Peak triathlon run performance is built on a combination of proper training periodization, race course-specific preparation and mental toughness. And, contrary to popular belief, efficient form and technique development are essential elements of proper training. Great fitness can be compromised or wasted with a gangly, unorthodox run stride, and many adult runners are still relying on some of the motor skills honed in the playground at age six.
Posture and finesse are key components of a good stride. While a track runner may spend hours on the oval each week doing drills, time is always a challenge for triathletes, so creating a simple drill routine that can be replicated for dynamic strength gains and muscle-motor learning is the best compromise. Year-round I like to incorporate basic drills into my athletes' programs to keep the right muscles firing and to promote forward thrust and a high run cadence. The following three drills will help form the foundation for a smooth, dynamic run stride.
A's focus on firing your hip flexors (the muscles at the front of the hips) in a rhythmical, dynamic manner. Leg speed and turnover is driven from the hips, hence the need to work on dynamic strength and muscular endurance in that region. For triathletes running off the bike, the quads are typically fatigued, and we have to rely even more heavily on our hip flexors to keep our legs moving to maintain run cadence.
To perform the drill, stand tall and drive your thigh upwards as if you were going to volley a soccer ball straight into the air off the front of your thigh. The hip joint compresses just past 90 degrees. Drive your thigh upward with force, then return your foot to the ground and repeat with the opposite leg.
Start with skipping A's, which allow for a split-second rest phase with both feet briefly on the ground before the opposite leg is driven upward. Progress after a few weeks to running A's, which resemble running on the spot with high knees and quick feet. You should allow yourself to travel forward, but only slowly. Make sure your knees travel straight up and down and don't angle outward. A common mistake is to drop the chest slightly during knee lift or to rotate the torso, both of which shorten the length of the contraction for the hip flexor.
In terms of coordination, B's are often the most challenging technique drill, especially for men (the same guys who struggle on the dance floor or can't function in an aerobics class). B's help teach you to retract your leg before each foot-strike so that your foot touches down beneath your body's center of gravity.
Running is the act of falling forward and repeatedly preventing your whole body from collapsing to the ground by catching yourself with your foot and converting downward motion into forward thrust. Getting your foot underneath you quickly eliminates the common error of over-striding and facilitates a quick, light gait.
After lifting your knee in a similar manner to the A drill, extend your leg until it's almost straight while pulling your foot back towards the ground. The ball of your foot strikes the ground directly under your centre of gravity. The movement of the leg is similar to that of riding a recumbent bike, and the focus is on firing your hip flexor to lift your knee, followed by your hamstring and glute muscles to quickly pull your leg and foot back to the ground. Some liken this action to that of a horse counting by stamping its hoof. When your legs are traveling downward, there should be a definitive acceleration of the leg/foot, as though you want to scrape mud off the ball of your foot.
Generally, this drill is performed as skipping B's (like skipping A's with a split second of both feet on the ground). Many athletes start with walking B's to learn the basic movement. Again, watch for excessive torso rotation, stay tall and avoid dropping your chest. Also, don't lock or fully straighten your knee at leg extension, as you would with a karate kick. The movement should remain fluid and dynamic.
Running C's enhance heel lift in the recovery phase of the stride and increase run cadence. They are sometimes called butt kickers. Run in place with a slight forward movement and a very high cadence, lifting your heals to your rear or as close to it as you can.
Stand tall and be wary of bouncing from side to side. Focus on drawing your heels straight up, and don't allow your toes and feet to rotate outward. Your feet should stay in line with your shin and knee. Also, note if one heel lifts more easily than the other. This could indicate a flexibility imbalance between your quadriceps (thigh) muscles--specifically, tighter quads on the side that lifts less easily.
A quick, high heel lift contributes to a long, fast stride. Again, think of a diminutive Kenyan runner running sub-13 minutes for 5K. The runner is lifting his heal to his rear with every stride, with a very quick rhythm. While this range of motion is overkill for your average runner, having an awareness of heel lift and developing perhaps a half-inch more lift can provide you with some extra speed without much cardiovascular cost.
Putting it All Together
Once you have mastered the basic mechanics of the drills, set your watch timer to repeat at 20 seconds and go through each drill once, for a total of 60 seconds. After resting for 20 seconds, do two strides (strides are 70- to 80-yard accelerations that build gradually to 90 percent of maximum speed) to reinforce the drills. Repeat this set of drills and strides two to three times. Over the weeks you can progress to 30 seconds of each drill and gradually start incorporating running A's in place of the skipping A's. Repeat these drills three times a week in January, two times a week in February and once a week until the end of your season in September or October.
Looking to run faster? Over the past 20 years Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman and Olympic champions. Beginner and experienced triathletes are invited to join the LifeSport Team. Contact LifeSport Coaching (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit lifesport.ca.