If you are an athlete thinking about triathlon but the thought of the run portion makes your stomach turn (or you know it’s the area where you need the most work), then you are in the right place. While it is not the most notorious of the triathlon legs for causing anxiety in newcomers, running still has its challenges, and is often the leg that causes the most injuries. Worry not. This guide will show you how to improve your running technique, give you guidelines on how to gradually build your fitness to avoid injury, and walk through the tools you need to stay durable season after season. Before we jump into all of that running fun, though, let’s talk quickly about gear.
Gearing Up to Run
Running is the easiest of the disciplines when it comes to gear. Ultimately, you only need a good pair of shoes, the rest is bonus. Regardless, let’s take a moment to walk through some gear that will set you up for success.
Shoes are undoubtedly the most important aspect of running gear and this section could truly be its own article. In an internet era, I strongly suggest you go against the flow and head to your local running store to get some assistance. The professionals there will be able to analyze your gait and put you in the shoe that best fits your needs. Running shoes typically fall into one of three categories depending on your biomechanics: neutral, stability/motion control, and maximum support/cushioning. Sorting that out on your own, while doable, can be a total pain.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Running shoes are usually good for around 300 miles of running. While you can continue running in them past that point, and some shoes last longer than others, it is common for pain and tightness to start to creep in. It’s better to change them before they sneak up on you and cause problems.
- Use your running shoes solely for the purpose of running and workouts. This helps you better track the mileage on the shoe and get more miles out of them. Everyday use wears them down more quickly and sets you up for overuse injuries.
- Rotate your shoes (if it’s in the budget). A study noted that rotating your shoes may reduce your overuse injury risk by up to 39%. Plus, spreading the love over several pairs of shoes likely helps your shoes last a little longer, too.
It might seem like an unimportant area, but arming yourself with great socks makes a world of difference. As I said in my article for weak cyclists, Swiftwick socks (I am not associated with Swiftwick socks in any way other than absolutely loving their product) are some of the best out there. They are incredibly comfortable, last forever, and go a long way in the battle against unwanted friction and blisters. Outside of that, as you consider socks, look for non-cotton socks that will wick well and buffer any hot spots.
If I would deem any one item essential other than shoes and socks, it would be a good pair (or two) of run shorts. Run-specific shorts can make your life a whole lot easier. The biggest difference from regular athletic shorts? They tend to be lighter weight, shorter length, and have a built in liner so you can skip the underwear which, while it might seem odd, helps eliminate any chaffing issues you may have. A definite win if you ask me.
These, again, are not an essential but tights are incredibly helpful in the colder months. If you dread the treadmill (or “dreadmill” as some of my clients like to call it), they can be a total life saver. Look for a pair that has fleece on the inside as these will tend to keep you warmer.
Another non-essential, getting some good running shirts can save you some headaches. While there certainly are plenty of run specific shirts (sleeveless in particular), you don’t have to go all out here. Try to find a synthetic (non-cotton) shirt that is lightweight and will wick well. Fabrics that wick will keep you cool and not hold onto as much moisture, keeping them lighter throughout a run. If chaffing is a concern, look for shirts without any screen printing on the chest as it can lead to painful nipples.
For the colder, rainier months, a good coat can keep you running outside. Typically a lightweight shell will go a long way (down to 30 degrees), whereas heavier weight soft-shell jacket will take you beyond that (but may hold more moisture).
Hat and Sunglasses
Keeping the sun off your head and out of your eyes is important, especially in the middle of the summer. You don’t need anything fancy here, but for the gear enthusiast in the audience there are plenty of run-specific options to whet your appetite. Again, wicking fabrics reign supreme for hats, as well.
GPS Watch with Heart Rate
For those who like to track their training so they can get the most out of what they put in, a good GPS watch that tracks (at least) heart rate and pace is crucial. I have a couple recommendations here:
- Go with a chest-based heart rate strap instead of a wrist-based monitor. It will prove more accurate.
- Check out Garmin. While there are plenty of competing options, I think Garmin does it best (again, not affiliated). They have plenty of options to fit a wide range of budgets, too.
Improve Your Running Technique
Now let’s move on from gear to the actual act of running. Focusing on your form is, by far, one of the easiest ways to get better quickly and reduce injury. Smooth, efficient, forward motion is the name of the game. As you think about running and look through the drills below, I encourage you to search for the areas of your stride that inhibit effective forward motion. Let’s start with where your foot is landing in relation to your body—misalignment here is one of the most common pitfalls for newer runners.
“Putting on the brakes” is the term that applies to your foot landing in front of your center of gravity (COG), and often shows up as a heel strike (but not always). This wreaks havoc on your forward motion. Putting on the brakes works against your forward momentum because there is a slight resistance to the forward motion that resumes once you roll onto your toes and begin to move forward again. You don’t want that. Instead of landing out in front, you want to aim to land underneath your center of gravity. Easier said than done, especially if you have years of ingrained running habits. Let’s talk about how to shift away from a reaching stride to one that falls beneath your COG.
