Getting faster in triathlon running takes strategy, skill, and determination. As opposed to running a marathon or any other run specific race, the triathlon run comes after a swim and bike leg. Whether you are running a sprint, Olympic, half, or full Ironman distance triathlon, the run portion of the triathlon race is where everything comes together to be competitive or not. If you watch the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii every year, the fastest swimmers and cyclists don't always win because the fastest runners will pass them in the marathon portion of the race. These 8 tips will help you narrow the gap on your goal time of finishing your triathlon. While these tips can also translate to a run specific race, they are specially tailored for triathlon racing.
1 - Lose Weight
The first thing you can do to be faster in the run portion of any triathlon is to drop a few pounds. Certainly, you want to do this in a wise and measured way. Losing a half a pound to a pound a week is more than reasonable especially if you are putting in the time it takes to train for a triathlon and eating the right kinds of food. Losing just 5 pounds of weight can improve your mile pace time by 10-30 seconds depending on the distance of the race. Think about how much that 5 pounds will be carried by your feet and legs over whatever distance run course you are racing on. To get a good idea of what just five pounds off of your frame feels like, take a 5-pound weight and carry it around for 3-5 miles as you run. You won't feel an incredible amount of the weight in the first mile or so, but after 3 miles you will certainly wish you had those five pounds off. Losing just a few pounds will improve your time without any additional effort on your part, plus you will just feel better.
2 - Proper Fuel
This particular area is one that comes with trial and error. By the time you are getting to the run in any triathlon, you have already swum and biked some distance. If you are doing some of the longer races you might have biked up to 6 hours before you ever get to the run. Proper fueling will help you to get onto the run feeling good about yourself and be able to maintain a solid pace throughout the course. From personal experience, I can tell you that if you do not fuel correctly, then your run will fall apart. I raced in three different half-ironman distances in 2014 and 2015. In each of these races, I began the run feeling okay, but by the time I hit mile 3 or 4 I was wasted and bonking. My legs were shaking like leaves and I ended up running a much slower time than I am capable of. Through lots of trial and error, I eventually came up with the right mix for me. I take in Powerful Pure Energy Tangerine Gels every 30 minutes and Endurolyte pills by Hammer Nutrition every 45 minutes on the run. I used this in one race at the Beach to Battleship Ironman Distance race and it worked flawlessly. I also used this mix in training and felt better. The Endurolyte pills seem to be the magic potion for me to keep on going. Without the proper fuel, you will end up stopping and walking long portions of your triathlon race. Once again, this particular tip is not based on your exerting more effort, but rather just taking in the right nutrition.
3 - Sprint training
I have heard it said: "If you want to run faster, you must run faster." I take this to mean that if I want to achieve a faster pace in my triathlon race than I need to train at a faster pace during my training. During the course of your training, you need to mix in some high speed, high-intensity training sessions. Of course, you do not want to do this all the time, but once a week getting on a track somewhere will help your overall speed. You can mix in some workouts that really challenge your speed as well such as 400m at 90% speed followed immediately by 800m at 80% speed followed by 400m at 85% speed and then finish with 800m at 90% speed. These intervals will challenge your top speed and your heart rate at this top speed. I found that after I had done some mix of these workouts, my top speed had improved and I could take on harder workouts in the run. I especially felt it when running up hills where my heart rate would soar, but I knew it would come back down because of doing these types of workouts. The biggest challenge for me with these workouts in finding a track I can workout on. I usually try to make it to the local middle school, but sometimes the track is occupied. Overall, this type of training will help you to get faster. Always spend 15 minutes or so warming up before you attempt these sprints because you do not want to injure yourself.
4 - Zone 2 training
This type of training is the exact opposite of the previous item, sprint training. This type of running is very slow and keeps the heart rate in zone 2. You can search many places on Google to find a way to determine your heart rate. After you determine your heart rate, then you want to plan on once a week or more of running in this zone. You will want more of this in your offseason workout plan to train your heart. What you will find through this type of training is that your heart rate will remain lower when you are in the triathlon race per the effort you are putting out. Theoretically, this type of training will give you the long-term endurance you need to keep pushing through the race while other people are walking. I have struggled to do this type of training, but am planning on doing more of it this offseason to prepare for next season.
5 - Proper Form
One of the factors that can affect your run times more than anything is your form. Discovering the proper form for running is an arduous task, but one that will pay dividends. In essence, if you can improve your form then you can get faster without any additional effort. You need to concentrate on proper posture and not leaning at the waist. You need to focus on where your foot lands as opposed to just haphazardly putting your foot down. You need to focus on where you are looking and your head position. You do not want to look down or look up when running. Finally, you want to make sure you have the proper arm swing to ensure your arms are helping you and not hurting you in the run. If you desire more information on the proper form, look up some of the YouTube videos by Bobby McGee. You can get some impression of the proper form. Then you want to video record yourself running to see how close you are coming to the proper form. Lastly, start to do certain drills that Bobby McGee prescribes to help you with your form. Last season, I worked on proper foot placement in the run. I did this mostly on a treadmill in the dead of winter last year. This practice helped me gauge my run stride as well. I ran faster this year because of the time spent on my run form.
6 - Mental Focus
One of the areas that are often overlooked is the mental focus of the run. Why is it that someone who has less physical skills can pass someone in the triathlon run? Most of the time it has to do with mental focus. This mental focus deals with all areas of the run including proper pacing, proper fueling, and proper strategy, but it has one more component which is to gauge how much pain you can endure. Let's face it, no one is comfortable in the triathlon run. Everyone is hurting, but do you have the mental focus to push yourself passed some of the pain to a podium finish. This area has become a bigger part of my overall training as I try to simulate race day on my training runs so that it is more habit in the midst of the race. I fight with myself mentally in the run more than any other part of the race. I have to fight that voice that just says "stop and walk, it won't hurt." I actually put into my mind an image of punching those words in the face for my Ironman, and it worked! Work on being mentally sharp for the long run of the triathlon race. Remember, you ride (bike) for the show, but you run for dough!
7 - Proper Pacing
Understanding the proper pacing for the triathlon race is critical to doing well. If you start out too fast, then you will crash before the end. You start out to slow and your competition or your personal best has already passed you by before the end. Proper pacing is not made up on race day, it is made in training days. During your training, you need to find a pace that you are comfortable running at and then duplicate that pace in the race. Remember, you will have swam and biked already before the run so you might want to have a couple of training days simulating this type of race so as to be ready for race day. If you normally run a 9-minute mile in a half marathon distance than you are not going to be able to sustain a 7:30-minute mile during a race. Be reasonable with your pacing. I think pacing helps you to push a little harder when you are falling behind the pace, but also not to push too hard as to get in trouble. Finding that proper pace is a result of consistent trial and error during training and other races.
8 - Proper Strategy
During the run, you need a good strategy. I had always just raced with the philosophy of run until you drop, but there is much more to it than that. I watched Jan Frodeno win the Ironman World Championships this year in Kona. His run strategy involves walking through the aid stations and making sure that you have plenty of fuel there. I employed this during my Ironman and it worked well. My specific strategy is to run through some of the aid stations and get to the last person passing out items. Grab your nutrition items and then walk for 15 seconds. This seemed to help me stay focused and not fall back into the run til your drop philosophy. Another piece of the strategy involves nutrition and pacing which we have already discussed. I think you have to formulate your strategy before you get on the race because trying to come up with it on the fly will not work and will only frustrate you. Just like any sport or completion, you plan to win and then you execute the plan. Being more deliberate about planning your running strategy will help in your overall performance in the triathlon run.
I hope these tips will help you in trying to become faster in your triathlon run.