Running training for Triathlon

Throughout this year Mark and I have worked with a number of triathletes looking to make improvements in their running technique and find sometimes elusive running performance gains in what is typically the most important and difficult leg of the triathlon.

We enjoy working with triathletes because regardless of whether they are from a swimming or cycling background they spend a lot of time developing technique and even allocate specific technique sessions in the pool. This happens more sporadically with runners. The focus on technique required in swimming and setting up on the bike correctly, leaves us with athletes that are open minded and more motivated to work on proper running form than your dyed in the wool running veteran.

Aside from the specifics of working on running form, we’ve noticed some mistakes that triathletes tend to make when training for the all important running leg. At first we thought it was isolated to a few athletes, but the consistency with which these factors have been popping up makes us think this is a broader problem for many triathletes that is worth talking about. In this article I cover five areas where triathletes can go wrong when training for running.

1. Too much running volume

There’s no escaping the fact that you need to do a decent amount of running to develop your capacity to last the distance. This is especially true for those training for the Ironman or half Ironman.

However, even triathletes training for these longer events can tend to overdo the running training. We think the miles covered on the bike and to a lesser extent in the pool provide triathletes with a massive cardiovascular fitness base that regular runners don’t have.

Bottom line, perhaps you don’t need to run as many big miles as you think. This is absolutely true once you’ve built up a solid running base from completing a running focused training block. More on this further into the article. Once you have the miles in the legs you can cut back on your running volume since you’ll be keeping things ticking over nicely on the bike and in the water.

2. Too many hard running sessions

Triathletes can be just like runners in thinking they’re never training hard enough. This can lead to costly training errors that cause injury, staleness or even burnout if you push things too far. Part of the problem is the little voice that says you’ve only got time for a small number of running sessions each week as the cycling and swimming load builds. Therefore if I’ve only got a smaller number of running sessions then I need to make each one hard and intense.

Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/COC – Mike Ridewood via Canadian Olympic Committee

So time poor triathletes want to make every post a winner when they get out on their runs. But you still need to allow some light and shade in your training, easy runs are all important to allow good recovery between harder sessions and to maintain base fitness levels. If you’re burnt our or not improving, try restricting yourself to a couple of harder running sessions per week.

3. Not enough variation

Triathletes love long runs and long tempo runs, but in our experience don’t mix things up enough when it comes to adding other elements needed for successful running. Speed work, short hills, fartlek sessions and even shorter 1km tempo pace intervals (cruise intervals) popularized by coaching legend Jack Daniels are a good way to get some variety into your program. Endurance is important, but if you only ever train slow, you’ll run slow.

And it’s not just variation for its own sake, you need these other types of training, particularly short hill efforts and speed work to stimulate better muscle activation patterns and develop the buttock (glute) and hamstring strength needed to run with purpose and good form. If you want to run faster over 10k or the Marathon you need more speed at shorter distances.

4. Muscle imbalances not addressed in strength training

Your triathlon focused strength training needs to be designed to maintain a good balance between the muscles needed for all three disciplines. Many triathletes with a background in cycling are quadriceps heavy. This can be handy on the bike, but not much use on the run where those quadzilla legs dominate, leading to inefficiency and injury inducing running form errors.

So if all the muscle in your body is concentrated around your thighs, you can forget about smashing the quadriceps in the gym and focus on strength work that builds muscle around the buttocks and hamstrings. The bonus is that if you do the right sort of exercises this strength training is running technique training because you’re practicing the muscle activation patterns and postures needed to run with good running form.

If you’re a quadzilla you might need to think about redressing this imbalance in the gym. While big quads might be good for grinding away in the time trialing like (non-drafting) conditions of many triathlons, any gains you make here are likely to be handed back on the run.

Photo credit: Emma Snowsill

I recently read a study that showed elite Olympic distance triathletes maintained the same running economy and muscle activation patterns both running fresh and straight off the bike. These guys can run, so it shows that you need to be able to execute your running as a strong discipline in its own right to have any chance of being able to run well post transition. The encouraging thing about this study is that it shows that the bike leg needn’t destroy your ability to run will good form.

5. Not enough specific running training and racing

Since running is the most important discipline leading to triathlon success it makes sense that triathletes should consider working on their running exclusively as a training and competition block. You could do this for a year or in the off season.

Run some long easy miles to build strength in your legs to increase capillaries in the running muscles. Solo focus on running will also enable you to work on technique, speed and get into some running only races where you can concentrate on lowering your personal best times. Focus on firstly under distance events, then work on the distance of the run leg for your preferred triathlon event.

Adopting this approach will give you much needed improvements in your running, but also provide a mental holiday from the rigors of training for all three disciplines.


Running well as a triathlete can sometimes be a challenge, but by avoiding these five training errors you could make rapid progress in your ability to run down your competition – imagine how satisfying that will be!

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3 Responses to Running training for Triathlon

  1. Jen Brown @SpartaPT December 6, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Great article Brian!

    So many injuries I see come from these mistakes; thanks for bringing greater awareness to them.

    Warm regards

    • Brian December 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks Jen, I appreciate the feedback 🙂


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