Triathlon Training - Running

Your running needn't suffer from adding cycling and swimming to your training schedule


Posted: 19 June 2006

Here's a no-brainer: when you add swimming and cycling sessions to your training, you need to adjust your running schedule. More specifically, as you make room for these new sports in your training, you have to plan more carefully the types of runs you do so that your running will stay strong - or become even stronger - despite a reduction in mileage.

The secret, say the experts, is to cut the fluff from your schedule and retain only the more challenging runs, such as tempo runs, interval sessions, and long runs, since they are the real fitness boosters. Most of your easy runs should be replaced with swimming and cycling. Swim and bike workouts, in essence, help you recover from your hard runs in the same way that easy runs promote recovery.

The number of weekly runs you should cut depends on the number of swim and bike sessions you want to add. This number, in turn, depends on whether you are training for a triathlon or just cross-training to improve your overall fitness. If you're cross-training, add one swim and one bike ride each week. You can then run four times a week and take one day off. To ensure that your running stays strong with reduced mileage, make one of your four runs a long one, and include some high-intensity efforts in two other runs.

If you're training for a triathlon, you need to do a more even mix of swimming, cycling and running. Try to maintain a balance in your schedule. If you're coming to triathlon from running, that usually means cutting your normal run volume by anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent and filling in the training time with swim and cycle training.

Novice triathletes need to swim and cycle at least twice a week to develop adequate skill and fitness in these new disciplines. This leaves room for only two quality runs and one day off, unless you choose to squeeze in two sessions a day on one or more days. Many triathletes do so, but it's not necessary or advisable for most beginners.

A switch in time

Along with paring down your running schedule to just a few quality runs per week, runners taking up triathlon also need to practise the transition between biking and running. Any experienced triathlete will tell you that running straight after completing a bike ride is a completely different experience - your legs feel rubbery and dead. You definitely don't want to experience this for the first time in a triathlon, so several times during training you need to run after a bike ride to get used to the feeling.

A training run immediately following a training ride is called a transition run. It doesn't have to be long - 10 minutes will suffice - because it's the transition from cycling to running that you're working on. For runners, a second advantage of incorporating transition runs into your triathlon training is that it affords you a third weekly running opportunity without requiring you to do two separate sessions in one day.

Slightly longer transition runs can be beneficial for runners who are using swimming and cycling for cross-training rather than for triathlon preparation. "Longer transition runs can make a great substitute for traditional long runs when you're trying to limit the amount of impact your body absorbs,” says Bernhardt. For example, instead of doing a 90-minute run, do a 60-minute bike ride followed by a 30-minute run (you might sometimes hear this called a "brick” session). You'll build almost as much running-specific endurance, but you will recover faster and lower your injury risk.

Mix and match

Unless you do the right mix of swimming, cycling and running sessions for your goal, your cross-training may quickly become cross-purpose training. Here's how to add swimming and cycling to your running routine if you have no intention of racing a triathlon and just want to reap optimal cross-training benefits:
Replace one easy run per week with an easy swim, and one easy run per week with an easy bike ride.
  • Do your swim as the next session after your hardest run each week for the best active recovery.
  • After a few weeks, you may add a second ride and/or swim, or add back one or two runs as you see fit, but proceed slowly and pay attention to how your body responds to its new routine.
  • Once you've cross-trained consistently for several weeks, you can keep doing swims and rides as recovery workouts or, if you want to maximise performance, you can start to experiment with some higher-intensity swims and rides. The key word is “experiment.” While some athletes experience clear running performance benefits from high-intensity swims and rides, others find it's just too much.
If you want to do a triathlon, and you have not been swimming or cycling already, you need to give yourself ample time to prepare. Even a sprint-distance triathlon means completing a 750m swim, a 20K bike ride and a 5K run. To help you reach both the start and the finish line of your first triathlon, keep the following tips in mind:
  • Choose a triathlon that's 12 weeks away or more – you'll need at least that amount of time to train properly. Sign up for the event well in advance, since many triathlons sell out weeks and even months before race day. Visit www.britishtriathlon.org for a calendar of events.
  • Don't go overboard with your training since your body will need time to adapt to the new activities. If you're fit and competitive, do slightly more challenging workouts instead of trying to do extra sessions.
  • Since opportunities to swim tend to be more limited, you'll probably need to schedule your swim sessions first. Runs, on the other hand, are the most convenient, so you can schedule them last. Try not to do the same activity twice in a row.
  • Do mostly moderate-intensity sessions plus technique work in the first few weeks of your swim and bike training. Then add some high-intensity workouts to take your fitness to the next level. Just prior to a race, include more race-specific training, such as race-pace intervals.

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