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Triathlon News

Using an Elliptical Trainer to improve Your Running – injured or not. By MSC Head Coach Nick Croft

Following on from one of my previous articles on Deep Water Running (DWR), another great training tool to help your running (potentially looked down on by some) is the elliptical trainer, or cross-trainer.  Like DWR there is no impact on joints to contend with and can be a great second run for the day or additional general run frequency wise with no additional impact stress to the legs.

Personally as I age, I am finding run time diminishing (injury / pain from niggles) and are reducing run time out of necessity.  Still having the benefit of cross training through cycling and swimming of course really helps get your dose of intensity and cardio and adding in a Yoga or Pilates session if time available in taking away specific poses / routines from these disciplines and doing yourself for those tight / injury prone areas really does help as long as you do consistently.

Enter the elliptical.  One of our Noosa (still current pro) local Former world champs who has had a few career threatening injuries in recent seasons spent months during a previous non running phase on the elliptical and was able to up swim and ride volume and she came back to win a few Ironman events and place very highly at that year’s 70.3 Worlds – podiumed in fact.  I coach a number of older age group athletes via distance – into their 50’s and 60’s who swear by the Elliptical as part of their weekly training with running every second or third day and doing body maintenance between and are running as well as they were when running over twice the volume and spending far less time out due to injury.

Like Deep Water Running, elliptical trainers provide benefits to runners / triathletes beyond being the obvious cardio workout and not only for those injured runners that may have been steered towards the elliptical for rehab.  Most elliptical trainers have a cadence feature.  With many runners trying to increase their running cadence the elliptical provides an easy, monitored environment for doing this without the stress of actually running.  A simple workout is to reduce the load on the elliptical and simply hold the cadence at around 90+ strides per minute (each side) for 30minutes. Alternately you can break up into a series of intervals instead at target cadence with recovery between backing off the tension and go easy but still and a higher cadence between the efforts.

Focusing on cadence is not a strength building session but more a nerve firing one so keeping that cadence up is the key and load / strength oriented session can be worked in for specificity and just work on the turnover. The aim is to improve leg speed.  Once you’re feeling as ease being on the elliptical, you can focus on different aspects such as running posture, standing tall and let the hips lead instead of ‘sitting’ and proper chest and head position are all something that can be focused on during an elliptical trainer workout.

Ideally, try not use the long moving arms on the elliptical. Sure, you get a better overall conditioning workout but it won’t be great for you running technique as your arms end up way out in front of you as though you are ‘punching’ the air and are more forward of the torso.  Use the fixed handles that are between the outer arms so you can focus on the leg turnover and when doing a more loaded resistance session will help keep power up through the hips.  Not all elliptical’s are the same. A newer machine should allow you to maintain the action of running, with getting in your knee lift, feet landing under the body. Ideally these are the better ones to use if able to access to best simulate run form.  Older machines may not allow you to have you foot land under you and indeed instead of running ‘circles’ is a more ‘mechanical’ action which sees your foot land in front of you.

Like running uphill or stairs, elliptical’s help build quad and glute strength.  You can try the elliptical trainer workout below, as a cross-training alternative to running.  Over time your form will improve if used once a week or more if unable to run for a period.

  • 10 minute easy tempo and resistance warm-up on the elliptical
  • 5-8 x (3 minutes at solid load on elliptical, 2-3 minutes at very light load but higher cadence)
  • 5 minute easy cool-down

Biggest positive for elliptical trainer is that there is no impact on the body so a great option for people with lower leg / soft tissue / feet issues.  Impact of course is still a necessity to strengthen and temper the legs for racing on the road.  But for age groupers that are getting up into their 40’s and beyond and like myself are finding more injuries creeping in from wear and tear and developing imbalances and weaknesses forcing reduced run time and adding an elliptical session into the mix may save your legs that little bit more but the biggest benefit I have found for runners is that it is a great tool for increasing run cadence.

