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Garth Fox uncovers the real reasons why pro triathletes like the Brownlees and Helen Jenkins run so fast.

Triathlon Events - 2011 ITU World Championship Series Sydney

The pros’ running successes aren’t just luck (Photo: | ITU)

In 2009, at the London round of the ITU World Championship Series in Hyde Park, I was standing close to the finish line during both the elite men’s and women’s races. As Alistair Brownlee flew by at an impossible speed, a fellow spectator stopped cheering and shouted loudly: “How does he run that fast?” It was a good question, and one that could equally have been applied to Helen Jenkins in the women’s race. Their respective 10km times that day were 28:43 and 33:01. These times compare favourably with pure elite runners and this was after the small matter of swimming 1.5km and cycling 40km.

Fast running is underpinned by specific physiological attributes – a large aerobic capacity to rapidly get oxygen to working muscles, solid biomechanics to underpin economical movement patterns and a strong but lean physique enhancing the power-to-weight ratio. As age-group triathletes we can certainly learn a few things from the best in the business when it comes to honing those basic physiological requirements of quick running. Here’s how:

1 Aerobic Capacity
The more quickly you can get oxygen to where it is needed, the better. Think of increasing aerobic capacity as a way of gaining a few extra gears. So where running at 13kph may once have felt like your limit, that may now have become 15kph, and 13kph will now feel easy. For this to happen, several adaptations will have occurred, and improved aerobic capacity will certainly be one of them. One reason the Brownlees can run so fast is that they make a habit of running fast. Right now, in their off-season, they are winning cross-country and 10k races. Sure, they are putting in steady base miles to build endurance but they habitually rev their engines hard, even during the off-season. This not only reminds the body that the goal is speed, but over time and in conjunction with base mileage, it builds aerobic capacity. So throw in a few races over the winter, get out of the rut of winter plodding and you may just surprise yourself come the spring.

2 Running Economy
Research has shown that the most economical runners in the world – those who can run at a given speed utilising the least oxygen – are East African athletes. The reasons are multifaceted but these runners exhibit very efficient energy return in the muscle-tendon units of the lower limbs, which has been shown to be central to quick yet economical running. This is something that we can all improve by integrating plyometric movements – such as hopping, bounding and skipping – into one or two run sessions per week. Equally, addressing weaknesses and deficiencies in our physical make-up can reap rewards.

Helen Jenkins recently credited the specific strength and conditioning programme she added to her usual winter training as the reason she was able to progress her running volume, without the recurrence of the stubborn Achilles injury that held her back in 2006/7. If you have an injury that is recurrent, seek out the expertise that allows you to get on top of it. This may mean sticking to a long-term strength or flexibility programme but that is a small price to pay for consistent improvement.

3 Power-to-Weight Ratio
Pro triathletes typically have body fat percentages in the region of 5-10% (men) and 10-15% (women). A moderately trained age-group triathlete will be in the region of 12-17% (men) and 20-25% (women). When you then consider that 1kg of reduced body weight can result in around 2-3 seconds saving per kilometre, we can work out that losing a few kilos of excess body fat will transform our 10km running performance. Play around with the numbers for yourself and you will see what I mean. Your 10k PB is literally a few less high-calorie snacks away. The Brownlees and Helen Jenkins look that slim for a reason – if you want more running speed, quit the cakes!

Mind and Body
If the best triathletes have certain physiological traits in common, they also share an insatiable appetite for work (think Chrissie Wellington), an ability to push themselves past their limits (think Alistair Brownlee) and an attitude that gives them the best chance of success no matter what the conditions faced (think Helen Jenkins). Work on those behavioural characteristics as well as the physiological ones covered, and I guarantee you will become a faster runner and a better triathlete.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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