How to Tackle the Triathlon, Part 3: Run

A 10-kilometer run is the triathlon’s third challenge. Here’s how Olympians increase their speed for the last leg and draw on their training in the push toward the finish line.

After completing the first two legs of an Olympic-distance triathlon—a .93-mile (1.5-kilometer) swim and a 24.8-mile (40-kilometer) bike ride—it’s time to step into running shoes for a 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) run. Races are won and lost during this final leg of the race—good runners cherish the opportunity to chase down anyone ahead of them, and weaker runners dread being passed.

National Geographic Adventure asked four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper (that’s right, he’s raced in four Olympic triathlons, from its 2000 debut in Sydney to 2012 in London) for his tips on how to maximize your running effort at the end of a triathlon. Kemper had the fastest time for the run leg at the 2004 Olympics in Athens to finish ninth overall, and has a personal record of 29:10 for the distance.

Here are Kemper’s tips for maximizing your running for triathlon.

Find the Right Gear

“Get properly fitted for a running shoe,” advises Kemper. Everybody’s feet are different, whether you have high arches or no arches, or if you pronate, supinate, or have other issues. “What works for your friend doesn’t necessarily work for you and your foot,” he says. Kemper suggests shopping at a specialty running store and being assessed by a footwear specialist who understands biomechanics. And don’t get hung up on ounces when hunting for the lightest-weight shoe. “I would focus on that, but I’m an elite,” says Kemper. “You want something that’s going to get you through your event without your body breaking down.”

Develop Fast Turnover

Most runners land on their heels, but this isn’t optimal for a really fast pace. “When you see the Kenyans run, their turnover”—how quickly their legs alternate—“is superfast,” says Kemper. To achieve a quick turnover, you want your feet to spend very little time on the ground, which requires landing on your mid-foot instead of your heel. “You’ve got to make sure you’re getting through your strides quickly,” says Kemper, who adds that your goal should be at least 190 steps per minute. Figure out your cadence by counting your steps for 10 seconds while you’re running, and multiply that by six. To improve your cadence, says Kemper, run a few strides barefoot on a hard surface to feel the sensation. “You’re almost forced to strike on your mid-foot, and it will help you get in the mind-set of being light on your feet." Keep these turnover-improving techniques in mind, even during easy runs, to contantly build up your pace.

Relax Your Arms

“People tend to carry their arms too high, with their shoulders hunched up toward their ears,” says Kemper. “You want to be relaxed in the neck and trapezoids.” To work out tension, do a couple of shoulder shrugs before training runs, and even in the middle of your runs. When you tighten and relax your muscles, you teach your body what it feels like to relax. From there, focus on keeping your hands light, “like you’re gripping a pencil,” and your elbows driving back and forth like a pendulum. “Keep your elbows and arms close to your body for efficiency,” says Kemper.

Hit the Brick

In the midst of the race, trying to run right after getting off a bike feels undeniably awkward. Your legs feel “like bricks,” says Kemper. To get your body used to the clunky feeling, do what are called brick workouts. To do a brick, change out of your bike shoes and into your running shoes at the end of a ride and head out for a run—even an easy run. If you have two hours, for instance, do a one-hour, 45-minute ride followed by a slow 15-minute run, progressing to a harder run or workout. “Realize it’s going to take some time for your legs to adapt and the right muscles to start firing,” Kemper says. He recommends doing a brick every couple of weeks. Becoming familiar with the feeling helps you keep from freaking out on race day. You’ll be sure that your legs will eventually warm up.

Mix It Up

You won’t gain any speed by doing the same 30-minute run every day. Mix up your run-training week by doing one long run at conversational pace, then do one run in which the effort feels intense—like hill repeats, or a sustained run at race pace or close to race pace. “My favorite is 6 x 1-mile on the trail,” says Kemper. (For this workout, jog very slowly for two or three minutes in between fast miles, and build up to 6 x 1-mile over time.) And do a couple easy runs with striders (see the next tip) at the end.

