Vicky Holland: how to train for a faster run

We join 2018 ITU world champ Vicky Holland on the track as she shares her strategy for refining her run

Credit: ITU

To understand the rewards for persistency in endurance sport, look no further than the 2018 women’s ITU World Triathlon Series champion Vicky Holland. Her impressive résumé also includes Olympic and Commonwealth medals, but it’s the incremental improvement season by season that’s to be most admired.


“Everyone wants to be the teenage sensation,” says Holland, 33. “No one wants to be the girl who plugs away and gets there in her thirties but I’m proud it’s gone that way for me; that I wasn’t someone to whom success came easy. I’ve had an unbelievable career, really, and when it ends I’ll look back and say ‘I’ve done alright’.”

With the need for speed in her 33-year-old legs greater than ever, 220 caught up with Holland for a track session held by her sponsors Polar, to find out what training secrets we could glean to conquer the all-important run…

How to hone your run technique

Develop knee drive

I can look as if I’m pogoing when running, and it’s more apparent the longer the race goes on and the more tired I become. Because I’m quite a bouncy runner by nature, my tendency can be not to lift my knees. But with a better knee drive, I can use that bounce to extend my stride. To improve this, we focus training on simple high knees drills before transitioning into strides and bounds.

Pump those arms

There are two parts to this. The first is stopping my elbows sliding too wide so I’m not running like a drummer with my arms moving laterally – that won’t help my stride length. The second is extending the arm drive for a greater twist through the torso, which elicits a greater stride length. I can look quite rigid when I run, so I use a lot of video feedback that allows me to take an objective look, especially when I’m running hard.

Lower the shoulders

My shoulders, upper part of my back and neck have always been the tightest parts of my body and I’m constantly working on them with my physio, particularly in relation to rotation when swimming. My shoulders can creep up around my ears as fatigue hits and that’s something I have to be careful of. To counteract it, I concentrate on pulling my shoulder blades down and in to improve posture. It’s hard to think about technique in a race as there’s so much going on, so I also use aid stations on the run as a cue to reset.

How to increase your run speed

Get on track

I love track running. It’s my favourite type of training and sharpens my speed for racing, but it’s also the easiest place
to get injured. I don’t do it through the winter, although I did put in a tiny amount of track work before Abu Dhabi so as not to turn up like a rusty old diesel engine. My first session will just be a taster of strides for familiarisation. I’ll then split running half-and-half between road and track, before gradually moving fully to track as I progress into the season.

Go really hard

I’ve adopted a polarised training programme from Leeds so all my track sessions are relatively short – 4-5km
in total – and all well above race pace. Many triathletes tend to train more in race-specific zones, but we go over and above. I run 400m reps in 67-68secs and 1km reps as close to 3min/km as possible. It helps generate speed for race day and an ability to flush lactic acid only accumulated at those speeds. It’s also the best type of training to develop running mechanics under pressure, which ultimately I need for the race.

Limit injury

Introducing fast running means being wary of niggles. To minimise the risk, I build up the intensity session by session. There are also plyometric-based drills we do year-round, including foot stability and balance work to make sure the whole kinetic chain is robust. It could be something as simple as ‘pogos’ – jumping on the spot spending minimal time in contact with the ground and trying to improve hang time in the air.

Holland’s key run set

Warm-up 15mins jogging; 5-10mins of activation exercises, followed by 10 sets of high knees and hamstring pistons transitioning into strides of approx. 80m.

Main set 5 x 800m trying for best pace with 200m jog recovery.

Cool-down 10-15mins jogging, followed by stretching focused on calves and hip flexors.

This session was the last one I did before the Rio Olympics in 2016. I started at 2:26mins per 800m and dropped to 2:21mins by the final effort. It was significantly faster than I’d been previously, and I knew I was ready to go.

How to master your run pacing

Straight out of T2

Most triathletes can relate to that feeling of jelly legs and feeling a bit spaced out when starting the run leg. I know I’ll feel rubbish for a good 90-120secs. The key is to concentrate on leg turnover. If I feel I
might be building up lactic acid then I’m going too hard, too soon – I shouldn’t be that stressed yet. At this point I want to feel relaxed and in control. If I’m flowing nicely here, it’s a determining factor for later in the run.

Learning to go on feel

I don’t wear my Polar during the race, but I’m used to knowing what my pace feels like from training. Over 10km, if I don’t reach 6km feeling within myself it’s going to be a long way home. I know when I’m pushing too hard. If I relate back to the Grand Final in Gold Coast [where Vicky won the world title], I knew the first lap was out of control. I dropped off the pace on lap two, but didn’t go so far into the red that I couldn’t regroup. I could then sustain my pace and pick it up again towards the end.

Effort, not pace

On a hilly course, undulations will change your speed, but don’t panic. Instead, concern yourself with gauging effort
not pace. Also understand that you’ll go slightly higher into your heart rate zones when running up a hill, but accept that it’s okay because there’ll be a downhill coming where you can recover and use
the free energy of the descent.

Target the negative split

Always try to negative split a 10km [running the second 5km faster than the first] as that way you’ll have more chance of at least even-splitting. Inevitably, especially in elite racing, triathletes go out hell for leather on lap one and gradually deteriorate. I much prefer 10km because you can overtake so many people at the end of the race if you’ve paced yourself well in the first half. But even over 5km in Abu Dhabi, I ran way better in the final 1,500m and picked off four people. It makes a massive difference in both points and prize money.

How to use the tech for success

Stay in the zone

My Polar watch is always on my wrist when training and it’s key to helping me stay in the correct heart rate zone for the session. It’s especially true on easy days, where the tendency is to go too hard because you want to be in that sweet spot where you feel great after a session. Don’t be afraid to go easy; the reality is that there’s probably no physiological benefit to pushing slightly harder. My heart rate in the easy zone is 135-145 beats per minute, under 70% of maximum.

Prioritise recovery

Tech can be really helpful in monitoring recovery, and one simple way is through measuring resting heart rate. I track it over a long period of time for the best indicator of whether I’m a little rundown or if there’s an underlying illness brewing. I work on 10% higher than normal being a warning so, because my resting heart rate is low (usually 36-37bpm), that means a variation of only 3-4 beats. If it starts heading up towards 50 then that’s definitely not okay and means bad times for me.

Don’t do too much, too soon


The activity tracker on the Polar records how much daily activity I do over a long period of time and then adjusts and instructs accordingly. If I’ve had a really big training day, it will have gone way over my targeted amount and I know I need to be careful for the next couple of days and not increase the load. Otherwise there’s a higher risk of injury or illness.

Vicky Holland’s top tips for injury-free racing