How to improve your efficiency in all three disciplines for Ironman

Joe Friel shows you how to become more economical in your swimming, cycling and running


The more economical you are, the faster you will travel at any given effort level. For example, let’s say you currently run an 8min pace at an oxygen cost of 50ml/min/kg, but through training you improve your economy by 2%.


That means you can now run at an 8min pace at 49ml/min/kg, so it would feel easier. Or you could run at the same 50ml/min/kg, but your pace would have improved to 7:50mins – a 10sec increase in velocity for every mile run. Over the course of a 10km run, that would result in more than a 1min improvement in time.

So small changes in economy can produce rather dramatic changes in performance.

The final way to become a better endurance athlete is to become more economical, meaning that you waste little energy while swimming, biking and running.

Economical training

Triathletes tend to focus on the least improving their economy the least. That’s partly for good reason: much of what improves economy is largely out of your control, like the size and dimensions of your body and its parts. For most of us, our bodies aren’t going to change much now.

So if economy is so important, what can you do to improve on those things over which you have some measure of control? The good news is that you’re probably already doing some of them. The starting point is to get equipment that is designed to conserve energy. For swimming, for example, that would be a wetsuit; with the very same energy cost, you’ll probably swim faster wearing one.

That’s the easy part when it comes to efficiency. But let’s look at the next step in this category: skill enhancement. Efficient athletes tend to have well-developed skills that save them energy during races. Over the years, the athletes I’ve coached have, for the most part, got faster just by becoming more skillful – improved skills give you cheap speed. It would be nice if we could improve everything about your skills in each of the sports, but that isn’t likely to happen before your first race in the new season. But you can improve what I call the ‘big rocks’ – the most basic skills in each sport. Get these refined and you will race faster.

Efficient swimming

When I watch triathletes swim at my camps, first of all I look for three things – the big rocks in swimming.

The first is length. Efficient swimmers have a long stroke. If you ever get a chance to watch the pro field in an open-water triathlon swim, one thing will be clear: there are no tugboats, only speedboats. None of their hands are entering the water next to their heads and then extending under the water. That’s a sure way to go slowly, but is still promoted as a ‘skill’ by many coaches. Most good swimmers in triathlon reach as far as they can above water before their hands enter. This not only puts you high in the water, it also causes your body to roll toward its side – the hip rotation you’ve been trying to master for so many years. That’s the first of the big rocks.

The second is the direction of the reach. If you cross over, even slightly, you’re wasting a great deal of energy. The above-water reach must be directed in your intended direction.

The third big rock is effective hand pressure. Once your hand enters the water, it should ‘grab’ the water as you start pulling yourself through it. What most triathletes do is push their hands straight down for the first half of the stroke. This is totally wasted energy. Getting the catch right is perhaps the most challenging skill for triathletes to master. One way to shorten the learning curve for this skill is to flex your wrist just as your extended hand enters the water. At that time, point your fingers toward the bottom of the pool and then pull straight back. Don’t be concerned with ‘S’ patterns.

Efficient cycling

There’s only one big rock for the bike. What you must do every winter, regardless of when it was done last, is get a bike fit from a professional fitter. I could tell you about all of the drills to improve your pedalling and cornering, but if your bike isn’t set up properly, it would all be a waste of time.

The keys to the bike fit start with making sure the fitter knows the type of races for which you’re training. A proper bike fit for a long-course race is a bit different than for a short course. The second area of focus is to make sure the fitter knows what your anatomy is all about. Do you have a tight lower back or hamstrings? Is one leg longer than the other? Do you have any nagging injuries? A good fitter will inquire about all of these and more, before making adjustments to your bike.

Efficient running

There are lots of things we could change about the average triathlete’s running technique, but most would have very little impact on economy. And there’s only one big rock here – foot placement at impact with the pavement. Watch efficient runners and you’ll see that they all do the same thing with their feet: they return them to the ground with a flat placement. Some place their feet with what might be called a ‘midfoot’ strike. Others land only slightly on the heel before immediately putting the entire foot down. A few even land on the ball of the foot before the heel touches down.

What do most age-group runners do? They land on the heel with their toes pointed toward the sky at a 30° angle. This is what you’d do if you were hitting the brakes. It means spending extra time in that spot. You can’t run fast this way because too much time is wasted doing a rocking chair movement from such an extreme heel-strike position to the toe-off.

The best way to improve this is to undertake a bit of barefoot running on grass. Another option is to use a pair of the lightest, least supportive shoes you can find. Reducing the amount of shoe on your foot will quickly teach you how proper running is done. Bear in mind that some people are more easily injured when minimalist running than others. The key is to start with what you know you can handle – even if it’s only a few minutes weekly.

In the base period, every workout you do in each sport should be focused on technique. You’re not just doing drills, you’re modifying your skills to become more efficient.

For more on Joe Friel’s training methods go to

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More by Joe Friel

Ironman success: the 3 crucial elements to improve
What’s the best bike cadence for Ironman?
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