Finish Strong With Striders

Kemper is an enthusiastic proponent of doing striders at the end of an easy run to gain overall speed and to work on your finishing kick for race day. He recommends ending an easy run in a field, on a smooth path, or on a quiet street. To do a strider, start at a walk, increase your pace gradually to 80 to 90 percent maximum effort, then ease the pace back down for the last 20 meters. Do six to eight striders twice a week. “Pickup striders get your body used to the feeling of being fast. It’s a natural way to work on speed and quickness and finishing your race strong.”

Now Put It All Together

You’ll likely never feel more fit and healthy than you do while training for all three sports of an Olympic-distance triathlon. Swimming, biking, and running work virtually every muscle in your body. Come race day, it’s time to put all that training to good use. Since a race brings a whole slew of scenarios that are hard to mimic outside of the starting gun and finish line, National Geographic Adventure asked three Olympic triathletes—Laura Bennett, Susan Williams, and Kemper—for their tips for a successful race.

Organize Your Transition Area

Set up your transition area—your specific spot on a bike rack in a designated area where you’ll switch from your swim-to-bike, then bike-to-run gear—so that all your gear is organized and ready to go. “Have your helmet unclipped and upside down, and your sunglasses in your helmet so you don’t forget them,” says Williams. “And make sure your bike is in the gear you want before you rack it in the transition area.” If the bike course starts with a big climb, explains Williams, you’ll want your bike in a low gear. Kemper suggests having elastic laces of some sort in your running shoes in lieu of regular shoelaces. “Ideally, you want them just loose enough to be able to slide into them,” he says, “and just tight enough that you don’t have to adjust them.”

Line Up for the Swim (Strategically)

“If you feel intimidated by a mass swim start,” says Bennett, “try starting on the side of the lineup so you have no one at least on one side of you.” Or, she says, line up at the back of your start wave. “The energy used in fighting the middle of a pack far outweighs any time loss by letting them go.”

Speed From Swim to Bike

The first transition between swim and bike is where you get out of your wet suit (start unzipping as soon as you exit the water), into your bike shoes with your helmet and sunglasses on, and onto your bike, all as quickly as possible. If you’ve practiced getting into your bike shoes with them already clipped to your bike, says Williams, then mount your bike barefoot and get into your shoes. If not, then get your shoes on quickly and mount your bike. “And, be prepared for anything,” says Williams, who says not to panic if your bike was knocked down in the transition area, or your helmet is a few feet away.

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Drink Up

Since it’s hard to take in a lot of water while you’re on the run, says Kemper, the ideal time to hydrate (or take in any fuel) is on the bike. “Empty both water bottles while riding,” he says. “You don’t want to get to the run and think, Oh, I forgot to drink.” And if you need a gel for fuel, the bike’s an ideal time to ingest, as running creates a lot of jostling.

Then Speed Up

Williams suggests increasing your cadence on the bike as you get closer to the second transition area. “Spin a bit,” she says. “Lighten up on the gears as you get ready to transition to the run.” Kemper agrees: “If I’m coming to the end of my bike, the last five or 10 minutes or so, I increase the rpm from 90 to 95 or 100 to start flushing out the lactic acid in my legs to get ready for the run.”

Dash From Bike to Run

Kemper says that if you’ve practiced getting out of your bike shoes while still on the bike, get out of your shoes and dismount barefoot as you’re rolling into the second transition area. Rack your bike, remove your helmet, and step into your running shoes as quickly as possible. And while your sunglasses will already be on from the bike, you may want to put on a running hat or visor. “Maybe grab a water bottle,” says Kemper, “take a couple sips, and pour some on your head to cool down.”

Get in the Groove

Even if you’ve trained by doing brick workouts, running right off the bike feels awkward. Accept the fact that your legs and feet feel heavy, but know it won’t last. To help get into a running rhythm, Kemper recommends shaking out your arms and relaxing your shoulders—they’ll be tense and tired after swimming and biking. “The more relaxed you are, the better off you’re going to be.”

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