Recently, there has been debate in triathlon circles about the benefit of brick runs. A new school of thought has swept in claiming that running off the bike in training serves no purpose and is of little use. After years of thought on this topic as a coach, and much personal experimentation as an athlete and movement specialist here in our gait analysis lab, here is my perspective on the debate.
In brief, I believe brick runs have great value, but not necessarily for the reasons most people think. In my opinion, the issue of running off the bike should not be presented as a training dilemma or time-saving problem to be solved. Brick runs, in fact, present the opportunity to solve a very important physical MOVEMENT issue for triathletes.
What I know from my work in our gait analysis lab, and confirmed from my own experience, is that it is VERY challenging to get the posterior chain--the glutes, in particular--working properly to be able to run well after cycling. I have personally spent a lot of time practicing and experimenting with ways to trigger better glute activation and involvement before a brick run. I have worked on correct hip flexor stretching, and various dynamic stretching of the entire anterior hip region in order to better activate the posterior chain. I can tell you with certainty that it is very difficult to get the back side of our body going after being on a bike for any length of time. And, to be clear, to run to your potential, your posterior chain--including the glutes--has to not only be firing, but must be strong.
But why do the glutes stubbornly refuse to activate off the bike? It is due to a real physiologic phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition. Reciprocal inhibition causes the muscles on one side of a joint to relax to accommodate contraction on the other side of that joint. The posture of cycling involves sustained hip flexion, making the hip flexors short and tight. Reciprocal inhibition then causes the hip extensors, especially the gluteus maximus, to shut down markedly. As we discuss further, you will see how brick runs work effectively to counter this phenomenon.
The discoveries I have made in my own training, as well as what I see in the athletes I coach, prove to me that the following elements are absolutely crucial to one's ability to optimize the run portion of a triathlon:
- You must first understand how important the glutes are in running. And its NOT enough that your glutes are strong (although they MUST be STRONG), they must also be able to act as the PRIMARY extendor of the hip, which is their role. Sometimes the hamstring or low back, due to compensation, tries to over take the role of the glute. First order of business for you is to eliminate compensation wherever possible so that the glutes are doing their job, and then via a platform of functional strength training, get them strong.
- You must understand that the glutes work to create hip extension when running to power you down the road. When coming off the bike, the glutes are not doing that job well at all due to reciprocal inhibition. The longer the ride, the greater the inhibition. Therefore...
- It is imperative to PRACTICE running off the bike frequently to develop a precise, in-tune FEEL of what it takes to get the glutes working effectively. How can you do that?
? Engage in kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness when you run. Make thoughtful yet subtle adjustments in run posture, especially early on in the run, and periodically throughout the run. Lead with the hips, not the torso; shoulders down/elbows back; stand tall and lengthen your spine are just some of the cues to use.
? Employ a higher stride rate (at least 90 to 95 stride cycles per minute) and a "shorter" stride to allow for the awareness articulated above and to reduce ground impact forces.
? In your training, every few times you do a brick run, take a few minutes before going out on the run, to moderately and smartly stretch the flexors of the hip. This should be done correctly, from a neutral pelvic position, and done dynamically and with control. Own this movement pattern before running.
? Begin your run out of T2 very conservatively. Allow a few minutes for the body to "find" its correct running form naturally. You want your running to be AUTHENTIC, which is to say driven primarily by the glutes. If you start running too intensely or too fast, it is less likely the run will be glute driven--and the risk of poor performance and injury increase.
? Practice brick runs frequently, BUT combine the running with the proper awareness we discussed. If you do that, the authentic run groove can be established more easily and more quickly.
For the record, I am not saying that frequent brick runs, in and of themselves, fix the inherent problem we are discussing here. If your butt is weak and asleep, then no amount of bricks can change that, and in fact, will only groove poor movement and inefficient running. Running off the bike alone cannot and will not make you a stronger and faster triathlete.
What I am saying is that as a triathlete, you must first understand how crucial an issue this is. The inherent challenges that exist when going from cycling to running ARE NOT about the training effect of bike to run, but are about quality MOVEMENT. Your glutes must be strong, and they must fire in order for you to run well. If you do the work and strengthen the posterior chain, then the last piece of the puzzle is using the brick run often and effectively to groove the transition from strong powerful cycling to strong, powerful fatigue-resistant, injury-resistant running.
In the end, brick runs help you address a MOVEMENT ISSUE crucial to your triathlon success. It is not a "training" issue. And it is a real mistake to view brick runs as unnecessary or expendable,
It is clear to me that coaches who diminish the importance of brick runs simply do not understand physical movement, where true running speed really comes from, the importance of the glutes, and the real impact of reciprocal inhibition. Frequent brick runs, built upon authentic movement and gluteal strength, will lead to better, more efficient, more powerful, more skilled running off the bike.
I believe it is something every triathlete benefits from when approached in the correct way, and with clear intent.