ChiRunning Rhythm for Triathletes

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Life loves rhythm.

All living things thrive on regularity and patterns, whether they occur outside of us, such as the seasons, the lunar cycles, the rising and setting of the sun, or within us, such as our diurnal rhythms, our respiratory and heart rates, or the automatic tap of our toes when we hear a catchy beat. We are mostly uncomfortable with disorder, and when faced with chaos and irregularity, we tend to feel ill at ease until order has been restored. Rhythmic beat patterns and marching are sometimes used to help soothe and calm agitated or overactive children. Rhythm is life.

Our sport of triathlon is no different. Our year is divided into base, build, peak and recovery periods, and each phase anticipates the next. When we are in recovery, we are planning for the race season ahead, and during the intensity of the peak period, we know we will soon have the off-season to rejuvenate and heal the body and mind. We know we can’t race all year long without some down time, and by the same token, if the entire year were nothing but off-season (not counting extended injury rehabilitation periods) — well, then we probably wouldn’t be triathletes in that case anyway, we would still be the couch potatoes we once were.

Similarly, within the larger phases of our training season are the periodized segments, the 3- or 4-week blocks where we gradually build in volume or intensity of training and then back off in the last week to rest and allow our bodies to absorb and realize the fitness gains from the harder weeks. These cycles of build and rest are necessary to keep the body fresh, to facilitate its adaptation to the training, and avoid the dreaded over-trained state.

The three disciplines of triathlon are steeped in rhythm: think of watching a well-trained swimmer, gliding smoothly and effortlessly down the lane, arms moving like clockwork, breathing every third stroke. Imagine trying to swim while changing your breathing patterns, now every 4 strokes, then every other stroke, then every three strokes. Your breathing would be out of rhythm and your muscles would be deprived of the regular and even oxygen supply necessary for aerobic energy production. If your masters swim coach sees a swimmer employing a choppy, uneven stroke, he or she will most likely stop the swimmer – at least we hope they would – and introduce drills and sets designed to help even out the stroke.

In cycling, coaches teach smooth, even, rhythmic pedaling and how to use the bike’s gears to help achieve that smoothness. Many cycling coaches advise their athletes to use a cadence of 85-95 pedal strokes per minute, meaning the number of times per minute one pedal goes all the way around the circle from 3 o’clock to 3 o’clock. Even though most cycling programs also have some high cadence work to increase neuromuscular efficiency, and some slow “big gear” workouts to develop cycling-specific strength, most of your weekly mileage should be spent somewhere in between 85-95 range. The reason is that thanks in part to the stunning success of Lance Armstrong and his well-studied ability to beat the best cyclists in the world by employing a much higher cadence than they do, even while climbing high mountains, we have seen that at 85-95 revolutions per minute, the body clears lactic acid from the leg muscles much more efficiently, allowing those muscles to perform work longer. Finally for the run segment, rhythm and tempo are crucial to help the legs get past the leaden, heavy feeling they will have coming off the bike.

Why is rhythm so very important in each of these three endurance sports? Because rhythm equals efficiency, and since the goal of most beginning triathletes is to train for and complete their event using primarily the body’s aerobic energy systems, we want to conserve that energy and dole it out as efficiently as possible to achieve our goal of completing our event feeling strong and without the need for a long recovery period.

Since the run leg of triathlon is the most energy intensive, both by its own nature as a weight-bearing activity and because it comes last after the swim and bike when the body is already experiencing some fatigue, let’s explore some of the benefits of running with rhythm and some tools to help us achieve that end.

When I was young I had one of those old mechanical metronomes with the upside don swinging pendulum that I used to practice for my piano lessons. This metronome was just slightly off, so that the beats were ever so slightly uneven (tick-tock, tick-tock). The odd rhythm made the metronome useless for practicing, so I had to tilt the instrument just so to even out the beats. Because of the (mostly) symmetrical state of the body, it is pretty difficult to run for very long with an uneven stride, just as it was nearly impossible to use my flaky metronome to practice Chopin etudes. Even discrepancies such as a minor leg length or foot size difference, and many of us have one or both of these, will be factored in by the body and it will try to achieve an even stride. The body wants to move rhythmically, so our challenge is to find ways to use that rhythm effectively.

