Four Ways To Keep Your Running On Track—Or Get It Back On Track

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Written by: Brian Metzler

Running is simple. Just throw on a shirt and some shorts, lace up your kicks and head out the door. But somehow it’s never that easy when you’re a triathlete. For starters, you’ve got other disciplines to consider and other workouts that might take precedence, and you have to deal with fatigue on a regular basis.

Here are a few tricks (or treats) you might be able to implement into your busy regimen.

1) Give Yourself A Break

Long runs can be a drag, even if you’re a good runner. But if you’re tired or putting in high volume on the bike or in the pool, it can make getting through a 90-minute to two-hour jaunt a real chore and that can lead to a mental and physical downward spiral.

Seth Wealing, the 2006 XTERRA USA Champion and two-time ITU World Cup top-five finisher, typically runs no more than 105 minutes in his long runs. Although he has a college track background, he says even those runs can become burdensome. So Wealing will often run 15 minutes, then walk at a moderate pace for a minute to recover ever so briefly before running for 15 more minutes. Using that system, he might walk six times during a long run, but he’s refreshed when he’s finished.

“It releases everything that is built up in your hips and knees and flushes everything out,” he says. “Your heart rate doesn’t really get any lower; you just rejuvenate yourself and you can keep going. Ultimately, you don’t fade at all at the end of your run because you’re not dragging.”

2) Work On Your Weaknesses

Learning what type of runner you are can help you improve on your weaknesses. Photo: John Segesta
Learning what type of runner you are can help you improve on your weaknesses. Photo: John Segesta

Just as all triathletes have stronger and weaker disciplines, so too do they have strengths and weaknesses within each discipline. As a runner, a triathlete might be a speed freak, an endurance fiend or somewhere in between. The in-between part is ideal because it allows someone to be versatile enough to train and race at short and long distances and at all speeds. The key is figuring out which type you are by answering some simple questions: Do you really enjoy logging copious mileage or longer fartlek workouts? Or are you more inclined to run fast for short distances such as a 5K race or 800-meter repeats on a track?

Once you’ve determined what kind of runner you are, work on your weaknesses first and then focus on your strengths, says Flagstaff, Ariz., elite running coach Greg McMillan. In other words, do what you like to do least in the early part of your training block and then focus on the thing you enjoy (and presumably do well) in the second half of your program.

But, he says, workouts that focus on your weaknesses take a greater toll on you than the ones that work your strengths. “So insert only small doses of these workouts into your plan and space them out by several days,” he says. Later in your program, you’ll want to include heavier doses of workouts that focus on your strengths. For example, if you’re an endurance fiend, sprinkle in a few short and fast reps early on, but then be sure to load up your mileage with long runs later in your training cycle.

3) Don’t Follow Convention

It’s long been commonplace for triathletes to “run on tired legs” in training to mimic conditions in a race. That’s why we do so many bricks, where we’re running immediately following a bike workout or the day after a long ride or high-volume day. But that might not be the best approach, says Scott Fliegelman, founder and head coach of Boulder-based FastForward Sports, which trains hundreds of runners and triathletes every year.

“That approach may indeed be helpful psychologically, but those athletes are short-changing their ability to make significant improvement in their running speed, strength and endurance by doing their run workouts in a mostly unrecovered state—and that leads to an inability to run hard, steady, or long enough to challenge the body to make desired physiological adaptations,” says Fliegelman, a 10:20 Ironman finisher. “Our Ironman athletes, during their key specificity phase leading to peak conditioning, do their long swim/bike workouts on Sundays, and their long run on Wednesday evenings. Not only does this allow ample recovery between key workouts, but doing the run after a day at work mimics the time of day that most athletes will be running 26.2 on Ironman day.”

4) Don’t Destroy Yourself

Craig Alexander, the 2008 Ironman world champion, is human, just like the rest of us. He was reminded of that on July 19 at the Vineman Ironman 70.3 in Guerneville, Calif. Although he had a good swim, a decent bike and started the run in second place, he knew he didn’t have his “A” game that day. He had a stomach bug that forced him to make several unplanned pit stops.

He could have kept hammering away at sub-six-minute pace and still probably finished in the top three. But he knew he’d be better off by backing off the intensity so as not to put himself in a big hole when his Ironman training block began two weeks later. He slowed to 6:30-6:45 pace, completed the run leg in 1:24:07 and finished eighth overall.

“I could have finished on the podium, but who knows what state I would have been in after that and what my energy levels would have been to start my training for Kona?” he says. “We all like to do as well as we can in every race and every workout. But you just can’t tear yourself apart. Five years ago, I would have tried to battle on, and had I not won, it probably would have rocked me mentally a little bit. But these days, I’ve learned to be smarter about it.”

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