Running movement pattern for triathlon

November 12th 2019

By Matt Hill
Categories: Run

Running movement pattern for triathlon

Running in its simplest form is an extension of walking. Walking is a movement we all learn in infancy; as we mature, we learn to modify the movement to adapt for the varied terrains we encounter, and then apply it to running.

Natural movement development

Developing movement patterns

As we grow through childhood, our body naturally develops the ability to move – with very little influence from external sources. Watch any young child learning to walk, it’s all instinctive and trial-and-error progression. Even if the parents are providing “coaching cues”, the child is not mentally advanced enough to understand – they are learning by themselves.

As the child grow, he or she will master the ability to walk on many different terrains and do so without even looking. Running is also learned over this period and becomes something that children are very adept at – they are fast and very agile/mobile.

The two run movement patters

We all naturally learn two types of running “styles”, two different movement patterns used in two different scenarios.

 Style 1 – long distance efficiency running 

The first running style we learn is the extension of walking – a movement that allows us to efficiently move faster than we would walking. It’s a simple movement pattern that we will have (largely) practiced since our first steps.

This movement is very efficient, with limited sway, lean or twisting. The body is kept tall with as much of it held vertical to align with the center of mass (CoM), with the head above the shoulders, chest proud and hips forwards. Foot carriage is still low as in walking with limited knee hinge and a soft heel tapping. This is often called a “shuffle”.

Long distance running movement pattern

Note we mention heel tap, not heel strike. The heel should tap the ground not strike it. The heel tap should occur under a soft (bent) knee just in front of the CoM. After softly contacting the floor, the body moves over the foot to become “loaded”. In this instant the foot (NOT heel) takes the full weight of the body, as the CoM moves directly over the foot.

Heel striking occurs when the person over-strides, where the heel hits (strikes) the floor way in front of the body with a long, often extended, knee. Over-striding in this way means that the there are two loading points – the first on the strike, the second when the body moves directly over the foot.

Heel striking is NOT GOOD! More on foot contact and adaptability in a minute…

Style 2 – sprinting 

This movement pattern is quite different to style 1, it is also much faster. This style is developed slightly later, when our body has become stronger, more stable and we are more confident.

This movement looks like a perpetual fall, with the head, torso and hips angled forwards – in front of the CoM. It also requires a much faster and bigger range of movement from the legs. The legs appear to “cycle” as the foot is driven back, lifted, snapped forwards and aggressively placed back on the floor. The knees also do a lot more work, bending more and driving through to help move the feet ready for each fresh step.

Sprint running movement patterns

The other big difference is that the forefoot/midfoot will contact the floor rather than the heel.

Coaching intervention

When we reach school and club age, these running styles are then exposed to teachers and coaches. The styles can be refined and adapted slightly to suit the sports that are part of the curriculum or the child’s chosen sport.

Training is introduced to develop the movements needed to best advance in the sports played – volume for fitness, sprints / hills for strength, agility work, etc. However, the two styles largely stay the same – they are just honed and strengthened.

Foot contact and force application

We all run slightly different, some naturally run more rear foot (heel tapping) while others land further forwards on the foot. Either way, our body’s adapt to the shoes we wear and the terrain we run on. We each naturally develop running movement that suits out body and the areas we run.

As mentioned, we learn the overall movement patterns as children, and replicate them (apart from minor alterations from coaches and teachers) for many years. Our body knows how to cope with the movement and the contact forces it creates. It has been shown that there is little difference between loading forces associated with rear-foot, mid-foot and fore-foot floor contact. The important factor is leg cadence – the faster the leg movement the less stressful the movement is.

Foot loading force
Foot loading forces in different shoes. (Photo: Courtesy Journal of Applied Phys)

Basically, depending on the shoes and terrain (hard, soft, incline, decline, etc) our neuromuscular system knows that it needs to make micro adjustments. The foot and ankle change their contact angles to suit the needs and keep themselves strong and efficient. Note though, wearing heavily manipulative shoes hinder our body’s ability to adapt – minimalist shoes (with less heel lift, arch support, etc) allow the body to adapt most efficiently.

