Yes, You Can Make the Runner to Triathlete Transition. Here's How

By Amy Javens | Sept. 10, 2018, 10:54 a.m. (ET)

Transition to running

One of the things that make triathlon so interesting is the diversity of the athletes who come to the sport. Triathlon can be thought of as the “melting pot” of all sport.

There is not one athletic background that can “make” a triathlete. An advanced swimmer, cyclist, or runner may have some advantage starting up in the sport, but the training approach, as well as the mental outlook, of what made them an advanced athlete in that sole sport, may have to be adjusted, once initiating triathlon training.

Advanced runners come to triathlon for many reasons; one being diversity, and to drive boredom out of training. They want a new challenge. Others like the cross training that triathlon brings, to ward off overuse running injuries.

Here are some tips that will help the advanced runner make a successful transition into triathlon.

Incorporate and find time to train in all three disciplines 

Welcome to triathlon training! And gone is the day of simply lacing up the running shoes and going out for a quick simple run. Now, one has to plan their day to get to a pool, cycle on a trainer, watch the weather for outdoor riding, plan cycling routes, then run after a bike (brick workout). Be prepared to manage time a bit more productively and creatively.

Reduce run volume 

Reducing run volume may be extremely difficult, mentally, for seasoned runners. Because the biggest percentage of time spent in a triathlon is on the bike, an athlete must work on improving cycling strength, and to do this, a large majority of training is spent on the bike. Aim for a 1 to 5 ratio of run to bike volume. High running volume is not recommended for triathlon training. It shreds the bike legs. It takes away from one’s bike strength, and it can set one up for injury and the inability to recover properly. 

Plan maximum volume training weeks anywhere from one to two weeks out from a sprint goal race, to as many as four to seven weeks out from a goal iron-distance race, at Critical Volume.

For the longer distance races it may take years to reach the Critical Volume necessary to maintain race specific performance indicators, over the race's entire length. An athlete who meets average training volumes equivalent to; 9/3 swim race distance; 8/3 bike race distance; and 7/3 run race distance, per week for two weeks, within the final six weeks prior to an event, has met Critical Volume for that particular race distance.

Change from a “runner set mindset” to a “triathlete set mindset”

An athlete has only so much energy available, and must be rationed accordingly among the swim, bike, and run training.   A question one must ask, is  “what is necessary for me to become a better triathlete?” and not “how many more miles can I accumulate for my run training for the week?”   Gone is the week of running six or seven days.  Instead, embrace the multifaceted approach of training 6-7 days a week in multiple disciplines, which will most likely not entail running every day.

Heart rate training verses pace training 

Many advanced runners train by pace.  Triathletes utilize a combination of heart rate based training, pace or power based training and rate of perceived exertion. Becoming familiar and utilizing heart rate zones is essential to informing the training paces that an athlete should be using, taking into account the multiple layers of training stress that a triathlete may experience, relative to a pure runner.  Know when to target aerobic, sub threshold, and threshold work in training.  For more about heart rate training, read here.

Fuel like a triathlete 

Become familiar with a fueling plan that works and is individualized for you and your sweat rate and caloric needs, and use it in everyday training, so that it becomes second nature. Often times, seasoned runners will tend to neglect in-workout fueling. Triathletes, especially those who focus on longer distances, cannot neglect fueling, or they may risk under recovering, hydration issues such as hyponatremia, GI issues, and other adverse reactions to improper fueling consumption. Finding a sport dietitian who specializes endurance athletes who can prescribe an individual fueling plan is key in long course racing.

Workouts for the advanced runner “new to triathlon” 

Being an advanced runner does not necessarily translate into becoming an advanced triathlete. Pure running legs are a bit different then “triathlete running legs”.   

Triathlon running legs, no matter what the speed potential of the athlete, must be built up with durability that comes from having specific runs that are timed accordingly in the overall weekly triathlon training schedule. Following are transition run and solo run workouts to consider, as an advanced runner "new to triathlon."

  1. Bricks or Transitions Runs: What makes the run different in triathlon?  Well…you get to run on fried cycling legs.  Nothing can prepare one better than spending the majority of one’s runs in transition off the bike.  Get used to the feeling of having “jello legs” off the bike.  The more you do transition runs, the more commonplace they will feel.
  2. Long aerobic bike with an aerobic transition run: Plan to run for 20-60 minutes off a long aerobic bike day, while building for a goal race.  Start out short and build to longer, depending on your goal race distance.
  3. Long run day: Plan to do the longest aerobic run of the week the day after your long bike day.  Build your leg and mental durability to get used to running on tired legs.  Build upon the run’s total time, depending on goal race’s distance.  It can be as short at 45 minutes for sprint distance prep, up to two hours for ironman distance prep. Make sure you precede this run with a shorter and light bike workout, that serves as a “warm up” for the legs to put forth the aerobic run effort.
  4. Double run days: Another option to the “long run day”, above, is to break the long run down and do two shorert runs with a short bike before the second run of the day.  This serves as another excellent physical and mental durability builder.  An example would be a 45 minute morning run followed by a 30 min evening transition run off of a short and easy one hour bike.  Or for a higher volume athlete, a 1:15 morning run, followed by an evening 1:15 transition run off a short and light bike.
  5. Track workout alternative:  “You can take the runner off the track, but can’t take the track out of the runner.” Another good workout is to perform tempo and speed workouts off the track, to prepare the mind for running in a triathlon run environment.  Find a bike trail or road that will help you achieve the workout’s objective.  Being an advanced runner already, do “track alternative” type of workouts as evening workouts, while allowing your morning training session to focus on cycling.  Again, get used to performing on tired legs for the run.

Making the transition from being an advanced runner to a triathlete, will take some time and adjustment. Allow all the disciplines of the sport to grow by thinking and training like a triathlete. All disciplines need the others to become better. Become a better triathlete, by strengthening the weak (swim, bike), while maintaining the strong (run).

Amy Javens is a USAT and QT2 Systems Level 2 Triathlon Coach and lives in Hermitage, PA. She has been in the sport for 15 years and raced professionally for a number of years. Amy won her first professional race at the age of 43, with a personal best iron distance time of 9:25 at Beach2Battleship. She now races age group and recently became the 2017 IMCABO champ. She had been in education for 20 years, before making the switch to full time coaching and professional racing. Check her out on Instagram and Twitter @amyjavenstriathlete, and Facebook @amypermanjavens.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.