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We’ve all been there—shuffling through the last leg of a triathlon, just hoping to survive the run. It’s a common problem. “Most triathletes kind of suck at the run,” says Jason Fitzgerald, a running coach who often has triathletes come to him to work on what they perceive to be their weakest leg. In most cases, however, poor run performance doesn’t actually stem from being a weak runner. Sure, many triathletes have swimming or cycling backgrounds, and running is not their strong suit. But frequently the end-of-race shuffle is a problem with the approach to the overall race distance, pacing and fueling. Once those things start going wrong, that’s when the run starts to go wrong, too.
“It’s easy to fall into a pity party” and tell yourself you’re not a runner when you start to slow down, says Jesse Kropelnicki, founder of QT2 Systems and coach for speedy pros like Caitlin Snow and Pedro Gomes. Don’t do that ever again. It’s time to stop feeling bad for yourself and start racing all the way through the finish line. Use these tips to turn your run from a weakness into a strength.
Fuel smarter to run faster
“The No. 1 issue, by far, is race fueling on the bike,” Kropelnicki says. “There’s not even a close second.”
If you don’t fuel well while biking, you’re not going to feel good while running. Kropelnicki has all of his athletes go through a customized nutrition program to create a detailed race fueling plan. What he’s found: Generally, most athletes aren’t drinking enough or taking in enough sodium.
A good rule of thumb, Kropelnicki says, is to pee at least once in a half-Ironman and twice in an Ironman. (People rarely need to pee during shorter races.) Take in 500–600 mg of sodium per 24-ounce bottle that you drink, he says. Since his athletes primarily take in sports drink, not water, they generally consume about one bottle per hour.
Carb requirements can vary by athlete, but keep it around 30 to 60 grams per hour. Experiment with what types of foods work for you and don’t cause GI distress when you start running.
A run in triathlon isn’t just a run—it comes after a swim and a bike. That means even if you pace the run evenly, you still might suffer from going too hard before you get to T2.
Properly pacing the bike comes down to three different kinds of pacing, Kropelnicki says: parceling out your effort over the distance so the first half is equal to the second half; pedaling smoothly and with a consistent cadence throughout; and keeping your effort even on a minute-by-minute basis to ensure no big surges.
If you aren’t racing with power, then use heart rate to judge your effort. He suggests lapping each half of the bike to ensure your heart rate for each section is within three beats and never surges higher than 10 beats above your average.
Train more for durability
The other problem is that you probably aren’t doing the run training you need in order to be ready. “Most triathletes simply aren’t running enough,” Fitzgerald says. That means regularly including long runs and threshold-style tempo runs.
In terms of mileage, Kropelnicki argues you should hit seven-thirds of the total run mileage of your race distance for at least two weeks in the six weeks before your target race. This rule of thumb holds true across all race distances. For example, to be prepared for the marathon in an Ironman you should run 60 miles per week for two weeks in the final six-week block leading into your race. Or, at least, he said, hit 40 miles per week for two weeks.
Yes, that’s a lot of miles. And, no, you shouldn’t increase your mileage rapidly to get to that point, but rather work your way up, roughly following the 10 percent rule, i.e., don’t increase your volume more than 10 percent each week from the week before. Training volume is necessary, though, said Kropelnicki, to be durable and ready to race all the way to the end.