XTerra Series VII: Run fast off the bike

Josiah Middaugh always posts some of the fastest runs in XTerra...and not by chance.

Josiah Middaugh always posts some of the fastest runs in XTerra…and not by chance.

Triathlon is unique in that you not only complete three distinctly different activities, but also that, with the exception of the swim, your performance can be significantly altered by the prior activity. This means that simply being good in any of the three sports is by no means a guarantee that you will do well in that leg on race day. For example, there is now abundant research showing that intense cycling alters running mechanics, and the degree to which those mechanics change and their impact on performance appears to be one factor distinguishing elite triathletes from sub-elites. More importantly, however, is that exceptional runners do not always excel in the triathlon run. However, unlike road triathlon, where most event are conducted on good road surfaces, XTerra requires not only good running efficiency, but greater agility and mental acuity. I would also argue that the swim has greater potential to impact the MTB, particularly on highly technical trails. Therefore, the aim of this article is to discuss specific training strategies you can employ to improve your results in the run.

Step #1: Understand the run

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, then you will recall my previous discussions on running and pacing for XTerra; if not, read those first. Good running form doesn’t just happen, and its something you need to work on year-round, because good running form rested will help to better running form fatigued. Another part of understanding the run, and understanding the demands of an XTerra run, and what that feels like, which requires periodic off-the-bike runs (discussed later). Last, understanding the run means understanding yourself. To that end you must also work on pacing at all speeds year-round without relying on your GPS. I love GPS data, but GPS paces won’t do shit for you when your run HR is 10 beats lower than normal and your running on winding, hilly trails. You’ve got to learn how to feel, and perhaps use your HR. I also find using running cadence is helpful, but not essential.

Step #2: Train the run

It makes sense that to get faster, you have to train. However, as I have pointed out in part III of this series, plodding around on trails won’t get your faster. At the risk of boiling this down to a cliche, you need to train for speed and endurance, but race with strength. The other thing I’ve learned is that every athlete responds differently to speed and endurance training. Greg McMillan describes this as the speedster vs endurance monster. Either way, you’ll need a little of both; long runs to build your overall “base” and endurance, and faster, and speed intervals to improve your cadence and run form at speed. The other part of training that has proven to be extremely effective at improving strength and power, not to mention efficiency, are uphill sprint intervals of 10 – 40 sec with 60 – 240 sec of recovery. You can add these to a day when you’re just doing drills, or at the end of any run.

Step #3: Run fast…off the bike!

All training aside, the most important aspect of your preparation is the BRICK. The brick run can be used numerous different ways, but no matter how you implement the brick you always need to thinking about your technique. That includes:

  • Working on your drills after a hard ride.
  • Putting in moderate to hard rides followed by an easy run, or easy rides followed by a race pace run.
  • A pre-race brick 10-14 days out where you perform both your ride and run at race pace, but cut the volume of each by 25-50%. This is a great time to do a final test of your race fueling plan too.

A key aspect to all of these runs is to transition from the bike to run quickly (under 5 min) and to practice “finding your legs”. This can be difficult when you’re mentally and physically tired. Additionally, running fast immediately out of transition is not essential to a good run, and can actually be counter-productive. More important is to focus on good form with a faster, shorter stride (i.e., faster turn-over helps you feel faster). Use that first 500 – 1000 m to get comfortable and steadily increase your pace. From there its all about being right on the razors edge, easy up, and even walking uphills to keep your HR steady.

At the end of the day, a good run in XTerra doesn’t need to be as much fast, as it does steady and consistent. You’ll maximize that likelihood if you’ve been there before race day!

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