This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Triathlete magazine.
Although a strong single-sport background can give athletes an edge when getting into triathlon, it can also make for a difficult learning curve when attempting to master the two other sports. The unique physical attributes and mentalities of athletes who grew up swimming or cycling can sometimes be a detriment to running, but with the right focus on training and skills, you can offset these deficiencies and become a better overall triathlete.
Acclaimed running coach Bobby McGee points out that the first two sports of a triathlon actually have a lot in common: The muscle function required to swim and bike is concentric (shortening) versus eccentric (lengthening) in running. He calls the former two sports “supported activities” because there’s way less gravity to contend with, especially in the water and on the flats on the bike, whereas running requires maximum effort to fight gravity with every step. He also calls them “partial effort,” as the brain knows that you still have to either bike after the swim or run after the bike, so it’s holding back. These differences contribute to the difficulty of transitioning from one sport to three.
If you came from swimming …
Swimmers tend to develop a bigger, more muscular upper body, which lowers VO2max and raises their center of mass, McGee says. They are taught to move ipsilaterally (the left hip and left shoulder work together), the opposite movement pattern of running. Leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics, McGee worked with Barb Lindquist, a former swimmer-turned-triathlete. They spent countless hours using videos and drills to make her a contralateral runner, and ultimately she went on to become the No. 1 ranked triathlete in the world for two years.
Swimming also has a “hard work” mentality, McGee says. Although the body can sustain back-to-back challenging workouts in the water, that mind-set doesn’t translate well to running, where too many hard efforts can lead to injury.
If you came from cycling …
In his home country of South Africa, McGee used to attend competitions in which a variety of athletes went up against each other in different events (core work, sprints, strength, etc.) to see who was the best all-around. He says the worst athletes were always the cyclists—“they were brilliant on the bike, but sucked at everything else.”
Considering the constant closed-off position on the bike, cyclists tend to have poor hip flexor mobility that can lead to quad-dominant running and make a proper tall running posture difficult to maintain. Muscle imbalances, such as the upper calf being too big, can also limit speed and technique.
Counteract your swim/bike dominance with these tips:
Restore posture. “Triathlon is a hotbed for postural fatigue,” McGee says. “The swim beats you up real good, and the bike finishes you off. So what you’re left with is a wet noodle for a spine between your rib cage and your pelvis.” After swimming and biking in training, regain posture, range of motion and neuromuscular patterning with a few exercises: Try heel walks with running shoes on after swimming, or a quick-feet drill emphasizing a downward thrust after cycling.
Run frequently. Plain and simple, McGee says: “Great runners become great runners because they run a lot.” Consider a block of 7–10 days where you run every day, keeping workouts short but frequent (as opposed to volume)—frequency builds skill.
Work on muscular endurance. “What’s holding a triathlete back at the end of a race is not the lack of cardiovascular fitness,” McGee says. “They just can’t pick up their legs anymore; their legs are shot.” Instead of a junky 30- to 60-minute run with poor form, do some race-pace strides of 100–200 meters, with 30–60 seconds of walking recovery between each. Hold your form as you would when fresh. Short, sharp hill repeats at race effort with good form will also be hugely beneficial.
Focus on power, not strength. “You can hold a plank for three minutes, but that doesn’t help your running,” McGee says. Considering your foot is on the ground for less than a third of a second during a stride, your supporting muscles need to be powerful and fire proactively, i.e. before your foot makes contact. Instead of just a plank, do a plank while bouncing up and down or do some consecutive hops or bounds. Be careful to build up to these with static bouncing on a forgiving surface and good footwear.