Running is the final discipline in a triathlon. It's what takes you across the finish line. Whether you have a strong and triumphant run or one where you feel you're going backwards, the run tends to disproportionately affect how you think back on how your race went.
So here's how you can not only survive the run leg in your first (or nth) triathlon, but thrive in it and finish strong.
While you can pretty much run in any clothing you already own, sweat-wicking shirts and shorts will keep you comfortable so you can enjoy your runs and keep at them. Eventually you might be comfortable enough to do the entire swim, bike, and run in a tri suit that's meant to go with you through all those disciplines.
Running shoes are where your feet meet the road. While different body types and running mechanics mean no one shoe can fit all, the most important part of running shoe selection is the right fit.
A properly-fitting running shoe will feel secure on your foot and won’t move around as you go through your running stride. The heel cup should remain molded to your heel, the laces should keep your foot locked down without overly squeezing the top of your foot, and the toebox should give your toes enough room to move and expand.
How much cushioning and support you need depends on how you use the shoes and your personal preference. Some people use the same shoes to train and race in, while others prefer to use different shoes for speed, training, and racing. Some want to feel the road more, some want to feel like they’re running on clouds, some want the shoe to provide springiness.
The best way to determine what’s right for you as you start out in the sport is to try different kinds of shoes. Some of the world’s best running shoe brands, such as those we partner with, allow easy returns and exchanges within 30 days.
The bike leg tends to be 50 percent of any triathlon you do, regardless of the distance. Fifty percent of your time will be spent on the bike, and the position you have on the bike is a shortened hip flexor and hamstring position -- you never fully extend your legs. Then you get off the bike and have to run, and your legs feel like bricks.
Swimmers are more flexible through their ankles and have a great deal of aerobic capacity. What you need to be careful with is injury caused by too quick a progression in mileage or intensity: the cardiovascular system can take it, but your joints, ligaments, and muscles aren't used to the pounding.
Just like swimmers, cyclists need to adjust to the impact running brings to your joints. However, cyclists tend to be tighter than swimmers due to the movement patterns your hands, feet, and hips are locked into when riding a bike. Range of motion is smaller, so this calls for some mobility work for a more efficient run stride.
A lot of runners come across to triathlon and think this is something they’re going to dominate but they tend to lose a lot of time in the early stages of the run while they try to find their “run feel.”
I came from a running background, so I initially believed the triathlon run would come naturally to me, but running tired off a bike is different from running on fresh legs. Your muscles are tighter, you've already expended energy before going into the discipline that involves the most impact and really gets your heart rate up.
As triathletes we have to learn to run very efficiently in a fatigued state. That’s an adjustment that comes with brick sessions running off the bike.
During a triathlon and in particular on the run, towards the end of the race, you’ve been out there for a good period of time. I find it very advantageous to break the run course up into segments -- little groups or areas you can get your head around. Like running to the next aid station: when you get to that aid station, making sure you take the fluids on and reset your brain to run to the next aid station.
Thinking of the run as a full journey can be quite daunting so break it up into segments and then give yourself a reward, like saying, “OK I’m going to run to the next aid station, then I’ll walk through the aid station for a break.” And then you’re gonna do it again. It’s a good effort-versus-reward model and you find you get a lot of benefit out of that. If you look at the best triathletes in the world right now, they all have this race-versus-reward type of run mentality.
In many of the full distance races I’ve done, I get to 10 to 15 kilometers from home and it gets very uncomfortable. Anyone who’s raced knows that feeling when your body just wants to stop. But that’s the critical point of a race. That’s the point that differentiates between you having a sensational day or having a horrible day.
The thing I always say to myself is you’ve got to embrace that moment. Embrace the Suck. Take that in and go, “OK, here it is. This is why we’re doing the sport. Everyone’s going to feel this uncomfortable, quite normal. The world’s not going to end. This is going to stop when the race stops. I can either decide to have the pain stop now by walking, or push on and have a great day.”
If you decide to push on and look for a great day, then you have to initiate certain systems to take you through a routine to take your mind off that pain. Concentrating on breathing, concentrating on keeping good form and rhythm. Concentrating on positive thoughts.
I reflect on great training sessions or a great conversation with my daughter. You always envision yourself in positive moments in training or in life to give you a good feeling and take your mind off that present pain.
If you start reflecting in a negative way -- “This hurts, this is uncomfortable, I should have trained more” -- any negative thought will be magnified. So keep it positive. If you start to think negative, reset your thought pattern. Just keep ticking away. The bad moments of pain and emotion come in waves but they disappear and you’ll feel great again. Doesn’t mean they won’t come again; it just means you can implement that system again.
Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, founder and executive director of MX Endurance, and CEO of MANA Sports & Entertainment Group.
Justin Granger writes about the elements of a successful ironman, and the one thing that brings them all together.
Gavin has been a member of MX Endurance for over a year and finished his first 70.3 in May with a new half marathon PB.
Race effort sessions help you learn to pace yourself and assess your goals so you can finish strong.