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Train Like An Olympic Triathlete

  • By Kim McDonald
  • Published Jul 26, 2012
  • Updated Oct 31, 2014 at 4:38 PM UTC
Illustration by Oliver Baker.


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Ask ITU coaches how they’ve molded their athletes into top ITU competitors with no weaknesses—as well as their secrets for getting age groupers fast—and their answers might surprise you. Many contend the key to long-term development and success in triathlon is not building a bigger aerobic engine or developing raw speed, but instilling good technique in the run, bike and swim before putting in the big miles. Look at videos of Gomez’s nearly flawless swimming and running form during races and you’ll understand why. Swimming a sub-16-minute 1500 meters or running a 29:30 10K off the bike requires supreme economy. And training at the running speeds necessary to be competitive in today’s ITU races, coaches say, requires good biomechanics and an efficient stride to avoid damaging your muscles to the point of injury.

“There is more focus and awareness on all aspects of running performance, technique included, due to the increasing standards of running required to win,” said Joel Filliol, former head coach of Triathlon Canada who coached Olympic gold and silver medalist Simon Whitfield.

If you don’t perfect your running technique, contends Malcolm Brown, the running coach of the Brownlee brothers, the-odds-on favorites for gold and silver medals at this summer’s Olympics, you’ll simply put a “ceiling” on your future potential as a runner or triathlete, he said.

“Good running technique contributes to the development of endurance running potential,” he said.

A large portion of the speed work that guys are doing now is meant to build mechanical efficiency, according to Trolle, who’s worked with 2012 Olympic qualifier Sarah Groff, ITU pro Mark Fretta and who is now coaching Lauren Goldstein-Kral, a member of USA Triathlon’s Project 2016 squad.

“We’ve gotten to the point where everyone is able to run fast, but it’s the ones with the best technique who win.

“When you develop a program for anyone, technique and mechanics should be the first things that go into the program,” he added. “We focus on mechanics, then speed, then endurance. Endurance should never be the first thing, because when you go long, you don’t have time to think about technique or going fast.”

To improve running technique in his athletes, Trolle regularly videotapes them, runs them up hills and has them dragging a car tire tied to a harness behind them to increase their leg turnover and promote their forward lean and backward leg extension. While some running coaches avoid changing their athletes’ running technique, contending they will naturally adopt their most efficient form, Trolle has been able to drop Goldstein-Kral’s 10K running times by more than a minute in each of the last four years by tinkering with her stride.

Even Shoemaker, who ran cross country and track at Dartmouth College and is one of the fastest runners on the circuit, sees value in continuing to work on his run technique.

“I’ve focused a lot more on running form since college,” he said.

Greg Bennett, an Olympian and the top-ranked ITU triathlete in 2002 and 2003, says perfecting an efficient stride that doesn’t waste energy is one of the keys to success at any triathlon distance, from the sprint to Ironman.

“Make sure the foot lands underneath you,” he said. “Being light on the ground and creating a good feel on the ground is very important. Running well is basically the most pure form of human movement. In essence, it’s a form of dance. It’s all about timing and rhythm, hence I encourage running with music.”

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To make improvements on the bike, Trolle has his ITU athletes start the season with big gear, low cadence work on hills to develop leg strength and power. That’s particularly important for those athletes with weak quads coming from a running background. Gomez subscribes to the same training philosophy, saying big gear work on the bike, running hill repeats and doing other strength exercises in the gym specific to the swim, bike and run are far more important to him “than just doing miles and miles” in keeping him fast.

“The run off the bike is not like a track and field race,” he contended. “You need some specific muscles to be able to hold the position and be fast.”

On the bike, failing to bridge a gap or catch up to the peloton after a sharp turn can make or break a race, so ITU athletes also work on maximizing the amount of force they can apply to the pedals for short periods of time.

“ITU training is all about sprint training on the bike,” said Shoemaker, who regularly works on his maximum power in the off-season by doing criterium races and fast-paced group rides. “You’re trying to put out as much power as you can for a minute and then recover as fast as you can. Whereas when you’re training for non-draft races, your training is more about how much you can sustain for a long period of time without wearing yourself down. If you look at the power files for all of us who are racing ITU, it’s up and down and up and down. And if you look at power files for a non-draft race, ideally it’s a flat line.”

Age groupers should take note, though, that the ability to generate maximum power can pay big dividends in a non-drafting race course with lots of turns.

“Peak power makes a huge difference, even in non-drafting races,” said Trolle, noting that losing five seconds around every turn because it takes 10 seconds, rather than five, to get up to maximum speed means you’ve lost more than several minutes in a 40K bike course with 30 turns. Many ITU athletes, including Noble, train with a power meter and can generate 1,000 watts or more for 10-second sprints. To improve their maximum power on the trainer, they’ll do a set of 3 x 20-minute intervals at their threshold wattage, much like an age grouper training for a non-draft race, but within those 20 minutes they’ll perform “continuous blocks of three minutes just below threshold and two minutes above threshold or a shorter interval of 3 x 12 minutes as two minutes and 45 seconds steady state followed by 15 seconds maximum sprint,” Noble said. “The key is that you are dipping in and out of your anaerobic system, producing lactate and then trying to clear it while still riding in an upper aerobic zone.”

RELATED: Javier Gomez Talks Olympics And Non-Drafting Racing

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