Your lean is the cornerstone. Without it the right lean, you’ll struggle to find your form. It is ever so slight, but good running technique features a forward lean that allows your feet to land underneath of you. It creates this concept of a continuously controlled fall that you will often hear about. This controlled falling is what allows your body to take the vertical forces from gravity and convert some of it into forward motion. If you are too upright, it is very difficult to do this and you end up fighting gravity instead of working with it.
There are a few ways to practice what the lean feels like. The first, and easiest, is to find an open area that gives you at least 10 yards of space. Stand tall on both feet and lean, from the ankles not the hips, until you have to pick up a leg to catch yourself. This is typically pretty close to the kind of lean that will get you that “controlled fall” action in your run.
Another option is to practice the lean by running in place with an exercise band attached to your waist (see video below). All you have to do is lean into it slightly as you run in place. Again, do not bend at the hip. This is a great drill to focus on picking up your foot, as opposed to reaching out in front for your stride.
Finally, in similar fashion to the band drill, you can grab a friend and have them do the same kind of function by standing in front of you with their hands on your shoulders. Just lean into them gently and run in place to get a feel for it. Keep a tight core and bend from the ankles to ensure proper technique.
How quickly you turn over your legs (cadence) plays a huge role in running well. Low cadences and over-striding go hand in hand. Conversely, increasing your cadence up to 170-180 rpm makes it much easier to land under your COG and much more difficult to over-stride. If you need help with this, many Garmin watches have a metronome feature built it, or you can grab a free metronome app for your phone to help you get the timing down.
Head Over Foot
These next two points interrelate. Running is essentially alternating single leg hops. With that in mind, try to pick up one leg without shifting your head overtop of your weighted foot. What happens? You fall over! Your head naturally slides over to balance you, and that’s a wonderful thing. This counterbalancing opens up your body to use some bigger muscle groups in your torso which can help you run more powerfully, and efficiently. Better yet, you can take the head over foot concept and use it in your strength training.
Rolling Rib Cage
The last piece is something I like to refer to as rolling rib cage. An often heard bit of advice for runners is to “drive with your arms,” which is entirely counter-productive unless you are all-out sprinting. As mentioned above, the real beauty of landing head over foot is that it creates the opportunity for you to bring the lats and obliques into your form. Including these big muscle groups not only opens the door for more power, it also helps you stay balanced throughout the gait cycle, and it efficiently spreads the work out over more muscle.
To practice this, stand on one leg and hop forward 2-3 feet, landing on the same foot. What happened? You coiled your spine to generate more power before you leaped. Repeat this several times, and switch legs. Then, once you have a sense of what it feels like to use the rotational power to hop, try it out on a run. Instead of focusing on driving your arms, think of rolling your rib cage forward on your unweighted side. Alternatively, you can think of driving the elbow back on the weighted side (side note for the sprinters out there, this is a better cue for you, too).
Drills for Success
Try incorporating some or all of the drills/exercises below to work on your run game.
Engage your arms while doing the drills below as if you were running (so opposite arm moves with the opposite leg). Also, it’s easiest to get your feel for a midfoot strike by practicing in your bare feet initially.
Start in a normal standing position with good posture. Then, bend your knees slightly and come up onto your toes/front portion of your foot on one leg. The other foot remains flat. After that, switch positions with the flat foot transition into the upright position with the other foot returning to flat. Do this for 20-30 seconds, being mindful of the sensations of the front portion of your foot contacting the ground first, followed by the heel.
Single Leg Hops
After you do the pony drill, shift your weight over onto one foot, unweighting the other leg and lifting your foot from the ground. Don’t lift or drive your knee forward so much as pull your foot towards your butt with your hamstrings (this is key). In this moment, pay attention to how your weight has shifted to the loaded leg. Notice how your head is over your foot to create balance. This is the position we are drilling. From here, hop gently on your weighted foot, paying attention, again, to the sensations of landing on your fore or midfoot with the heel following. Experiment with this on each side. Try to do 30-60 seconds on each leg before progressing to the next drill.
Alternating Single Leg Hops
Take the last drill and begin to alternate between legs. Start with 4-6 hops on each side before switching. Gradually decrease it down to two hops between transitions, and finally try alternating every time. Keep your hops quick (set a metronome to 180 beats per minute if you want) and focus on picking up the foot and having a quick contact with the ground. Do this for 30-60 seconds (more if you like).
Add the Lean/Running
This is really a continuation of the last drill. Once you are alternating every hop, lean forward slightly and let yourself “fall” forward, being mindful of picking up the foot with your hamstrings as you hop. This will cause you to start moving forward in a slow run. Keep it going from here, focusing on a quick turnover. As you gain momentum, notice how you are not driving your legs out in front of you, or reaching out in long strides. Instead, you should feel the length of your stride extending behind you.
Take It to the Grass
Now that you’ve got a feel for it, either take your shoes off and go to a grassy area or put on some minimally cushioned shoes and hit a softer surface like a track or a running trail. Running barefoot on grass is a great way to reinforce what you just practiced. All the wonderful nerves in your feet will light up and you will be able to feel your foot strike exceptionally well. You’ll find that it’s hard to heel strike like this. Run like this for short bouts of 50-100 yards for 3-5 minutes to better reinforce all these new habits.
