Performance in ironman almost always comes down to the run, a good or bad bike may mean a difference of 5 minutes but a good or bad run could see a difference of up to an hour or more. The run always brings up the most questions with athletes and coaches alike on how to train and perform come race day.
The run in ironman is not anything like a stand alone marathon and training for it the same way you would a marathon will not bring the desired results. The ironman marathon is starting for most athletes 6-7 hours into the race, so legs and body are anything but fresh at this point of the run.
To run well in ironman you need an efficient running style and good running economy. These 2 factors can both be addressed using a treadmill in your training to enhance performance.
Lets start with looking at an efficient running style, if you watch the top athletes run you will see the best runners make the run look easy, they run with a very high turnover and very little body movement.
When i say high turnover i am talking 180+ steps per minute – our body has an elastic response mechanism in our hamstrings that is designed to pull our foot up off the floor on impact. This response enables us to run and protects out muscles and joints from increased forces and injury. In order for this elastic response to work our foot needs to leave the ground 0.2 seconds maximum after impact – if the foot is on the ground too long then this response cannot be used and instead we have to switch to using muscle force to bring about the movement and absorb impact.
There are technique and equipment problems that we need to address to ensure we utilise this elastic response.
With technique we need to focus on a shorter stride and ensure our foot lands under our centre of gravity and not in front of the body – if we land in front of the body there is no way we are going to be able to pull the foot off the ground quickly as .2 seconds after impact the foot may well still be in front of the body.
Looking at footwear is also very important, for the the elastic response to occur our brain needs to be able to feel when we hit the ground immediately, if you are wearing thick soled shoes or soft shoes with too much cushioning then the brain have a delayed response to hitting the ground and the elastic response will not occur again leading to muscles and joints taking over.
So how can a treadmill help with this, a treadmill provides a great controlled environment in which to train, we can provide constant gradient and speed so our sole focus can turn to technique. Also running on a moving belt forces a faster cadence, you will find if your technique is not efficient that running on a treadmill is hard work, by this i mean your regular speeds from the road will feel much harder on a treadmill – if this is you then more time on the treadmill is going to have a big impact on your performance.
If we watch good runners in ironman you will see they seem to run flat – there is no bounce, by this i mean if you watch their heads they are always in the same position not moving up and down. On a treadmill position a mirror in front and you will be to see if you are moving up and down or staying flat. You will see some runners at the gym get on the treadmill and seem to be all over the treadmill and the treadmill is almost bouncing with them and creating a lot of noise, this is exactly what we don’t want – we should almost be seeking silence!
Developing an efficient run style takes time and should be a gradual process, make your treadmill runs interval workouts starting with small intervals with focus on technique and then as technique becomes solid start to increase interval length.
Once you have developed an efficient running style we can start to use the treadmill for developing run economy. Run economy is basically using as little energy as possible for the pace we are running. Ironman is at a performance level a challenge of fuel so by becoming more efficient at speed we are going to increase performance level.
If we look at pro athletes in ironman there is a prevalence of older athletes seeming to get faster and faster at an age we would expect decline. We know from numerous studies that as we age we see a decrease in maximal VO2 which has long been seen as one of the keys in endurance performance but what we are seeing is athletes running economy increases with age and this increase outweighs the loss of VO2 max. A good example of this is Cameron Brown winning events into his early 40’s.
To improve running economy we need to spend a lot of time running at our desired paces, treadmills are the perfect tool for this as we can set pace and we simply have to run. Trying to do this outside is not the same as we are faced with many more challenges such as weather, gradients, temperature, obstacles such as roads, traffic and if running with other athletes competitive nature really can mess with developing economy.
Running intervals at set paces on the treadmill is one of the most efficient ways to develop run economy and boost your ironman run performance.
Aside from running style and economy the treadmill has other benefits that can be utilised by an ironman athlete. It is widely held belief that you need to run at 1% gradient on the treadmill to simulate running outside – so running at 0% is like running on a slight decline. If we run at 0% on a treadmill we can run at a faster pace than on the road for the same cardiovascular stress and reduced impact stress – for an ironman athlete training on tired legs this is going to have a bog impact of run development and recovery that will enhance the consistency of your training!
One more benefit of the treadmill is in developing specificity, we can be extremely limited to terrain we run on due to location and this can lead to problems if we are racing on terrain significantly different to that which we train on, the treadmill with varying gradients gives us the ability to simulate the stresses we are going to face in any race. A lot of athletes will see this as the ability to run up hill but much more important is the ability to run downhill without smashing your legs – downhill running is extremely damaging to the legs due to increased range of motion and impact – modern treadmills do provide negative gradients so athletes can get used to running downhill if they happen to live in a flat geographical environment.
If you want to improve your run off the bike then its time to stop thinking like a runner and start thinking like an ironman athlete – get on the treadmill, improve your running style, improve your movement economy at set paces and you will see substantial performance increases in your next ironman.
Enjoy your training!
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