Why Runners Should Train Like Triathletes

The principle of specificity dictates that if we want to improve as runners we have to, well, run.But for those of us who don’t have the biomechanical or genetic gifts of Shalane Flanagan that allow her to fly like a gazelle 160-plus kilometres a week, we can only run so much before injury and burnout take control. What’s a motivated mortal to do? Something else.

Cycling and swimming can help a runner boost strength and endurance and keep injuries at bay. “Cycling also decreases the risk of burnout and boredom from just running. Variety will help athletes stay engaged in endurance sports for much longer,” says Eric Schwartz, a multisport coach and podcaster.
“Instead of thinking of yourself only as a runner, why not treat yourself as a whole athlete?” says Karl Riecken, exercise physiologist. “You can improve your ability in different sports, and you might even discover that you have a lot more to offer.”Most runners can’t or won’t stop running, but there is a point when we need to consider alternatives. “A key indicator is whether you’re recovered enough to do your key sessions for the week, such as your speedwork or your long run,” says Riecken. Other signs include heavy legs and more aches and tweaks than usual.

If this is you, consider the triathlete (or duathlete) method. Because you will spend the same or more time exercising, you may discover, like many multisport athletes, that you will run as strong as ever on less weekly mileage.

“Because you don’t have as much eccentric load, you can put more emphasis on your cardiovascular system with swimming and cycling,” says Riecken. “This allows you to do more work with less damage.” As a bonus, cycling builds quad and calf strength, and it’s fun to do with a group. Swimming, if done properly, can help build core strength and stability, improve posture, and increase ankle flexibility.

We can get too much of a good thing, however. Too much cycling or swimming will lead to as much or more fatigue and injury than running more kilometres. Too many hilly and/or intense rides can negatively affect your run workouts and lead to grouchy knees and backs. Too many laps can lead to a wonky rotator cuff or a stiff neck.

To start, try replacing one or two recovery runs with bike or swim workouts. Riecken recommends simple interval sessions for endurance and mental toughness.

Can’t decide what to do? Do both. Triathletes often perform “brick” workouts, which involve back-to-back sessions of two sports, usually cycling and running. If you want to practice running hard while tired, a brick is a great way to accomplish that. Schwartz recommends short intervals of running and cycling as well as longer, moderate efforts for endurance.

If your body can handle high mileage, run to your heart’s content. But for those susceptible to injury, either due to age or dumb biomechanical luck, consider the multisport approach. You might even swim, bike, and run your way to a new PB.


Workouts to Try

Be sure to warm up and cool down properly before and after these workouts. Hydrate well, especially if riding indoors, where it’s easy to sweat buckets.

1. Cycling
Cadence sessions (good for leg turnover):
Four minutes (85-95 rpm), moderate-to-hard effort; two minutes easy; two minutes fast-to-hard (100-110 rpm); three minutes easy. Repeat three to six times.

“Threshold grit” (for mental and physical endurance):
Four minutes hard (90-100 rpm), two minutes easy; six minutes hard (90-100 rpm), three minutes easy; eight minutes hard (90-100 rpm), four minutes easy.

2. Swimming:
50-metre swim, 30 seconds rest; 100-meter swim, one minute rest; 150-metre swim, 1:30 rest. Repeat three to six times.

3. Brick:
For speed:
10-15 minutes of cycling at a hard effort (seven to nine on a one-to-10 scale) followed immediately by a 2 kilometre run at the same effort. Jog easy for five minutes. Repeat three times.

For endurance:
One-hour ride at a moderate pace (six or seven on a one-to-10 scale) followed by a 40- to 60-minute aerobic run.

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