What Makes A Good Triathlon Runner?

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It is not clear whether the ability of some cyclists to maintain their normal stride mechanics and running economy after cycling is a natural gift or an acquired ability.

Evidence from the real world of elite triathlon competition clearly shows that some elite triathletes are able to run faster off the bike relative to their own pure running ability than others are.

Another study by the Queensland researchers found that most elite international triathletes ran with normal mechanics and economy after cycling, but again, this could be due to either greater experience and fitness or a weeding out effect (i.e. perhaps triathletes who lack the innate ability to run normally after cycling never reach the international elite level).

As we have seen, evidence from the real world of elite triathlon competition clearly shows that some elite triathletes are able to run faster off the bike relative to their own pure running ability than others are. Alistair Brownlee's 10K run split in the 2012 Olympic Triathlon was 29:07—just 35 seconds (or 2 percent) off his time at Stanford. Few elite triathletes are slowed so little by a hard 40K cycling effort.

What is the nature of Brownlee's gift? This is not yet known, but my hunch is that it has more to do with cycling than with running. Strong runners who are also strong cyclists may be able to complete a hard ride with more gas left in the tank for running than are equally strong runners who aren't as strong on the bike.

It is interesting to note that the two triathletes I have cited for their ability to run almost as fast after cycling as they can on fresh legs are also exceptional cyclists. Alistair Brownlee is capable of breaking away from large cycling packs in draft-legal triathlons, while Dave Scott recorded one of the fastest cycling splits each year at IRONMAN.

So what are the practical implications of all this information for those who wish to become stronger triathlon runners? One thing is certain: There are no shortcuts. If the scientific and real-world evidence tell us anything, it's that some triathletes have a natural gift for running on tired legs that no amount of training can make up for, yet nothing else besides accumulated triathlon training can close that gap to the degree that it can be closed. 

While it might be nice if I could tell you that a special kind of workout could greatly accelerate the process, there is no evidence that this is the case. You just have to put in the time.

As a coach, I do two things with athletes whose greatest opportunity to improve as triathletes is to improve as triathlon runners. First, I have them become better pure runners. Even if you are never able to go from running 5 percent slower than your normal 10K time off the bike to just 3 percent slower, you can still improve your triathlon run splits by improving your normal 10K run time.

I have found that the most effective way for triathletes to become better pure runners is to focus on running during triathlon's offseason. Pick one or more running races to do over the fall and winter and run up to six times per week to prepare for them. The improvement you experience in this process will carry over to the next triathlon season.

The second thing I do with triathletes who are trying to improve their run is to make them stronger cyclists. Again, I strongly suspect that strength on the bike is one of the keys to running well off the bike. This is why I don't encourage triathletes to emphasize run training during the triathlon season. Doing so at the expense of bike training will get you nowhere. Becoming a stronger cyclist is not rocket science. You can do it by riding more or by riding faster or both. Taking your bike training to the next level may not transform you into Alistair Brownlee, but it will give you a taste of his singular gift.

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