Getting Faster without Improved Fitness: Increasing 3-Discipline Efficiency

Another triathlon coach once said to me "ya know, what people don't understand is that in our sport, it is not how fast you go, or how long you can hold your endurance, it is all about efficiency. The most successful athletes are the ones who are the most efficient." It's easy for us coaches to take this to heart, but often times we are challenged in getting athletes to understand this. Triathlon really is about how easy you can make it! defines efficiency as 'The ability to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort.' Let's look at an example. Let's take a high level swimmer who has decided to take up the sport of triathlon. If this swimmer was swimming the 1500 (1 mile) in a swim meet, they would swim at a very steady tempo for around 1250 meters, and then bury themselves in misery until they made that final reach for the wall. Now let's take that same swimmer, and bring them into a triathlon setting. Now the idea is to complete the mile swim of an olympic distance triathlon in the fastest possible time, but now with the least waste of time and effort. How fast can that swimmer swim the mile, WITHOUT burying themselves? This approach allows the athlete to be competitive at the end of the swim, and still have great resources remaining for cycling and running. So how do you do this? I see four areas a triathlete can look at to make sure they are maximizing their efficiency:
  1. Equipment choices
  2. Hydronamics (swimming), aerodynamics (cycling), and running economy
  3. Strength development
  4. Skill/technique development
Our focus for this blog is area #4. As we improve our technique in a given area, our body does not have to work as hard to create the same amount of velocity. Here are examples in each discipline on how poor technique increases our perceived intensity:
  • One of the most important aspects of proper swim technique is the concept of the high elbow catch. Grabbing water with a high elbow provides more propulsion, thus reducing the amount of strokes it takes to swim a given distance.
  • In cycling, the ability to spin a naturally high cadence in easier gears versus the tendency to always mash big gears is a technique that spares the legs for running.
  • With running, learning to not over stride is a technique that allows one to run at a naturally lower HR. Overstriding = higher HR, along with many other negative side effects.
Can you realize how valuable it would be to leave the swim and arrive at the first transition with a fresh body? Imagine feeling your heart rate under control, breathing deeply rather than shallow, and doing it with minimal time loss? Let’s now carry this forward. Think about T2. How about seeing a 120 heart rate in T2 with our lower back, glutes, and hamstrings not feeling fatigued or tight? How about feeling like you can take the scheduled nutrition on the run without any risk of GI distress? These are the perceptions we are looking for by becoming a more efficient athlete! Here are some technique drills you can start employing right away that will make you a more efficient athlete. I must note one thing – doing this under the supervision of a qualified coach or experienced athlete will enhance your skill development. This person should be able to provide cues and feedback to assist you:


Fist Drill. Fist drill is one of the best drills you can do to learn to catch water in a high elbow position.
  • While swimming with your fists clinched, focus on catching water on your forearm with a high elbow catch. Your fist and forearm should catch water early - as soon as you engage your pull. It is important to 'feel' the water on your fist and forearm.
  • Maintain swiveling body rotation from the hips.
  • Keep a consistent flutter kick on top of the water while fist-swimming. Your balance in the water is challenged when swimming with your fists. Maintaining your kick will help keep your body elevated in the water.
When you open your hand after fist-swimming you should feel a more significant catch of the water. This is because swimming with your fists creates a higher elbow catch of the water. The quick muscle memory you will have when you open your hand will show you what your catch should always feel like if you can maintain that high elbow. The more you work on the fist drill, the more you improve your ability to catch water with a high elbow. Catching the water with a high elbow is the key to speed!


Fast Pedal Drill. The Fast Pedal Drill will teach you to produce power when utilizing easier gears, and avoiding the ‘mashing’ of gears. Many triathletes will ride hours on end at cadences as low as 70-80. This is highly inefficient as riding lower cadence in gearing that is too large will tax the muscular system of the lower body. This will not leave you fresh for running. The key is to learn to ‘spin’ easier gears at cadences much quicker than this.
  • Fast pedal drills are :30 to 2:00 long, with equivalent recoveries. During each fast pedal segment, reduce gearing to a VERY easy level, and spin at 100+ RPM’s. The highest you really need to go is about 110 to 115.
  • While performing the fast pedal drill, focus on being smooth, and feeling the pedal circle all the way around. Don’t be choppy, and don’t allow yourself to bounce on the saddle. If either of these things occurs, reduce the RPM’s. And remember – super easy gear!


Cadence Running. It is well accepted that running with a slightly higher cadence, is much more efficient than running with a slower cadence. A slower cadence is typically one of an over strider. By simply shortening the stride, we give our footfall a much better chance of striking the ground underneath our center of gravity. This reduces injury risk, eliminates ‘braking,’ and reduces perceived intensity once adapted. The best way to train your cadence is as follows:
  • Go out for a nice easy run. During the run observe your cadence with Garmin technology, or you can use a cheap clip on style of metronome. Use one of these devices to determine your average cadence when running.
  • The targeted cadence for running at comfortable paces is around 85 to 90 footstrikes per minute on each side. As close to 90 is ideal.
  • If you find you need to work on increasing cadence, do it in small increments. Let’s say your test run shows a cadence of 80. Don’t try to get to 90 immediately, it will not work. Target 83, and build from there.
  • You should also perform the same cadence work when running after cycling.
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