Running Economically for Triathlon

Running Economy I can be quite positive with my presumptions when I say that most triathletes who run well have either come from a running background or have been coached well in the discipline of running. While some triathletes manage to achieve good run splits through experience and fitness the focus of this blog is improving running economy for triathletes. Having the benefit of starting out as a track and cross country runner myself, a considerable amount of my early running years were spent working on drills and speed under the guidance of a great coach. This is the focus that running should have for young athletes and endurance and strength will develop later, so what do we do with an older triathlete who has poor running form? Is it too late to improve? Should fitness be prioritised instead of technique? Is having an economical running style important for triathlon?

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run

Triathlon

I have been speaking to lots of triathletes recently about the benefits of economical running (technical efficiency and appropriate physiological condition of the body). Like any of the disciplines of triathlon, efficiency is required for optimal performance and most importantly over longer distances, conservation of energy! Adjustments and improvements in running economy can be made through training techniques and knowledge of running, but it seems that this is not highly prioritised in the busy training routine of a lot of triathletes. Every triathlete has spent time doing run drills before sessions, but have they really thought about what they are doing in the same way that they focus on using pull buoys or paddles when swimming?

When you watch the run leg of triathlon you see more varied styles than any other discipline of the sport due the weight bearing nature and coordinated movement of running. People generally seem to think that as they have been running since they were children, the technical aspects of it are much easier than swimming or cycling. However, these variations in running style that we see have huge impact on performance and largely originate in triathletes for thee reasons:

1. Differing body structure of triathletes

2. Lack of technical running coaching

3. Lack of time spent running

So my advice is that as we can pin point reasons for poor running economy, attention should be made to making improvement in this area.

Here are some of my tips!

It's important to note that economical running or improvements in efficiency will be different for all of us dependent on our starting point and level of running. There is no single method to optimise running technique, but there are lots of adjustments that all of us could consider to assist in making our own running style more efficient.

The most common mistakes I see that negatively affect running economy:

Poor foot contact with the ground - heel striking and excessive pronating (laterally or medially) during the landing phase of running causes energy to be lost at the point of contact. There is greater contact time with the ground the greater muscular force needed to move the body forward in the next stride. Not to mention the potential injury concerns associated with this poor technique.

Over striding - leaning back and having your feet land in front of your body's centre of gravity is a common technical problem with athletes, especially as we tire. This acts as a braking action to our body movement, thus requiring greater energy expenditure and loss of momentum with each stride. It also promotes heel striking and the problems associated with the former point.

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Poor spine alignment - leaning too far forward or back can hinder balance, put pressure on the lower back and affect your centre of gravity. Your body has to compensate for this unnatural movement with greater muscular force. It also promotes vertical instead of horizontal movement when driving off from the ground meaning your body expends its energy moving you up and down rather than going forward.

Non-linear arm movement- bringing your arms across your body or lack of forward arm motion acts against the linear movement of the body. It effects balance and makes your feet strike unnaturally, giving potential injury and causes loss of linear momentum.

Running too fast- the 4 previous points generally become factors when your body is operating outside its efficient running zone. Running too fast causes you to tire which limits technical efficiency and can promote bad habits due to lack of focus on technique.

Poor Shoe Choice- Gait analysis of foot striking performed in some running stores is ill advised. This analysis only ever considers foot position and not whole body movement. Having worked in sports shoe retail the advice given by sales people is somewhat general and is also driven by sales objectives, not the best choice of shoe.

My recommendations to improve economy:

Drill more often - nothing improves running form more than technical drills, IF DONE CORRECTLY! The key to this is the ability of the brain to send impulses in the correct way to muscles to initiate efficient muscle movements. There are many drills that help promote efficient run technique to access as part of each training session and these can be tailored to focus on your specific technical inefficiencies. (Highlight forefoot striking and forward lean as the 2 major technical adjustments that get improved efficiency).

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run1

Don't rely on shoes for improvement - I've seen no significant evidence that specific shoes can totally correct technique or form and in some cases the recommended shoes can even cause injury through unnatural technique. Comfortable shoes are the way to go with mild support or cushioning. The correction needs to come from muscle memory in your body for economical and lasting improvements. Seek advice of qualified professionals if you are seriously concerned about issues with your running gait. Try running barefoot on grass and sand to allow muscle memory to be more effective through closer contact with the surface.

Run more in the correct position - through muscle memory your body can adjust technique, but only if you devote time to allow these correct movements to become autonomous. Vary run surfaces and distances to give your body additional demands to cope with and to improve coordination and efficiency. Promote slight forward lean and tucking your hips under your spine. (Improving core stability is key and will naturally move your body towards a more efficient position).

Slow Down- as excessive strain on the body hinders technique it's important to slow down technique and focus on improved cadence (90 spm), stride length and rhythm of movement has to happen before introducing speed. Give your body time to adjust to technical changes under control and speed will develop in time as you become more efficient.

Technical Promoting Workouts - depending on your inefficiency you can complete certain sessions that promote better running technique. For example: hill running is a good way to slow down your technique, shorten your stride and promote forefoot striking. Introduce running of the top of the hill to see if you can maintain the same rhythm and cadence on the flat? Running on uneven surfaces or in soft sand has specific benefits for cadence and fore foot striking due to the resistance provided by the uneven and loose surface.

Improve fitness - there is no doubt that while you are in control of your pace you are more efficient. Becoming stronger aerobically will allow for better technique over a longer duration and is specific to endurance racing.

Summary

It's important, just as with swimming and cycling that improvements made to running technique are prioritised if needed. Whether you are a triathlete who makes up ground on the run leg or grinds the run out to maintain position, as the final and often most grueling part of triathlon it is more likely that technical efficiency while running is the most important thing. It can be done and it will be worth the effort when achieved.

“The will to win means nothing if you haven’t the will to prepare”