Don’t Neglect your triathlon swim! – By MSC Head Coach Nick Croft

Let’s get straight to the point.  Many Triathletes I know totally neglect their swim prep.  Swimming is not as glamorous as getting out on the bike and having all the latest high tech gadgets that go with that discipline and with many triathletes coming from a running background then getting into the swim side of things they may get a big shock as to how confined the training environment is and to repeat the words I heard often ‘find it boring and frustrating’ to say the least added with poor technique plus trying to play catch up as an adult learning to swim it sets up a lot of negativity.

The fitness, yes fitness you gain from proper swim prep will make you a better overall triathlete.  Not to mention the mental discipline from the process of churning out the laps.  You are fit for what you train for and having good bike and run strength / fitness will not rescue your weak swim if you are not putting in the work and have poor technique.   A strong swimming foundation will provide an edge to those not putting water time in, puts less stress on the joints and leave you with more energy for the bike and run.  I am talking about those who are training for performance based results.  If you just want to complete and just get by and survive the swim – do 2 swims (or less) a week and struggle through parts of the bike and run due to the swim taking its toll.

The massive misconception is that due to the swim being short in comparison to the bike and run and even more so for 70.3 and IM athletes they can skip swimming and ‘bluff’ their way through.  The fatigue that comes with this approach into the bike then run adds up and even if you are not the fastest swimmer or best technically – having been training in the water and fitter you will have a more relaxed and controlled swim and come our fresher and be able to have a good bike and run.  If you are dropping away in the bike and run and are not putting in the work in the pool coupled with being a weak swimmer then you are probably wasting a lot of energy in the swim leg.  You may be in denial.  We, as triathletes treat the swim as a ‘warm up’ to the rest of the event but to truly have this as so you need swim fitness.

In my own coaching, I aim to use this as motivation to get athletes backsides in the water and in a swim squad or at least swim programming (if coaching via distance) to follow that is realistic for the fitness level and ability  – if not a strong swimmer and it is your weak link get in at least 3 times a week of intense swimming and another easy / relaxed swim as recovery / practice technique using fins and finger paddles.  Not enough time?  There are dry land options to add to the swim training with using the likes of stretch cords, body weight routine incorporating push ups and dips and getting more flexible.  A little circuit with some ab work and core takes about 20 minutes to run through 2-3 times through with cords and is a favourite of mine to use 2 times a week between swim and especially when I travel and cannot access the water as normal.

Let’s face it – we as triathletes are not training like ‘real swimmers’ but we can get some really high intensity done without the tearing up the body that in the same sense as an interval run set for example.  You can work your engine anaerobically without that same stress on the body as running does.  Recovery in the water is great for the body and after heavy run and bike sessions also.   So, take this on board and see what a difference being swim fit makes to your overall triathlon result.



Triathlon Runner

Practice running downhills to get the edge – MSC Head Coach Nick Croft

You would think that downhill running comes naturally but running downhill efficiently and repetitively is not as easy as it sounds.  Good downhill runners (like uphill runners) seemingly do it effortlessly but as is the case with most disciplines, it takes practice and a gradual approach.

Because your body absorbs more impact with each foot strike down a hill, you can get injured quite quickly if you are not conditioned for it.  It’s easy to over stride when running downhill, which makes you land harder, tires you out sooner, and makes you more at risk to getting an injury.  For downhill technique it is better to shorten your stride and focus on quicker foot turnover.  As in general good run form you want to aim to keep your shoulders, hips, and feet aligned and the feeling is like controlled falling so you’re over your centre of gravity and this gives you forward momentum and better foot placement.

Although it’s tempting to take huge steps to reduce the pounding on your legs, over striding downhills pound your quads even more and put more stress on your ankle and hips too. Aim to keep feet lower to the ground and try to stay light on your feet and get those feet off the ground as quickly as you can.  Don’t lean back and try to put the brakes on yourself.  Allow the gravity to pull you as you go down the hill.

