Speed and endurance are important, but technique is king.
Look at a standard training plan for triathlon, and you’ll see a lot of runs focusing on speed and endurance, but few—if any—workouts dedicated to technique. That’s a massive mistake, says Amy Harrison, Athletic Trainer and Performance Coordinator at OhioHealth Sports Medicine.
“Good form keeps you running healthy,” says Harrison. “Everyone focuses on performance rather than staying healthy, but you can’t perform well if you don’t make it to the starting line.”
This is especially true for triathletes, who often see a breakdown in form in the transition from bike to run. According to a 2010 study by Australian researchers, half of triathletes display involuntary changes to their normal running mechanics after riding a bike. These changes reduce running economy, create slower run times, and set the stage for injury. Most triathletes don’t realize these changes are taking place, so they continue to run the same way they always have, with nary a thought to technique.
To maximize health and performance, it’s important to focus on the very basic building blocks of run form. That doesn’t mean you need to completely overhaul the way you run, says Harrison. Instead, it’s about improving one small element of your run form at a time. Harrison suggests following a “ladder” of run form, mastering the first skill before moving on to the next.
Run Skill Ladder
Step 1: Foot Strike
“Whether you midfoot strike or heel strike, your foot should land close to your center of gravity,” says Harrison. “Your foot should contact the ground right underneath you, not way out in front.” Make a conscious effort in this landing zone for all runs—does your foot strike change when you run off the bike? When you speed up or slow down? On hills? When fatigued? Adjust accordingly.
Step 2: Flexibility
“Running form is mostly limited by your available range of motion,” says Harrison. “If you increase your range of motion, you improve your form.” Calf tightness, for example, limits forward propulsion at push-off; tight hamstrings will increase stress to the knee joint. Harrison advises runners to progressively build into a twice-daily stretching regimen of the calves, hip flexors, hamstrings, and piriformis muscles.
Step 3: Hip Stability
Building aerobic endurance means very little if the body can’t hold up over the miles. If you notice aches and pains in the latter half of your long runs, it’s likely because your form is falling apart. Hip abductor weakness causes the opposite hip to drop or internally rotate, which wastes energy decreases running efficiency, and increases stress to the hips and knees.. You can sometimes see this hip drop in race photos or video analysis of your gait. While running, pay attention to where your foot is landing. Are you crossing over the midline of your body—that is, when you run on a painted line alongside the road, do your feet hit or cross the line? That’s a sign of hip abductor weakness. “Strengthening your core stabilizers, hip abductors, and hip extensors will help you maintain your trunk and hip positions, especially late in runs,” says Harrison.
Step 4: Shoulders, Arms, and Hands
Believe it or not, tension in the shoulders, arms, and hands can directly impact run performance. You may not notice it, but over time, tense shoulders can creep up into a shrug, causing your arms to swing side-to-side. This inefficient run form wastes energy, causes fatigue, and makes you lapse into poor running form. To keep tension at bay, do a tension check every mile—are your shoulders relaxed? Are the hands at hip level? Are the elbows bent at a relaxed 90-degree angle, with arms swinging by your sides? If not, do a quick shakeout of the hands and arms to reset.
Step 5: Cadence
After mastering the skills above, it’s time to focus on cadence, or how many steps you take in a minute. “I recommend cadence drills, bike sprints, and/or a cadence app for anyone with a cadence below 160,” says Harrison. “Improving cadence will correct a lot of other technique problems, like over-reaching.”
Don’t try to overhaul your cadence overnight. Instead, Harrison suggests shooting for 10 percent increases—in other words, if your cadence is 140 steps per minute, focus on increasing your cadence by 14 additional steps per minute, or a cadence of 154. Apps like Running Cadence will help you keep the pace until the new cadence becomes second nature.