This may mean that you have to skip your favorite spin class (or do a different workout) if your class is doing the sort of workout that you don’t need to be doing that day.
- Train like a runner. Runners do a lot of things that many triathletes loathe to do. Runners do repeats. They do long runs on trails. They intentionally choose hilly courses. They stack runs. They do strides after every run, including long runs. They run slowly on their easy runs. They rotate shoes based on the workout that they’re doing. They race frequently at a variety of distances. Runners don’t always do these things because they are the most convenient or even the most fun. Runners do them because these things make them faster. If you’re trying to become a faster runner, you should do them, too.
- Work on the “small things.” Meb Keflezhigi wrote in his book that he doesn’t consider improving efficiency, stretching, doing core work, and generally paying attention to the things that enable him to keep running at a high level as “small things.” Rather, he thinks of these things as vital parts of his training regimen. You should take the same approach. Chances are good that there are tweaks that you can make to your training that will result in greater strength, increased flexibility, improved balance, and enhanced neuromuscular wiring that will make you a more efficient runner. Based on what I’ve seen on the side of the track, many triathletes have a more efficient runner inside of them, but they do not bring out their best runner on race day. Spending some time having your form analyzed by a qualified coach, regularly performing basic strength work and dynamic stretching, being mindful of your gait during your easy runs, intentionally using the treadmill, and doing workouts like fast finish long runs and post-strength runs will foster the habit of more efficient running. In turn, you’ll get faster splits on race day.