Can you kick it? You can if you follow Alex Price’s step-by-step guide to arriving in the home stretch of the run with form and energy for that final surge
Triathlon can be likened to a maths equation, where the goal is to reach the finish line with absolutely nothing left in the tank. It’s a difficult equation to get precisely correct during a race, though, and many athletes know the feeling of running out of juice well before the end, having to or being forced to slow down and knowing that they haven’t reached their potential.
Managing your race day to either ‘kick’ in the final stages of a race or ‘negative split’ the run leg is difficult to execute, but it’s a learned and practised skill. They’re two elements of a race that can really make or break your day.
The term ‘kick’ refers to a sudden increase in pace. This is more common in short-course races, where an athlete wants to drop a competitor during the run leg or beat them – or a time – at the finish line. Being able to kick requires a rapid increase of cadence and stride length, both far above regular racing parameters, strong torso, core and gluteals to support the fast pace, and a quick-firing and efficient nervous system to support the increased demand from muscle tissue and the cardiovascular system.
THE NEGATIVE SPLIT
The term ‘negative split’ refers to the second half of a run being quicker than the first. This is a difficult goal to achieve in races, especially as the distance increases. However, the closer an athlete moves to achieving a negative split, the more likely they are to run to their potential. In addition to strategic pacing and good nutrition (which are outside of the scope of this article), nailing a negative split in the run requires excellent functional strength to keep form under heavy fatigue and a high level of endurance to sustain a strong pace under heavy fatigue.
IMPROVE YOUR KICK
1. GET YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM FIRING
The ‘fast feet’ drill involves running on the spot as quickly as you can. By doing this, you are stimulating the nervous system to fire as quickly as it can (this is often the limiting factor with people who find it difficult to increase their cadence). Do this five times for 10 seconds each, with a 10-second slow jog in between. This is a great drill before training runs and also during (especially when tired), as it teaches the body to fire quickly when fatigued.
2. STRIDING OUT
After a good warm-up, practise going from a nice strong jog to a short sprint (if you are injury prone, go to a very quick stride instead, just under a sprint). Maintain the fast pace for about 10 seconds, then revert back to a strong pace. Repeat this five to 10 times, starting at five times if this is the first time you’ve tried this sort of running. This is an excellent way to practise the fast turnover that is required for a sudden change of pace.
3. TREADMILL RUNNING
The usefulness of treadmill running sometimes divides the coaching community. When used with the intention of meeting a specific training purpose, I believe it can be an excellent tool. Speed is maintained as a constant on the treadmill, so you can work on isolating and increasing cadence while reducing ground impact forces. It’s a winning combination!
The mechanics of treadmills have the belt guiding the lower limb backwards, which makes it a great way to work on economising the leg-swing phase of run gait. Improving this essentially makes athletes more efficient runners, which of course conserves energy for the final kick at the end of the race.
The best way to monitor cadence is to use a foot pod (many GPS watches have pods that can link to their system). The cadence sensor is also an excellent tool to use late in a race or in training when you are getting tired. Fatigue causes most people to drop their cadence, which in turn results in a drop in run speed.
NAIL THE NEGATIVE SPLIT
1. FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
Fatigue causes a loss of form that can be seen in posture, such as leaning back from the torso or slouching through the upper body and hips. These postures cause a direct increase in energy expenditure and, therefore, a reduction in efficiency and speed.
It is essential to keep functionally strong by doing regular triathlon-specific strengthening exercises. These should be done three times per week and occasionally after a training session, as it teaches your body to remain in form and strong when it’s tired – just like in a race.
Some examples of exercises I have my athletes do are single-leg quarter squat, the clam, duck or crab walk, and core work with a gym ball. Check out some triathlon-specific strengthening exercises at triathlon220.com.au/training/injury-prevention.
2. DEVELOP MORE ‘GEARS’
When we consistently run at one pace in all sessions, the body gets used to this pace and becomes stuck in one gear. By changing pace throughout a run, we are stimulating our body’s physiology to be more adaptable to pace increases and, importantly, developing the ability to run hard when the tank is getting empty. These sorts of sessions are often called fartlek runs, when the pace changes regularly throughout the run.
After a good warm-up, a fartlek run set may look like:
• 2 minutes at 75% of your goal race pace
• 60 seconds at 90% of your goal race pace
• 60 seconds at 100% of your goal race pace
• 30 seconds easy of your goal race pace
• 30 seconds at 120% of your goal race pace
• Repeat this five to 10 times (depending on your level of fitness), completing two minutes of easy jogging between each set.
3. PROGRESSIVE LONG RUN
The progressive long run is one of my favourite training methods when aiming to promote a strong race finish – and who wouldn’t want that!
Most athletes will slow slightly in the closing part of the race. Unfortunately, this is something that is subconsciously practised, when pace drops off at the end of training runs. There are many people who have become much better at slowing down with this type of practice.
By doing the opposite and increasing the pace throughout a moderate to long run, the body will learn to move more quickly under fatigue. Doing this in almost every moderate/long run is extremely valuable, even if the pace is increasing from ‘very slow’ to ‘slow’.
As a race gets closer, include very specific race-pace efforts in the second half of the long run or brick session to get used to running strongly under a lot of fatigue. This may look like:
• 10 x 3 minutes of 30 seconds on/30 seconds off (‘on’ is at goal race-pace, ‘off’ is easy running). The more established you are as an athlete, the longer the efforts can be.
Having the ability to finish your run strongly is something that is a rehearsed and developed skill, not unlike any other skill in triathlon. If you are someone who typically fades in the back half of the run, make sure you implement some of these training and racing strategies to help you run strong to the finish line. 220