The ability to run off the bike is perhaps the most critical factor in triathlon performance. The idea of tearing a race apart with a blistering bike leg is appealing to many of us but the harsh reality is that the bike can only get you so far – T2 to be exact. The journey to the finish line will require a set of lightweight running shoes and a pair of legs with the strength to get you home.
Running well is a difficult activity in itself. Running well in a triathlon is even harder. Running is the only discipline in triathlon where our bodies are engaged in a full weight-bearing activity and as such the stresses incurred are significant. But most critically, it is the last leg of any triathlon and as a result there is a whole host of other factors that can potentially ruin an otherwise good race performance – fatigue, heat stress, dehydration, calorie depletion and general muscle stiffness and soreness to name but a few. In the text below I share a few ideas on how you can incorporate a stronger bike and run focus into your regular training routine. But first let’s take a look at some of the science behind running off the bike.
News from the lab
My interest to write this article came from reading a recent piece of research on how cycling affects running mechanics and economy.1 Researchers from the Australian Institute of Sport and the University of Queensland recently did a study on a group of fifteen ‘moderately trained’ triathletes to determine whether running off the bike resulted in changes in running mechanics and economy as opposed to running fresh. The athletes were required to perform one fresh run to establish their running economy
and one transition run that was performed immediately after a high intensity cycling session on an indoor trainer.
The researchers found that running after cycling brought about a noticeable change in running mechanics in eight of the fifteen athletes tested. The athletes that did experience a change in running mechanics also experienced a loss of running economy. This was predominantly due to a more exaggerated heel strike action and an extended knee at the point where the foot strikes the ground. Both of these actions result in an increase in vertical ground reaction forces; a loss of forward energy transformation at the point of impact with the ground; and an increase in the metabolic cost of running.
So how can we counter these results and learn to run more efficiently after cycling? The short answer is simple: we need to specifically train our abilities to run off the bike. As triathletes we do not need to be good runners per se but we need to be good runners off the bike. We need to learn to be able to run after cycling in a way that is not dissimilar to how we would run were we running fresh. The only we can learn to do this is with practice.
There is research to suggest that elite triathletes may have mastered this art already. An earlier study that looked into running mechanics after cycling among elite triathletes found that for most elite athletes, cycling prior to running had little effect on running mechanics.2 And another study that looked at the performances of both elite and moderately trained athletes found that it was the moderately trained athletes who suffered the most from adverse changes in run mechanics after cycling.3
These results are interesting for the age group athlete. There are few of us who have the training time required to gain the fitness of an elite athlete. But we do have the ability to improve our running skills so that, like the elite athlete, we do not suffer from unnecessary losses in running economy.
Bill Scanlan is an elite triathlete with over ten years of racing and training experience. Bill has raced
extensively in Australia, Asia and Europe and has twice completed the Ironman World Triathlon
Championships held in Hawaii. Through his travels and interactions with other athletes and coaches, Bill has gained a great deal of insight into what it takes to compete at an elite level while at the same time managing work, life and family commitments. Bill has recently turned professional and is now aiming to compete at the highest level within the sport. You can contact Bill at bill@ breakyourlimits.com or follow his journey at www.breakyourlimits.com.
1 Bonacci, J., Green, D., Saunders, P., Blanch, P., Franettovich, M., Chapman, A., and Vicenzino, B., 2010, ‘Change in running kinematics after cycling are related to alterations in running economy in triathletes’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (13) pp. 460-464.
2 Chapman, A., Vicenzino, B., Blanch, P., Dowlan, S., and Hodges, P., 2008, ’Does cycling effect motor coordination of the leg during running in elite triathletes?’ Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (11) pp. 371-380.
3 Millet, G.P., Millet, G.Y., and Candau, R., 2001, ‘Duration and seriousness of running mechanics alterations after maximal cycling in triathletes: influence of the performance level’ Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness
(41) pp. 147-153.