Which run style best suits triathlon

Having described the two types of running, which style would you think is best suited for triathlon? Style 1 with its efficient and sustainable movements or style 2, which is fast and looks good?

Surely style 2 would be the “preferred” style! It’s faster! It looks impressive, is elegant and FAST!

However, style 1, the shuffle, is efficient, MUCH less stressful, can be maintained over long distance, but looks slow.

Well, we’ll let you in on a little secret; style 1 wins! It is the only style that can be used in longer distances and triathlon – even at a pro level.

Consider just running in isolation and you will probably be fully aware that your physiology, metabolism and your run form changes when you become fatigued. However, this obvious deteriorisation that affects us all is often neglected in training. On the start line of a triathlon, we are fresh but the cumulative fatigue of the swim then bike means that you will definitely not be fresh even when you start the run.

The sprinting style is the faster style, but it is NOT sustainable, NOT easily replicated and NOT safe to try and replicate over long distances. Want proof – go watch pro and elite triathletes in any distance. You will see them ALL running with a style 1 movement, even if it looks fast (which it is), they are not replicating style 2. It’s just not possible over longer distance.

The sprinting style is perfectly suited to short distance track events, ball based team sports, etc, but not for longer distance running (even on tracks this style begins to diminish over 3000-5000m events).

Triathlon is different to sprinting

As we have noted several times in previous articles, triathlon is very different to the  individual sports of swim, bike and run. Triathlon is ONE sport that requires the athlete to swim, bike and then run without any rest.

The importance message here is that by the time you get to the run you have already completed the swim and bike so you WILL be tired.

Therefore, the simpler and more efficient the run movement patterns, the better your chances of surviving the run; and if you train this way, you can run fast.

 Running is HARD…

Running is HARDWhether you enjoy running or hate it, if you have been running since a childhood or had a 10, 20, or even 50-year gap, running is stressful!

Running, even the efficient style 1 running, is structurally and hormonally stressful, whether you feel it or not! Running is a weight bearing activity and is good for bone density and joint strength, but if run volume and/or intensity are too high, it can have the exact opposite effect.

There needs to be a balance; train the natural and simple running movement to get it strong and resilient. Don’t overthink it or overdo it to the point that you begin to get injured or ill from over manipulation and overtraining.

Training the styles

Each style can be trained, but they both require a different approach. Simplistically:

Training the right movement, for triathlon 

A running/shuffle movement pattern, as described in style 1 above, is simple and efficient. Low foot carriage, little knee bend, hips, torso and head held vertical and limited upper arm swing.

It is a movement that is easily replicated (we do so when we walk) and can be sustained for long periods – 1k through to ultra-distance events. This is important, because as a triathlete, you need to be able to run for long distances (generally over 5km) when already tired.

Training the right movements, for sprinting

Developing styles 2, for sprint events (including sports like football, rugby, hockey, etc), requires a different approach, one that includes much shorter repeats, lots of rest and lots of time doing running drills.

This style of running requires a much bigger input of the neuromuscular system. The muscles need to explosively drive the legs and move them through a much bigger range of motion. This style of running is also more likely to cause an injury – in short repeats at high effort you are more likely to tear soft muscle tissue and/or connective tissue. If you try to run this way over long distances, you won’t be able to hold the form (it’s too tiring) and you will start to hunch up – more on this later.

This is the reason the sprint style of running is not suited to longer distance running and triathlon – it’s too expensive and risky.

Cross (muddle) training

Just as there is with swim and bike coaching for triathlon, there is a lack of understanding, or “thinking outside the box”, when it comes to running movement in triathlon.

The sprint running style is often preached as the “proper” running form – for everyone in every sport. You must practice “pose running”, “chi running”, fore/midfoot running, etc if you want to be fast and healthy. All meaning well, but in reality it doesn’t work and isn’t the safest route.

