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So you want to run more—and you don’t want to get injured while doing it? Difficult maybe, but certainly not impossible. I have five commandments for intelligently increasing your run volume as a triathlete without getting hurt. And I’ve successfully used these strategies not only on myself, but with countless athletes I’ve coached over the years. Follow these principles to avoid injury as you up your run volume.
1. Think of triathlon as one sport, not three.
When increasing your run volume, the underlying goal is to increase your performance, yes? If so, it’s imperative going into this project to think of triathlon as one sport, not three separate ones. There could be multiple reasons why you’re not running well off of the bike that you might be overlooking. It could be you’re not taking in enough fluids and fuel on the bike leg, it could be you’re biking inefficiently, or that you are “over-biking,” meaning you are biking beyond your current fitness levels. This happens way more than you may realize and all of these factors would contribute to a poor run performance, no matter how much more you run. Bear in mind that your path to running better might not necessarily require running more at all, but if you pair the above considerations with the below methodical approach to improving your running, you will be sure to make a leap ahead in performance.
2. If you up your running, then ease back in another discipline.
New triathletes are so new that, well, they only have one direction to go. And that is up—and quickly! But that doesn’t last forever and if you’ve been in the sport a while you’ll know that gone are the days where you can continue to make big gains in all three sports. Enter phase two (or for some of you phase three or four…) where it pays to adopt a more deliberate approach to improvement, which is something I like to call “triathlon hopscotch.”
Hopscotch means that you’re putting your effort into one discipline at a time, while giving yourself a little more slack in the others to help make that happen. To increase your run volume without overtraining or stressing yourself that might mean cutting back (slightly) on intensity or volume on the swim and bike. Your training load is about the same, it’s just shifted in order to move one discipline forward for a six-to-eight-week training block. Then you can play hopscotch on another leg and continue to move yourself forward incrementally. The takeaway: It’s hard to increase your run volume without also giving yourself slack in the pool and on the bike to make that happen.
3. You can either run longer or run more frequently—one is better than the other.
When it comes to increasing your run volume specifically, there are two ways to do it. The first would be to just lengthen your existing runs. But running longer all of a sudden and all of the time can lead to break down and poor mechanics (more on this in below), which is risky. You’ve got the quantity up, but had to sacrifice quality to do it. The second option is to run more frequently and at shorter intervals. You could run five to six days per week (up from the two to four days that most triathletes do), but do shortened sessions that are well within your wheelhouse. Now you are benefiting from the extra time on feet and you’re more able to keep the quality high, all without risking too much from breakdown.
4. Run better, not just more.
When it comes to improving anything, more doesn’t always translate to better. This is especially true when it comes to the final leg of a triathlon. It’s not a simple matter of your cardiovascular system holding up, it’s about your ability to maintain solid run mechanics from the first mile to the last mile. This means running tall, breathing smoothly into your belly, driving your hips forward, and maintaining a quick efficient cadence. To put it another way, trying to run with a broken down stride is akin to driving with the parking brake on or pedaling with under-inflated tires. You can do it, it’s just not very fast or very efficient (or very fun). Before you just pile on extra volume, ensure it’s quality volume. Try running with a metronome once or twice a week to keep your cadence honest. Practice running with it up and down hills and at different speeds. Where and when do you break down (because we all do at some point)? Breathe in and out through your nose on your easy runs to improve your posture, breathing mechanics, and gas exchange. (Check out this video on breathing patterns and mechanics). Maintain enough strength sessions weekly that you are literally strong enough to run upright for long periods. Struggle to do ten quality push-ups in a row? You are not strong enough.
4. Don’t wait to get injured.
Do not wait for muscles to get tight or a joint to feel achy before you turn your attention to mobility and self-care. Now, repeat that to yourself ten more times. I cannot overemphasize the importance of regular mobility and soft tissue work (foam rolling, percussion, scraping) for staying ahead of injuries. Specifically, by doing this work regularly you establish a good baseline of your normal. So when your calf starts to feel a little tight and stiff after two weeks of increased run volume, you can catch it and make the needed adjustments to your training before you start limping. Please don’t be that triathlete who says: “Wow, that overuse injury came out of nowhere.” Because here’s the deal, overuse injuries do not come out of nowhere.
Notice in this article I focus on the process of improving your miles and running without injury. Note that I purposely did not talk about the 10% rule for increasing volume, because (a) I do not find that as useful or appropriate for triathletes, and (b) the above universal principles still need to respected by any triathlete of any age, experience, or training history.
Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and athletes who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He’s spent the past 13 years working with endurance athletes – from Olympians to every day – in the gym to improve their strength, mobility, and mechanics so they can perform. You can download The Run Experience app to get strength and injury prevention workouts as well as new daily audio runs.