Editor's note: The running portion of a triathlon deals more intimately with the relationship between the body and the mind than the other two segments — there are no distractions of water or equipment. In this final installment of our three-part series — which started two weeks ago with the swim and continued last Tuesday with the bike — we offer training tips from a local running expert and experienced triathletes to help you focus on getting to the finish line.
Running a triathlon
Most people dread the swimming portion of a triathlon. But "the run is the one that will break you," says Garrett Rock, a Lafayette chiropractor and triathlete.
Rock, 34, who as a chiropractor works with more than 20 professional triathletes on a regular basis, said the triathlon's final contest — the one performed on foot — presents especially tough challenges.
Athletes hop into the water fresh and pumped up. By the time they get in the saddle, their bodies are a bit tattered, but usually still ready to rev.
After all of those miles pumping the quadriceps on the bike, though — as well as the time spent clawing through choppy water — the body sometimes says, "Are you kidding me?" when the mind commands it to begin running.
"It becomes about training for power and then overtraining the bike and swim, so when you start to run your legs still have something left in them," says Rock. "I've had races, like an Ironman last year, where I felt amazing for the first half of the run, I thought I would make it to the world championships, and then the wheels fell off, over the space of a half mile."
The run "is where it is won," says Lindsey Milliken, 31, a Lyons triathlete who, like Rock, has finished an Ironman, the toughest triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run). "If you are really competitive, that's where you can make up a lot of ground."
Rock and Milliken, like a lot of competitive runners, turn to trainers for help — in their case, Lafayette running guru Douglas Wisoff , a Boulder County fixture who has won the Leadville 100 race (that's 100 miles of running on trails around the high-mountain town of Leadville) three times in the over-50 age category.
For Wisoff, a physical therapist, the key to all endurance running, including triathlons, hinges on form. Good form conserves energy and prevents injury; it always strives for efficency. Bad form wastes energy and creates unnecessary stresses on legs, hips, backs — all over the body, in fact.
Good running form, he says, is what makes the difference between a triathlete who finishes with elan and one who limps over the finish line — if he or she completes the race at all.
"Your upper body is where you generate a lot of your energy from, the lungs," Wisoff says. "To the extent you are holding tension in your torso and chest, you will be limiting motion through your core, and then you won't get the power out of your core, and you end up overusing your legs. And your legs will pay the price."
To put it simply, Wisoff toils to persuade runners to relax when they are logging miles. Hands should not be balled into fists and held chest-high; they should be loose. The chest itself should not be pumped up and out, but in line with the rest of the torso; the chest is the most expansive part of the body and if "you hold it tight, it can't expand, and you don't get as much lung capacity," says Wisoff.
In addition, runners should keep their feet under their bodies, rather than flung out in front of their torsos. Doing that might require a change in gait — people who land hard on the back of their heels will have to instead land gently and briefly on the heel before rolling across the midfoot (or skip the heel altogether and land on the midfoot).
"Look at the frontrunners in elite races. They are relaxed," he says. "But the people chasing are very tense."
Of course, "just relax" is easier said than done.
"It takes a lot of thinking about it," says Jared Freml, 33, a Denver triathlete. "I had 30 years of bad habits. You go out and run and deal with the form you taught yourself."
Freml had to unlearn those bad habits. When he runs, he constantly thinks about good form. When he gets tired — inevitable on a triathlon run — form is the first thing to suffer.
"If you can keep that form, it feels more effortless," he says. "You don't waste the energy on those bad habits."
And the good form lets jocks train for longer, which is something a wannabe triathlete is going to have to get used to. As Rock says, competing in triathlons is a "lifestyle."
"It's the centerpiece of your life," he said. "Everything else serves it."
Training for the running leg of a triathlon focuses on cardiovascular stamina and muscle endurance more than speed, Wisoff says, referring to the approach as "LSD," for long, slow, distance. All of that LSD training, if done properly, builds a strong base, which is vital for triathlons. With a strong base — essentially, powerful heart, lungs, core and legs — athletes have a better chance of at least finishing a triathlon, if not ending up in the winner's circle.
With a strong base and good form, the best athletes leverage something many endurance jocks never tap into — the world around them. Wisoff believes relaxed, strong runners can tune in to their surroundings and get energy boosts.
"If you are open and relaxed, not only does your own energy find a good way to move, but you understand you are not an isolated thing in space here," he says. "We are people, and there are trees and sky and other people and energy that is outside of us.
"We are intake as well as outtake machines," he adds. "If you aren't balancing these things, you will wear out faster. A big part of using your body right is improving your ability on the intake. Using your eyes, your senses, your chest."
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/douglasjbrown
Physical therapist Douglas Wisoff will offer a free seminar on Running Form, Injury and Performance at 6 p.m. Thursday at Runners Roost (7978 W. Alameda Ave., Suite A, Lakewood, 303-991-1851). Contact Wisoff at email@example.com or 303-499-2062 for more information.