Rhythm and its close cousin cadence are twin pillars in support of the goals of energy efficiency and injury prevention in running. Cadence is what enables rhythm to help us achieve both goals, because cadence provides benefits in reducing impact, avoiding heel strike, and minimizing the accumulation of metabolic waste products in the muscles that accelerate fatigue. Just as a cadence of 85-95 is recommended for cycling, most run coaches, including ChiRunning instructors, train their athletes to achieve a run cadence of 85-90 steps of the right foot (or left, but not both) per minute. This range of 85-90 steps or beats per minute (bpm) works for most runners (taller athletes will tend toward the lower end of the range) and is optimal for energy conservation because the rapid turnover of the legs helps the muscles to clear out lactic acid, a normal byproduct of burning oxygen and sugars to produce energy, but which when allowed to accumulate in the muscles causes that familiar burn that reduces the amount of time an athlete wants or is able to keep exercising. Continually removing lactic acid from the muscles by rapid, light contraction of those muscles, allows the aerobic energy system to keep working longer to produce the energy necessary to keep you running.

In addition to helping the leg muscles use available energy more efficiently, an even, relatively high cadence is useful in injury prevention. Quicker steps help to shorten the amount of time each foot spends on the ground, reducing the amount of impact sustained with each step. Take a look around you on the path or at the track. Notice the difference between the runner who uses a slow stride versus one whose foot turnover is much quicker. The slower stride may appear more plodding, and you may also see more up and down motion in that runner than in the one whose feet move very quickly. Any energy used in producing up and down motion while running is wasted, because it is not contributing to your forward progress.

Another drawback of long, slow strides is that they can result in the foot landing out in front of the body, on the heel, which is both inefficient and potentially injurious, as heel strike is often a root cause of many knee and hip injuries in runners. Quicker strides make it easier to keep the footfall under the body, landing midfoot and reducing the amount of heel-to-toe roll required to get to the next step, minimizing overpronation in some runners with very flexible arches, and in turn reducing the potential for some lower leg overuse injuries such as shin splints.

A common observation among runners who try to increase their cadence is that their perceived effort level (PEL) and/or heart rate increase too quickly, taking them out of their aerobic zone and resulting in fatigue. There are several ways to avoid this: one is to make sure that your stride is shortened incrementally as your cadence increases. If you try to increase your cadence by just pushing off harder with your toes, you will fatigue very quickly. Instead, relax your lower legs, keep your posture tall and lean forward to engage gravity, letting your heels float up behind you and landing midfoot just beneath your center of gravity. Resist the urge to push off, and your effort level won’t zoom out of control. Secondly, don’t try to increase too much too soon. Even though 85-90 steps per minute is ideal, you don’t have to get there all in one training session, especially if your current cadence is well below that. Even one more step per minute has potential benefits in energy efficiency and injury prevention, so just increasing by one or two beats per minute per week or two will gradually open those benefits up to you. Your body will perceive this small change as exactly that – small- and will adapt to it quite readily.

So how do you get to your goal cadence? First, you need to find out what your current cadence is. There are small electronic metronomes available that make this task easy. Get a friend to help, since it is hard to run naturally while you are fiddling with the instrument. Stay close enough the person with the metronome so they can easily see your feet and match the sound to either your right or left foot, again not both. Once you have your current cadence, start from there and increase the count by one each week or so, until you reach your desired cadence of 85-90. Monitor your PEL and/or heart rate. If you feel you are working too hard, scan your body and see if you are pushing off or otherwise expending energy that is not resulting in forward motion, and make adjustments accordingly.

You might feel somewhat self-conscious about running with a beeping metronome. You don’t have to leave it on all the time, especially once your body has begun to adapt to the change. You can turn it off and then check back again in a few minutes to see how close you are to your desired cadence. Or you may find that other people don’t mind so much after all. Recently I was on a training run with some friends and was keeping myself a few feet away so my beeping wouldn’t bother them. When I explained why I was staying apart, they said they actually liked the beep and found it gave them a focus for the run. It is hard to hear the beep and not try to match your step, so they were all feeling the benefits just as I was.

Finally, make sure to keep your cadence in the 85-90 range regardless of speed, even during warm up and cool down. If shorter, quicker strides have benefits at one speed, it follows that they would have the same benefits at all speeds. So resist the urge to fall back into a plodding stride when you are going slowly. Keep those feet moving, just shorten your stride more and lean less to decrease your pace.

Coming out of transition two from bike to run, a higher cadence will come in very handy for rejuvenating those leg muscles that are heavy from the bike. Resist the urge in your races and your brick workouts to allow yourself to ‘run heavy’ off the bike. Keep the step quick and light, and your legs will recover from the bike sooner, making the run segment more fun and more efficient.

Apply these principles to each of your runs and you will soon find your running more enjoyable and more in tune with your own natural rhythms.

Posted in Performance, Training

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