If you are doing this as a pre-workout or a warm up for your strength routine, try minimalist shoes on a treadmill for 3-5 minutes for a similar effect.
How to Build Your Run Fitness (and Not Get Injured)
So, you’ve done some drills and have a feel for how to run with good form, now what? This is the part where many folks go wrong. It’s natural to be excited about running better and set some goals for yourself. The problem is that most people set too big of a goal too soon. Trying to ramp up running miles too quickly is the number one reason for injuries, and I would attribute that primarily to two things:
- Your muscles develop more quickly than your bones and connective tissues (tendons, and ligaments). This means your muscles may feel good after a tough week of running, but your other tissues may need more recovery before jumping up into increasing mileage. In a sense, your motor is too strong for it’s frame. This is especially relevant to those moving towards more minimal shoes. Give those little bones and tissues in your feet time to adjust to more impact.
- Most of us are starting of with imbalances and mobility restrictions that need some work. Jumping into a big running volume before working on how you move can just lead to poor motor patterns, and exacerbation of your existing imbalances. Movement is a skill, and it’s easy to gloss over the skill aspects of running because we “feel fine” and running is just something we know how to do. The trouble is that we lose touch with correct running from all the time we spend sitting. And these problems aren’t something we typically notice upfront unless we know where to look. They don’t crop up quickly, they tend to happen over months and years before we are stuck with an annoying injury.
This won’t be you, though. You’ll be a healthy, durable runner. All you need is a few tools in your toolbox to approach running in a smart, intentional manner.
We worked on this above. Practice a lot up front. Nail the form. Then, work on stretching out the distance gradually. Your number one goal and focus is on keeping good form for the entirety of your runs.
Work On Flexibility and Mobility
Moving well starts with ensuring that your tissues are sliding correctly across each other. When they aren’t, you end up with tight, stiff areas that may even cause pain some pain. Worst yet, your movement quality will begin to suffer, and you can begin to ingrain poor habits unless you take some action. To counteract this, make sure you have some mobility and flexibility work in your routine. Running can especially do a number on your muscles, so try to make time for your mobility practice 3-4 days each week. It doesn’t have to be much. In fact, if you focus on the common troublemakers for runners, you can get a lot done in 5-10 minutes, which fits nicely before a workout.
If you’re new to the idea of mobility, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of Ready to Run or Becoming a Supple Leopard written by Kelly Starrett. These two resources are both incredibly thorough, and great places to start.
If you need some specific stretches for runners, try this flexibility flow to hit some of the common culprits (hips, hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, IT bands, low back):
Get Strong and Durable
This part pairs nicely with your mobility work. Once you have worked to get your muscles moving well, it’s time to strengthen them. For runners, try to spend the majority of your time doing unilateral work (e.g. single leg exercises). This helps uncover, and correct weaknesses and imbalances. Bilateral movements (squats, deadlifts, etc.) have their place as well, and are great for building overall strength and power.
Slowly Increase Your Mileage
This section is especially important if you are switching to more minimal, zero drop shoes. This point should be ringing through pretty clearly by now: moving well is your number one priority. This means you need to start as small as necessary. If you are coming off the couch, that may mean you are running for 2-3 minutes at a time, alternating with some walking. If you are relearning your running form, it may mean you start out at 1-2 mile runs and build from there. Take it slow, and try to be mindful of how it feels relative to the drills you’ve been doing.
The process takes time, but it is worth it and it gives your body ample time to adjust. When I changed my running form years ago it took me nearly six months to transition down to more minimal shoes and build my runs up to 6-7 miles (from 1-2). The old adage of increasing by no more than 10% each week is a great rule of thumb both for your longest run and your total volume (the number of miles/time you are running each week).
Turn Off the Tunes
I know, I know—that’s half the fun, right? It makes it way less boring to be running to your jam, but here’s the thing, it disconnects you from what’s going on. Being mindful of the sensations of running, especially as you are learning, or adjusting, is one of the most helpful tools you can have. It will literally accelerate your progress to dial into how your body is feeling as you run. You don’t have to disconnect for every run, and you don’t have to do this forever; just try it out for the first few months as you learn.
Determine the Appropriate Training Load
So what is reasonable in order to reach your goals? It all depends on what you’re training for. Within triathlon, you can use the guidelines below to get you started:
- Sprint– regular runs: 1-2 miles – long runs: 3-4 miles
- Olympic – regular runs: 2-3 miles – long runs: 5-7 miles
- Half – regular runs: 3-7 miles – long runs 8-12 miles
- Full – regular runs: 3-10 miles – long runs: 12-20 miles
Don’t Run Every Day
Take days off during the week. You will need 1-2 days, maybe even 3, to recover and benefit from your efforts. Also, consider swapping out a run day for strength day as an alternative to all the impact.
Take Recovery Weeks
Last, but certainly not least, make sure you are taking regularly scheduled recovery weeks. It is during these weeks of less running that your body actually recovers and better adapts to allow you to improve. If you are younger, or fairly fit, try doing one every three weeks or so. If you are older, or just getting started, you may want to try a recovery week every two weeks.