These sprint sytle of running involve extended periods of time dedicated to drills and technique work. A 60min run session can comprise 20-30min of drills (high knees, heel/butt kicks, etc) followed by 30min of run fitness training.

Ironically, when running in the “main set” (fitness) part of the session, or in any run, the runner will no longer be able to replicate the sprinting style movements after 500m or so – it’s too tiring.

The runner may think they are running the same way – forefoot or midfoot running, leaning forwards with the whole body… But, in reality, they are fast walking on their tippy toes, with limited vertical leg movements, collapsing forwards at the hips and neck which gives the perception that they are still “sprint, pose, chi” running.

The danger of fatigued “sprint” running

This new poor-form sprinting is going to ultimately blow up their calves, create lower back pain, crush their lungs and induce shoulder and neck ache. This is because your body will not be aligned and your skeletal won’t be carry your body weight. Instead, loading will be transferred to your muscles, which will get progressively tired and scream out in pain!

Again, watch the pro’s run long-distance and triathlon and they are all tall, vertical body alignment, reduced leg swing, limited (upper) arm movement and heel tapping. Leg movement and foot contact happens very quickly, but slow it down and you’ll see some interesting things!

Running for TRIATHLON

Running, from the moment you start to run to the moment you cross the finish line will be in a fatigued state. You will have already spent time, energy and neuromuscular energy swimming and cycling – you then have to run.

What your body needs is a simple movement pattern that can be easily replicate when it is tired.

Triathlon running

Run training should include a mix of aerobic and strength training. Aerobic training is achieved by running VERY EASY – EASY for prescribed periods of time. Strength training, for strength and speed, can include hill repeats and flat or incline speed work.

You can perform aerobic and strength training indoors on treadmills or outdoors on roads/trails/tracks. For those without gym access or hills, get a running parachute for added resistance.

All sessions should be continuous; which is easy when running aerobically. When it comes to strength and speed sets, keep moving with VERY EASY running or walking between efforts. This polarised training approach keeps the body working, actively recovering and toughens up the mind for race day.

The speed and strength sets should not be as short or HARD as sets done for sprint running athletes. Our triathletes and long distance runners MUST NOT exceed 95% MAX effort.

We abstain where drills are concerned

Keep it simple

We NEVER use the “traditional” drills for our triathletes – in the swim, bike or run! They have coaching cues, which could be classed as a unique drill, but we NEVER borrow drills from sprint running.

We don’t do “Type A, B or C” drills or the simpler known high knees, heel/butt kicks, scissor switches, etc.

We just run.

The rationale? Simple, you have all been replicating your own style of running since a very young age – it’s already ingrained. It’s very similar to walking, which means you are replicating the run motion throughout EVERY day anyway. This also means you never really resting from running!

If a running movement needs drilling, it means it’s not mimicable and won’t be replicable on race day. No matter how much you drill the drill, your movements will still revert back to old habits!

Remember, before you even start the run in a triathlon you will be fatigued. You probably all know that you get off the bike and have jelly legs, no legs, feel uncoordinated, etc. Brick sessions help here, but so does having a simple movement pattern.


Running movement is ingrained in us all, we can all shuffle and can all sprint. We developed these movements naturally at a young age and have used them throughout life.

One of the two styles is much more suited and sustainable in triathlon. The other is just too energy consuming and cannot be replicated for long after swimming and cycling.

You should train the “shuffle” every session; know what the session involves and just run. Let your body move in a way that it knows, don’t try to drill it or manipulate it. You’ll only waste your time! You’ll get frustrated! And, increase the likelihood of injuring yourself by attempting to change a natural movement.

Sprinting will be used at times – for sprint finishes, where you will use your natural sprint style. Otherwise, focus on the movement patterns that will last you the race.

Looking pretty doesn’t mean you’ll be fast!