Skip to Content

Avoid Injury as a Triathlete with Proper Form and Technique

triathlon run technique and form to prevent injury

Triathlete’s Guide to Injury Prevention: Part III

Series written by Becky Arturo, doctor of physical therapy, certified strength & conditioning specialist, USAT triathlon coach, and RRCA running coach, in collaboration with Nick Fischer, board-certified sports dietitian, both of Weights and Plates Endurance

Another piece to the puzzle of decreasing injury risk in athletes requires us to take a look at your form and mechanics. See other posts in this series on optimizing your training plan, strength and mobility training, and nutrition and daily habits to prevent injury.

Swimming, biking, and running all require your body to go through highly repetitive movement patterns thousands of times in every training session. Making sure that you are moving safely and efficiently will help decrease the risk of tissue damage.

Swim Mechanics

pool swim drills for triathlon

Starting with swimming freestyle – while there is a lot of ground to cover in terms of technique, there are a few key elements to look for in terms of injury risk reduction.

First, let’s look at body position in the water. Finding an appropriate body position allows an athlete to find balance in the water. This means being in an elongated position from toes to fingertips, with the feet and hips afloat. 

Appropriate body position and balance in the water can decrease stress on the shoulder joints and allow for a smoother pull through the water. Having adequate core stability has a similar effect. 

A stable core will decrease “wiggling” in the water and keep the whole trunk rotating as one unit. This will in turn improve stroke efficiency and decrease shoulder stress. 

It’s of course also important to look at entry and catch positions. There are two main mechanical errors that I frequently see in the entry and catch that can lead to unnecessary shoulder stress. The first is to enter the water with your thumb too far away. 

Some coaches today still coach thumb first upon entry, while most have moved to “middle finger” / fingertips first. I’m not here to say who is right or wrong. However, entering with the arm rotated too far into the thumb first position does put excess stress on the shoulder joint and sets you up for a poorly aligned stroke. 

The second main injury-provoking error, which most triathletes have probably heard of, is crossing the midline at the top of your stroke. This also increases undue shoulder pressure.

Bike Mechanics

bike mechanics to prevent injury

Moving on to the bike. A lot of mechanical problems on the bike can be addressed with a proper bike fit and adequate joint mobility as discussed above. Nonetheless, the two mechanical things I look for in cyclists after bike fittings have been completed have to do with the pedal stroke. 

First, I like to see a clean circle with your knee staying in one line, without a lot of side-to-side motion. If you have ever seen someone who frequently hits their top tube with their knee or thigh, then you know what I’m talking about. 

This is just an inefficient pedal stroke with increased stress on the outside of the hip, inside of the knee and potentially translating down to the ankle. I also look to see a smooth pedal stroke in general. 

Clean circles that start with a push from the top and end with a scoop through the bottom are much smoother and more efficient, thus decreasing risk of overuse injury to muscles and tendons.

Run Mechanics

run mechanics footstrike

Last, let’s take a look at the run. I’m going to start by mentioning that everyone’s running mechanics are a little bit different, and there is no single set-in-stone perfect way to run. Every foot strike pattern comes with its own pros and cons. 

You are more likely to injure yourself by changing your foot strike pattern after building mileage and tissue resistance to one pattern than you are to cause injury by sticking with the same foot strike and working on other factors. 

Nonetheless, as with swimming, there are a few common mechanical errors that have higher associations with injury. My big 3 are overstriding, hip drop during midstance and cross-over effect. 

Overstriding

overstriding running injury

Overstriding is just as it sounds. We like to see athletes landing close to directly under their center of mass. However, many athletes overreach their foot contact, which increases ground reaction force up the shin into the knee. 

This can be associated with many different injuries, but the runner’s knee and stress reactions in the shin are the most common. 

While many athletes can be resistant to this idea due to hearing they should open up their stride, the power of your run and increased stride length actually comes from a greater push-off from your calf muscles and being able to transfer that energy up the chain for forward propulsion. In other words, you can increase your stride length and still land safely underneath your center of mass. 

Hip Drop

Hip drop during midstance is another one of the most common mechanical errors seen in the running gait that can lead to injury. This is often due to glute weakness/fatigue or due to a lack of neuromuscular awareness of the necessary muscular activation. 

This hip drop can lead to excessive stress on the outside of the hip, thigh, and knee. It is associated with a multitude of injuries, such as hip bursitis, ITB syndrome, runner’s knee, low back pain, and even injuries down at the foot and ankle. 

This hip drop is associated with a position called dynamic knee valgus, in which the hip internally rotates, the knee collapses inward, and the foot falls into excessive pronation. 

Valgus Knee

While knee valgus isn’t a terrible position in the real world, it is not an ideal position to fall into on repeat in your running gait. The below images demonstrate both excessive hip drop and dynamic knee valgus, and appropriate mid-stance positions.

triathlon running form hip-drop and knee valgus

The last mechanical running form error I want to mention is the “crossover effect”. As it sounds, this is when your feet cross over one another. Ideally, I want to see athletes running as if they are running with one foot on the opposite side of a line. 

However, it’s not uncommon to see people running as if they are going along a tightrope. This decreases the biomechanical advantage of your glutes because they have to work harder to stabilize the chain. 

Try standing on one leg, starting with your foot under you at slightly less than hip-width. Now, try standing on one leg starting with your foot crossing your midline. This will likely increase the above-mentioned hip drop position and put excess stress on the outside of your hip, thigh, and knee.

Takeaway

Triathlon Run Form

In terms of both injury prevention and performance enhancement, working on your running economy can go a long way. Use running drills as part of your warm-ups for harder workouts, and incorporate some sport-specific training in the gym. 

Along with the single-leg training activities mentioned above, training in the “triple extension” position, or extension at your hip, knee, and ankle, can improve your running economy. 

Resisted lunge drives to a block or bench, resisted hip flexion with a band on your toes and power step-ups are all exercises to consider using to improve running economy.

More From This Series

Becky Arturo
Becky Arturo
Endurance Coach, Physical Therapist at Weights and Plates Endurance | Website

Becky Arturo is the co-founder of Weights and Plates Endurance Coaching. Becky Arturo received her doctorate degree in physical therapy and started practicing as a sports and orthopedic physical therapist in 2019. She is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a USA Triathlon certified coach. Learn more about Becky