When running downhill, you don’t need the arm movement for power like you do on flats and up hills.  So for more stability try positioning your arms out to the side for better balance. It can help give your body the control on steeper or technical sections if some turning is involved. Like when you descend on the bike, aim to look ahead of yourself – further down the hill, not down where your feet are. 

Add downhill running to your training gradually. Start with a short, gradual slope, and move on to steeper and longer descents as you get more accustomed.  Off road trails for down hills or grassy slopes are better to start with then progress to harder surfaces. Repeated downhill runs are hard sessions so need to be treated like one so a few days of easy running or swim / bike will allow the legs to absorb the stress. Like anything, it is a gradual adaption over time, so don’t expect the results to flow until you do this consistently initially over 4-6 weeks.

Keep in mind to do no serious down hills leading up to important events. Give yourself seven to ten days even up to two weeks out of no intensive / repetitive down hills.




Nick Croft Competing in triathlon 70.3

What is the optimal time of day to run & talking about running stride rate – with MSC Head Coach Nick Croft

A few running related questions that I get asked frequently by athletes in my face to face coached squad or via distance and has been up for discussion at a Noosa training camp in the past as well.

‘Do you recommend run training at night or in the morning? I often run in the morning because of time commitments, but I actually always feel better in the evening when I run – so would prefer that’ 

The best time of day to run is a long-standing debate among runners and exercise experts.  It is actually not a coincidence that you do feel better running of an evening as the research indicates that the optimal time to exercise is when your body temperature is at its highest, which, for most people is the late afternoon, between 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Other studies confirm that exercisers perform better on physical performance tests between 4 and 7 p.m.

Like many athletes, fitting training time in around a busy work and family life find it most practical to run in the morning.  If that is your window and if you miss that window then perhaps that is the training gone for the day.  You may be more motivated to get that run in at the start of the day and adapting to the morning time slot can also happen over time plus if you are training for morning races (most are early starts) your body is used to running at that time. You’ll also get accustomed to the routine of wake up, drink, eat something light then run and come race day it will feel like normal so your runs in a morning are really practice for the race day routine.

Exercising in the evening may be better for the on the day training performance and higher oxygen uptake but can lead to not as good a sleep at night with a higher evening Heart rate then if you ran that morning.  It comes down to your preference and needs as far as time commitments.  Mixing up your runs may be the key.  Harder paced runs may be better for the afternoon for more blood flow and oxygenated muscles and longer runs for the mornings.  The main thing is to get your run in whether it be am or pm at the end of the day.

The next is to do with obtaining a faster and more efficient stride rate when running

It is quite common to hear from coaches in running and triathlon that most elite distance runners / triathletes (both men and women and talking age groupers also here) tend to stride at about the same rate: 180 or more steps per minute.  Less experienced runners often have a cadence of 160 to 170 steps per minute, which limits running performance – with the main drawback of a slower stride turnover is that the slower you take your steps, the longer you spend in the air, and the longer you’re in the air, the harder you hit the ground on landing. By increasing your stride rate, you not only improve your ability to maintain a faster pace more efficiently but may also reduce your risk of injury.

Experts have long suggested that in order to minimize over striding, lessen the impact on the legs, and have better forward momentum, you should always aim to hit that number.  But cadence does differ with pace.  Even the best distance runners and triathletes take fewer steps per minute when they run at slower speeds.  Your easy pace can differ by up to 15-20 steps per minute.  You will notice more efficient runners more upright and even seemingly jogging on the spot more so when they are running slower – but still with relatively fast leg turnover.

To find out what your cadence for your various training speeds is get on a treadmill.  Warm-up gradually over 10-15min then increase the speed by one minute per km until you’re at 5-Km race pace.  As you reach each training pace (easy recovery /10k / 5k, tempo, etc.), give yourself a minute or so to adjust to the speed, then count your steps for 30 seconds. Multiply by two, record the number, then accelerate to your next pace. You should see that as your speed increases, your cadence increases and you slight slightly further forward of you center of gravity.  You can also do this on the track using intervals of 800m.

