Running a Strong Triathlon

posted Feb 28, 2010, 6:00 PM by Donald Vescio   [ updated Sep 12, 2011, 8:09 AM ]
By Chris Benestad CSCS, USATF II, Running Coach at Vescio MPS

A verry good triathlete once told me that to have a great run in triathlon, you need to be a strong cyclist.  It seems backwards, but it is true. You need to be able to hammer on the bike and still have reserves left for the run. Conversely, if you can barely drag your carcass through the bike segment of the triathlon, you are not going to feel too spry on the run. So consider becoming a strong cyclist the first step to completing strong

runs in a triathlon. Since the focus of this article is on running, I will not go into specifics about how to improve your cycling.


Once you have become an efficient and powerful cyclist whether through structured training or the assistance of a cycling coach, it is time to focus on running strong off the bike. Four primary components of running strong off the bike are:

1.      Improving your overall fitness through strength and conditioning activities

2.      Building your endurance through cycling and running

3.      Getting your legs used to running when tired by completing brick workouts or doing a tempo run right after a running interval workout

4.      Staying fueled and hydrated during the bike and run segments


Improving your overall fitness through strength and conditioning activities is the first component in that I will address. Cycling and running are power exercises. An effective year round strength and conditioning program is key for developing the requisite power for cycling and running and for helping with injury prevention by eliminating muscle imbalances. Thirty minutes twice a week is sufficient time to devote to this activity as long as you focus only on exercises that you need, and you pair exercises for time efficiency. For example, instead of simply doing overhead presses, do one legged dumb bell curls to an overhead press. You can plan a program by researching appropriate exercises or by seeking assistance from someone who is knowledgeable about strength training for triathletes.


By building your endurance through cycling and running you are developing the aerobic engine that you will need to go the distance. For non-ironman distance competitors, it’s important to get your body used to working for at least the time you expect to race.  This is best accomplished during the base phase of your training program. If you are planning to race an Olympic distance triathlon, then your race will last anywhere from two to four hours depending on your ability and fitness.  Your training rides during the base phase of your training year should be approximately that amount of time to help you establish an appropriate endurance foundation and these workouts should be done at a zone 2 pace. Though your run in an Olympic triathlon is only 10k, your long training runs should be at least 90 minutes to build sufficient endurance for running a 10K at the end of the race. Remember to decrease these distances during the build and race phases of your training cycle.  

The third component for running strong in triathlon requires getting used to running with tired legs. An effective way to accomplish this is to practice bike-run workouts called bricks. Add bricks to your training schedule about six weeks prior to your first B race of the season or get these bricks in during some early season C races. Don’t try to go hard in both the bike and run portions during most of your brick workouts.  Combine a hard bike ride with a short easy run or a short bike ride with a hard run. During the taper for an A race on your calendar, it’s good to do a “dress rehearsal” brick where you go hard on the bike and the run, but for shorter distances than your big event. Indoor bricks work well in lousy weather as all you need is access to a treadmill and an indoor bike or trainer. Make sure you have at least four brick workouts under your belt before doing the following workout. After a good warm up of jogging and easy spinning, complete 5 – 8 sets of biking a hard 5k, then immediately run a hard 1k for time.  After the 1k, take a 3-5 min recovery before starting the next set.  Keep track of your time and try to improve from one workout to another.  This type of workout is very demanding and requires practice and patience.  You should only complete this workout once every 14 – 21 day. Remember that the key to this workout is running fast after a hard effort on the bike.  Also you get to practice changing your shoes quickly.

Another tactic for getting used to running strong with tired legs is to do a short tempo run right after you complete a workout with running intervals. For example, if you are training for an Olympic distance triathlon, do 3x1 mile repeats with 400 easy recovery. After the last 400 recovery, run at tempo pace for about 15 minutes. Your legs should be tired from the mile repeats so it should take some effort to hold the tempo pace.

The final step for running strong in triathlon is to stay fueled on the bike so that you start your run hydrated and ready to cover the distance. Triathlon racing can require a large amount of calories and fluids.  Your body has about enough energy for two hours of racing.  After that, you need to take in calories in order not to bonk.  Depending on the weather conditions and your fitness, drinking one to three bottles of sports drinks during a 40k bike split and consuming one or two energy gels will keep you properly fueled for your run.  Continue to drink at the water stations during the run. Figure out what types of drinks and foods and the amounts that your body can tolerate during your brick workouts and your long rides and runs.  Then put it into practice on race day.

 Hopefully these techniques will help you run strong in your next triathlon.  Race smart, and race with confidence that your training will hold up under race conditions. Please contact me if you any questions at: