A Season of Triathlon Running Fitness

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photo credit: andy_carter

The run portion of a triathlon has the highest risk/reward ratio on race day. Go out too hard, even slightly, and you risk a sub-par finish. Run training is really no different; if you are going to get injured or burned out, it’s most likely going to be because of the run.

This is partly due to the high-impact / high-cost nature of running, but also to the fact that most triathletes choose to throw more running at their running problem. Race day fade? Need to run more. Cramps? Must not have run enough. Indigestion? Need to practice running longer and eating more.

When it comes to running, however, more running isn’t always better. The best ways to improve involve training at the proper intensity, at the proper time, and staying healthy season after season so as to keep building your progress. Let’s take a look at how we structure your season to put your run training into better focus.

Macro Level Focus

The Hidden Cost of Volume
We all know that a large amount of even generically aerobic training will have an effect on your fitness; it’s just that most age-group triathletes don’t have the time. But this is not 100% true for  running. Even a high-end marathon program will max out at 10 hours a week of running time, which is very manageable. This means that within the Ironman® or 70.3® context, it’s easy for triathletes to exceed what I consider to be a sustainable amount of aerobic mileage. Even Zone 1 or Zone 2 runs, considered easy by most, come with a significant physical cost.

Velocity vs Volume
Inside Endurance Nation we leverage intensity to create larger training stress in a shorter period of time. We can recreate adaptations that might take 1.5 or 2 hours of long slow distance in shorter runs at a higher intensity. Even more importantly, we have realized the value in improving the pace you can sustain at your running threshold. If I can take your 5k time from 20:00 to 18:00, you can bet that your half marathon and marathon times will have improved…perhaps not equally, but the fitness gains are undeniable.

Benchmark & Verify

But we don’t just go out and run hard all the time, despite what the detractors say. We use the 5k test to make sure that we are not only getting fitter (which everyone thinks about) but to make sure we are training at the appropriate paces (what the coaches think about). Up or down vDOT doesn’t matter so much to me as knowing you have the right vDOT.

But 5Ks aren’t enough; we also can incorporate 10k and half marathon results to fine tune our vDOT for longer distances. After all, some of us are simply better 5K runners while others of us have a long history of running – we might have a 5k vDOT difference of 2 points but run very similar times on race day (all other execution and fitness factors being equal). As you exit the OutSeason® then, you will do some open running races and we recommend you use those longer event times to calculate vDOT values that will be more appropriate to race day.

Micro Level Focus

Okay, enough of the big picture stuff. Let’s get into what this looks like across your season.

Out-Season Phase
This is the time of year when you do your hardest running, period. Whether it’s on the treadmill, indoor track or outside, you will be putting in some seriously hard work. We can do this since your total training week is only 6-8 hours, with running constituting about 50% of that number (more like 40%)…in other words you have PLENTY of time to recover from this work.

The actual blocks (as of 2010) are laid out as 8 weeks of threshold, 6 weeks of VO2 work, and  then back to threshold work for the last 6 weeks. As the weeks progress, the long run starts creeping up there so you are ostensibly ready to run a half marathon by the end of the OS.

Anywhere between weeks 14-20 you should set your highest 5K vDOT of the season.

Transition Phase
There should be zero running here, or at least zero running with vDOT thoughts. If anything, you will lose a bit of your high-end fitness at this point, but that’s totally okay. In our world, we’d prefer you take a step back on purpose, knowing you can come back stronger…than to be forced to take downtime at a later period that could really affect your race build up.

General Preparation Phase
If you have General Prep on your schedule, this is the time when you start to put some more miles on your legs. The overall interval sessions drop to really just one day, although the focus on intensity remains in place.

For Ironman® athletes, this means z4 / Threshold Pace intervals balanced with z2 hard efforts on your longer runs. This will set you up to run z1/LRP on race day. For Half Ironman® athletes, this means  z4 / Threshold Pace intervals balanced with z3 hard efforts on your longer runs. This will set you up to run z2 / Marathon Pace on your race day.

Race Preparation Phase

The last 12 weeks to race are what we consider to be “race prep.” During this time we try to make all of your training as event specific as possible. This is where the run volume will really go up, and your ability to hit all the intervals isn’t necessarily as important as getting all the running in (even if at lesser intensities). We fully support you backing off the “work” if that means you’ll be healthy on race day: health and 95% fit beats 100% fit but only 95% healthy any day!

We do our best to offset all of this work by working with frequency to up the total time spent running (instead of two long runs or a mega-long run each week); but regardless your fatigue will be high. And it will be more more evident than on the run.

Your last long run is about 2.5 to 3 weeks out, with the last run of any substantial volume coming no closer than 10 days out.

Our focus in on quality, not quantity, although you can see that there is a lot of good work to be done between day one and race day. Manage your fitness, keep your expectations in check, and you will be ready to rock come race day!


Coach P

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