“It always comes down to the last run,” my old coach used to warn me. Yet many triathletes and duathletes will admit that they have miserable final runs. Their legs turn to blocks of concrete and their pace falls far short of their potential. A lousy run seems to be a rite of passage for most multisport athletes– and it takes a very long time until the run finally starts coming together. This short blog post will hopefully shorten the learning curve.
The Art of Pacing
It’s easy to spot the newcomers to multisport. Usually they’re blasting up the hills on the bike or taking off hard in the first mile of a duathlon. Often they emulate the elite athletes who have the raw talent and countless hours of training to get away with such tactics (typically, on much more expensive equipment). More experienced athletes know to let them go—without fail, they’ll be passed long before the finish.
Multisport races are all extremely long races. Even the shortest, so-called “sprint” events are a misnomer—nothing that takes over an hour of hard work should be called a “sprint.” Fortunately, the best place to pace in a race is during the bike leg, which we are doubly fortunate to have as the longest leg of most multisport races.
So the most important secret to running well off the bike is simply biking smart. Anyone who hits the cycling leg super-hard is going to really pay for their efforts. The trick here is to avoid really hard accelerations, slow grinding efforts, or hard standing efforts on climbs. Anytime that you really force your muscles hard you are causing some microscopic damage—and this will turn your legs into concrete on the run. The simplest way to avoid these bad tough effort is to keep your cadence above 85 RPM’s and using a power meter. I’ve blogged in the past about why you should use a power meter in racing and it all comes down to pacing your efforts effectively.
Using Your Gluteal Muscles
Your quadriceps muscles in the front of your thigh are critical muscles for running and cycling. In running, one of their functions is acting as hip flexors lifting the knee. Obviously, if you can’t lift your knees when you run, your stride reduces to a shuffle—not the speediest way to run!
Most beginner multisport athletes don’t cycle properly. In fact, many cyclists (myself included) have a natural tendency to use their quadriceps muscles to make up for the much larger and stronger gluteus maximus muscle when they ride a bike or run. The problem is that, in contrast to the almost indefatigable glutes, the quadriceps burn out pretty easily. Part of that comes from the sheer size of the muscles involved (the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body) and the muscle fiber combination (glutes are mostly slow twitch). Unfortunately, western society’s emphasis on sitting for hours a day does a great job of inhibiting our glutes. Sitting all day long shortens our hip flexors and encourages an anterior pelvic tilt (i.e. forward leaning pelvis) instead a strong neutral (flat) pelvis.
I spent an entire summer teaching myself how to use my hips and glutes properly—particularly on the bike. All my work got me to the point where I could do it better in training and perform much better in duathlons. But I’m absolutely convinced I could make much greater gains if I keep focusing on good hip extension. This is particularly true for running—just a few extra inches on each stride through improved range of motion could translate into a TON of free speed! But that’s a task for this winter.
So what did I do during my summer of hip and back training on the bike? First, I focused on keeping my back flat at the hips when I was in my aero position. This is trying to get a neutral back—not a rounded back. Compare a picture of Lance Armstrong and David Zabriskie riding in their time trial positions. You want to be David and not Lance. Note that this may put a lot more pressure on your perineal region so don’t be surprised if you need a new saddle.
Second, I focused on the horizontal elements of the pedal stroke and not the vertical ones. We all generate our power on the downstroke in pedaling—that just comes naturally. Unfortunately, focusing on that portion of the stroke is a clear way to trash your quads. Instead, focus on “coming over the top” or “pushing forward over the top.” Even more importantly, drop your heels on the downstroke and imagine scraping a blob of mud off the middle of your foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke. A number of years ago, Bicycling Magazine described the “perfect pedal stroke”— the article is definitely worth a read and describes these points better than I can. Following these mental cues will definitely help to shift the work to your glutes and away from your quads—but it also helps to focus on how your glutes feel during the effort. You should feel them working harder when you follow the mental cues and working less when you don’t. All of this takes a ton of time to become second nature and to become neurologically programmed in your body. But, after a few months, it should completely change the final run for your duathlons and triathlons.
Pick a Flat Course
I’m a pretty tiny guy in the world of old multisport athletes. I love climbing up big hills and can certainly hold my own against my peers. I’m also pretty darn fearless on the descents. I generally do really well on hilly multisport races. Nevertheless, I absolutely hate them.
The reason I loathe hilly duathlons is because it is really hard to not trash your quads on a tough hill. Because my TT bike doesn’t have gearing like a mountain bike, I end up grinding up steep hills. And, when my cadence drops below 80 RPMs, no amount of glute focus is going to save my quads from also getting seriously trashed from the increased muscle tension. That’s fine in a single-sport event like cycling—but it means a very painful final run.
Pick a flat duathlon a few months out and focus heavily on some of these ideas. I bet that, even if you were fully convinced that the last run is always a death march, you’ll feel differently by the end of this experiment. And a podium finish or age group win isn’t a bad consolation prize for losing a bet.
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