I was asked recently on our MX Endurance platform how I was able to develop my run consistency to become a weapon that secured many of my world titles. For a relatively bigger athlete, running so well off an aggressive and committed bike ride became the trump card for many of my wins.
There is a big difference in running during a triathlon and pure running which has been discussed and written about for quite some time, and for all of us who have done triathlon, it is a very obvious difference. The legs are lethargic and heavy post a bike ride, the range of stride is limited early, your heart rate is stabilised in an aerobic range, dehydration and heat factors need to be considered and fundamentally you are starting your run a little fatigued. Efficiency rather than raw power and speed then becomes key, especially as the distances go up and we approach half and full ironman.
Triathletes already have a lot to think about in a sport with three main disciplines (swim, bike, run) plus two other disciplines which affect performance and standing (nutrition, transition). So I try to keep it simple and focus on three fundamentals for a sustainable and efficient triathlon running form.
These I would add to a running program built for triathletes, understanding that they are part of a much bigger picture. Quantitative volume and the running efficiency that comes with that is critical also, but building a program structure that is inclusive of these additional foundation points will see a medium- to longer-term sustainability in your running.
Coming out of a lockdown where volume has been hard to sustain and maintain, these sorts of exercises would be awesome to put to work towards making your running experience enjoyable and injury-free.
Strong Hips and Core
Try to do a one-legged squat, getting your thigh parallel to the ground while keeping your knee and toes pointing forward. If you’re wobbly, it means your hip stability is weak. Now multiply that by the many times you have to land on that leg as you’re running.
Weak hips lead the body to overcompensate in other areas as you go through the running motion, with hips collapsing outwards away from the body midline while the standing knee collapses inwards. This puts you at risk for injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome.
Tight hip flexors and under-utilised glutes and other stabilising muscles in the core cause this weakness. So, core strength and flexibility is fundamental in keeping the hips stable. For instance, Jan Frodeno is obsessed with his core balance and strength, doing exercises with Bosu balls, medicine balls, and even balance and yoga work. This shows in how solid he is through his core and hips as he runs.
Aside from unweighted single-leg squats, I would recommend working on range of motion and the correct activation of the leg’s kinetic chain through squats and lunges. As your range and base strength increases you then will be able to add weight to these exercises.
Post a very specific weight workout, I encourage all athletes to do a 15-20 minute (taking into consideration people are usually time-poor) balance and mobility session. On the MX Endurance website, look up the Sportoga session we do and run through this. This was the core of literally all my post-gym sessions and even indoor treadmill sessions. It has a nice balance to strength and flexibility component that requires nothing but floor space and time.
Fast Leg Turnover
Stride Length multiplied by Cadence equals Speed. But fatigue shortens stride length because you can’t pick your knees up as much. So, if you want to maintain run speed even when tired, you need to increase your cadence or leg turnover.
Increasing stride length isn’t as recommended for distance running because you get to the point you start bouncing and overstriding, which loads the body’s joints and muscles with a lot of impact that can cause injury. Notice the difference in impact when you take large bouncy strides versus smaller steps. Taking shorter strides and increasing the number of steps you take at a given speed also results in lower impact on the joints and reduces risk for injury.
The treadmill is a useful tool when it comes to training faster leg turnover (I always recommend an incline of 3% to approximate running on a road).
First, determine your natural cadence by counting the number of steps you take over 15 seconds while you’re running. Then multiply it by 4 to get your steps per minute, or SPM. Practice running at an SPM higher by 10% for short intervals, say, for a minute every five minutes. You can encourage faster turnover by swinging your arms faster, driving your elbows backward.
Strength is speed in disguise, and this is never more evident than in a triathlon. I always picture hill running as a perfect metaphor for triathlon running, especially directly off the bike. Shorter leg stride, heavy leg feeling and a spiking heart rate make hill sessions a directly correlatable run feeling to running off the bike. Triathletes do not do enough hill sessions in their programming.
I’ve mentioned before that triathlon is a strength-based sport rather than one that depends on pure speed. So the capacity to work through fatigue and hold form and pace for longer is something you need to build. You do that with strength work on the run; hello, hill repeats.
As an added benefit, this also builds glute strength, which contributes toward hip stability and run efficiency. Running up hills also naturally shortens possible stride length, so to maintain pace you need to increase your leg turnover.
Different hill sessions can be done and should be done. One of my favorite MX Endurance run sessions is called Tops and Tails, which I always used in the build-up to Wildflower.
In other words, hills are a great pathway toward becoming a better triathlon runner.
These three fundamentals aren’t very flashy, but being consistent in implementing them will make beneficial changes in your current running form. Perfect practice makes perfect and permanent. It will allow you to run longer and faster and really enjoy the sport and the lifestyle of running.
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Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, and founder and executive director of MX Endurance.