I’m sure you’ve had several “my legs aren’t working” experiences when running out of T2 in a triathlon. After all, that running performance and running economy is impaired when running off the bike is a well-documented fact.
Only two aspects have been proven scientifically to improve running performance after cycling: higher cadence on the bike and doing brick workouts in training.
That said, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and best practices for improving you're run off the bike. These 10 ways to run faster off the bike are used by top athletes and coaches, as well as savvy age-groupers.
1. Increase your run cadence
Your top priority when running out of transition should be to keep your run cadence high. Aim for 180 strides per minute or higher.
When you run with a high cadence the time it takes for running to start feeling natural shortens. It also creates a positive feedback loop that improves many other aspects of your running form, including “running tall” and your breathing pattern (see below).
2. Use a 2-2 breathing pattern to find your rhythm
Use your breath as a guide to get into a good running rhythm immediately after the transition. A 2-2 breathing pattern is ideal, but the important thing is finding your rhythm. Stick to a breathing pattern that works for you.
With a 2-2 breathing pattern, you take one complete left-right cycle (two arm swings and two strides) for each inhalation and another complete left-right cycle for each exhalation.
3. Run tall
Many triathletes run hunched forward after biking. Avoid this inefficient running posture by “running tall”. Imagine being a puppet with a string from your pelvis through your head holding you upright in a tall and strong posture.
Your hips should be above your feet when you land and your upper body, neck, and head aligned with your hips. Keep your gaze fixed 10 to 20 meters in front of you and not down at your feet.
4. Relax your upper body
Your upper body may be tense after the bike. Relax your upper body by keeping your fists unclenched and your shoulders low and loose. Running tall (see above) helps to keep tensions in your head and neck away.
If you have upper body tensions that won’t go away, let your arms hang and give them a good shake-out. Then go back to normal running.
5. Increase your bike cadence
Research shows that increasing your bike cadence can result in improved run performance off the bike through improved running economy and increased stride rate.
If you’re usually biking at a cadence lower than 85, work on getting your normal, comfortable cadence up into the 95-105 range and stick to this cadence in your races.
If your normal cadence is in that range already, increase your cadence by 5-10 rpm for the last 5-20 minutes of the bike leg (depending on the race distance) to prime your legs for the run.
6. Fuel and hydrate on the bike
It doesn’t matter how prepared you are physically and technically to run well off the bike if you run out of gas.
You need to have a race nutrition plan in place that will allow you to go into the run with enough energy left in your glycogen stores that you won’t bonk.
The same goes for a hydration plan, if you get too dehydrated you’re in trouble.
Aim for 60-90 grams of carbs per hour on the bike. How much to drink depends on your sweat rate and weather conditions. Take in some energy or rinse your mouth with sports drinks about five minutes before the end of the bike. This will cause a small boost of blood glucose in your brain that may stave off mental fatigue.
7. Do weekly brick workouts
Together with increasing your bike cadence, this is the second research-backed action you can take to improve your run splits.
Brick workouts don’t need to be long affairs. A ten-minute run immediately after a bike session is plenty for working on post-bike neuromuscular activation and muscle recruitment and to work on your running form off the bike (see tips 1 through 4).
Another big benefit of weekly brick workouts is that your running economy after biking improves over time.
8. Practise pacing in training and racing
Incorrect pacing out of T2 has ruined plenty of promising races. That’s why you need to go into your race knowing roughly what intensity (pace, heart rate or perceived exertion) you can sustain on the run. Monitor your intensity from the very start of the run and keep yourself in check.
Practise running at your target race pace in your brick workouts. Your target race pace may change as you go through the training cycle. The more you practise bricks, the more accurate your target race pace will become, and your training can be adjusted accordingly.
9. Make your bricks race-specific
Making brick workouts race-specific will give you the most bang for your training buck.
Besides pacing/intensity on the run, you can also adjust the intensity and length of the preceding bike, the terrain you ride and run on, weather conditions, and fueling, to cover as many race specificity bases as possible.
You don’t need to make every brick workout race specific, but include at least a few of them in the build-up to your race.
10. Improve your bike fitness
If you’re completely smashing the bike every race it will affect your runs. In order to improve your run leg and keep your bike performance constant, you need to improve your bike fitness so you can ride at a lower relative intensity.
You’re obviously trying to improve fitness in all three sports anyway, so you don’t necessarily need to take any specific action on this tip. But, if you have the opportunity, doing a block of focused bike training could well result in significantly improved run performances off the bike.