One of the easiest ways to quicken your step is to run with a metronome to time your stride rate to.  Alternately you can just count or 15 or 30 second period every so often during your runs.  It will take time to break out your old habits so don’t expect it in just a few runs but you will find a new focus for every run working on your shorter more rapid stride rate.   Many distance runners do not train to improve leg turnover but below is an introduction to including a drill to add variety to your training to help increase your stride rate.

Striders are accelerations of about 70 to 100+ meters and are the classic workout to improve leg turnover. After a few of these workouts, a faster stride rate will feel more natural and take less effort to maintain.  A training session can consist 8 to 12 of these. Warming up well prior. You can also work these into a series of dynamic stretch and other run drills pre main set to ensure a total warm up and the legs are primed for a specific interval set.   Rest for at least 60sec between these or walk back recovery if want to start and run I the one direction.

The main things with these short distance striders is to accelerate smoothly up to full speed (not sprinting), and then hold without over working it. Because your arms and legs move in sync, you may find that you can increase your leg cadence by increasing the tempo of your arms. Focus on moving your legs and arms slightly faster, but not straining. To increase your cadence, it often helps to shorten your stride slightly and concentrate on bringing your foot down quickly with each step. After a few sessions, you will find that you can achieve faster leg turnover without shortening your stride.

Striders not only increase your stride rate, they also lead to improved running technique. Many distance runners have sloppy running form such as tension in the arms and shoulders, over striding or not getting power out of their glute muscles. Striders are an excellent way to improve running technique because running fast accentuates style flaws. Striders train you to run fast but relaxed, while focusing on good running form. To improve your running technique, focus on one or two aspects of good running form during each strider.

You will progress steadily by doing one or two leg turnover workouts each week, and striders can be included in your training program year-round.


Off Season Tips and Tricks to Stay in touch and get ready to be your best for next season – By Nick Croft*

Now we are into the off season, the question for some athletes possibly new to triathlon – is where to from here and what does one do in order to keep the momentum and fitness going that you have worked so hard all season to achieve?

One of the first things you must ask yourself is what am I training for between now and next season? The next thinks to ask yourself – what are my next season goals? This answer of course varies widely but for those wrapping up and coming off their first season or two the goal may be as simple as repeat the races you did this season but be faster or more competitive or to step up to the next distance if you started with shorter events. In order to improve we must raise that bar. By not having such a big break and period of inactivity this will lay a bigger foundation and base for the next season.

But first, some down time will be on the cards. As no matter how motivated we may be coming off the high of having as successful season, everyone needs to take some down time physically and emotionally to restore reserves and freshen up. I like to give my athletes some respite of anywhere between four to six weeks at seasons end from the structure of a program. This is also a great time to re-evaluate the season just gone by.

Below are some tips to assist in getting through the winter here in Australia.

Time off – as already mentioned, it is important to have some down time and break that structure and routine you have set yourself all summer. By all means stay in touch with some light training but make it more social, cut out intensity, drop the volume and frequency, make sure you have some sleep in’s and breakaway from the normal training patterns. Keep up aerobic activity but try to change from the swim, bike, run norm and broaden your activities – it is true of the saying that a change is as good as a break.

Physical screening by a professional – by a physiotherapist, experienced personal trainer or qualified coach. This will go a long way to help you find out potential weaknesses in your physical self to work on during the off season. Things like overall or certain areas of inflexibility, gluteal strength, core, lower back or lower leg weaknesses – all which can be worked on while the winter sets in and the focus comes away from the swim, bike run volume that summer dictates.

Head indoors – the first stop after a screening may be the gym based on that outcome. You will find this a good place to seek refuge in the colder climates with various group fitness programs on offer, as well as find expert advice on how to implement your core or specific program into your training week. Spin Classes for the bike, and some of the body pump style of circuits or plyometrics are a good offseason alternative and break away from the normal triathlon structure and will add a twist to keeping up the fitness in a different environment for a few months.

Many Tri clubs now offer winter programs that are devised by the club coach and emphasis off season training which is different to in season and is geared more towards maintenance and finetuning technique. For example – for the bike it may be group weekly wind trainer sessions working on technique pedalling, incorporating one leg isolation drills, fast spinning while maintaining good technique, big gear muscular tension efforts and so on.

Another indoor winter activity becoming more popular with triathletes is Yoga. There are many different types and orientations. I like to work into my own coaching squad program a Yoga session and make it triathlon specific in a weekly class all year round. We focus on lower and upper back, arms and shoulders, hips and glutes, back of legs in hamstrings, calves – so a lot of downward dog pose which works wonders for those tight backs of legs. It will be the best stretch you do all week and the meditative side also helps clear the mind and helps you refresh. Doing this on a Monday is a great way to start the week.

Training in a different location is a great way to spice things up and focus at the task at hand and leave the normal worries of the world behind. A weekend away or doing a training camp does wonders for the motivation and pick up new ways to train and get in some good training to help your early season preparation.

Swim focus Swimming falls in the category for many as a weakness and therefore not something that gets much attention when there are no races around the corner. Certainly, having some time out of the water is expected for us but there are some things you can do as part of your offseason program to make the return to training a little more enjoyable. Having your time in the gym should include some swim specific exercises that maintain some swim strength and endurance. Areas of weakness in the swim muscles generally would be triceps, lats, shoulders and lack of flexibility in upper and lower back (yoga great for this). Doing two specific gym workouts per week that include the above muscle groups and being able to hit the water once or twice a week in the off season is enough to stay in touch and build a platform to up the volume and intensity as the season draws closer. Using dry land stretch cords is also a great way to stay in touch with the feel of the water without getting wet. Doing a set of ten times one minute twice a week with the rubber bands with hand paddles on the hands helps you keep the strength on the catch and pull. These are handy to travel with and a great way to warm up pre swim in the cold or before a race.

Bike – I have already made mention of spin classes, tri clubs group wind trainer sessions etc as a way to stay in touch with the bike during the colder months. During the week with the lack of time and daylight this makes it harder to venture out – the indoor option is in my option one of the best ways to maintain and even improve your cycling. Forty five minutes to one hour one or two times per week on weekdays is doable. Also getting a bike shop or professional bike fit organisation / or coach to check and fit you up properly if you have not done so or if you are thinking of up grading or changing your bike.

Run – winter is the run season in Australia. Traditional goals tend to be the ten kilometre or the half marathons to work towards. Emphasising the running is a great way to improve your triathlon run leg, stay in good shape and make the most of what may be limited available training time with the lack of daylight hours. Go through the run calendar and pick out three or four events between June and October to work to and use as time trial efforts over varying distances depending on your tri race distance.

Body maintenance Once we get over the age of thirty you will find you may need to spend more time doing the stretching, and using other forms of maintenance to enable you to get out on the road and moving freely. Most triathletes that have been doing the sport for some time will tell you they have areas they know that need to maintained daily regularly. So kicking off and making good a routine to get these ‘hot spots’ under control now that the season is done is the first step in allowing you to get the next season off to a good start.

I have just really touched the tip of the iceberg with ways to keep active with the race season in hiatus. Certainly, reduce your swim bike and run volume for a period of time and replace with some of the alternatives listed above. The best age group athletes are the ones who maintain enthusiasm and consistency in training and adjust the training schedule according to the season and time of year. Doing the same thing week in week out all year around is unrealistic and will soon become tiresome for you. Above all else make sure the process is (mostly) enjoyable and has the element of variety.

Nick Croft* Former professional and Australian Triathlete of the year. A two- time Noosa Triathlon winner and coach for the last 26 years. Nick coach’s athletes of all abilities in his home town of Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine coast and runs Noosa Tri Camps and online coaching through www.mscsport.com.au