Marathons and Triathlon Training

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Question: Are marathons required, or even useful, for triathlon training, especially Ironman?

Rich Strauss: In general, as a training tool I answer with a loud no/not very and here is why:

  • I’m a triathlon coach
  • You are a triathlete = you want to swim, bike, and run faster
  • In my world:
    • Faster Bike = interval training creating higher watts/speed at threshold which are translated to faster cycling all distances once we put endurance under it.
    • Faster Run = Higher VDot number (per Jack Daniels methods for training with pace), creating faster HIM and IM run times once we put endurance under it.
  • Marathon training then creates some significant opportunity costs for the triathlete looking to become a faster triathlete
  1. At some point marathon training begins to compromise get-faster-on-the-bike training.
  2. Marathon training, in my experience, is not the best and most time efficient tool to make someone a faster runner, to lift their VDot. Stronger, more durable, can go longer…yes…but for me that’s what we do in the last 16wks or so before an IM. Before that we focus on making you faster.
  3. The net is that you don’t really get that much faster at either: your marathon training isn’t super great because you’ve still got your triathlete hat on = riding a bike, etc. And your bike doesn’t get much faster because you’re having to compromise your bike training because of all the marathon running you’re doing.
  • The significant accommodation/recovery hole punched into your schedule: 2wk taper on the front end, and the 3-4wks required to recover for a marathon on the back end. That’s a BIG 4-6wk “accommodation hole” which, depending on the time of year, distance from your race, etc, can be a total non-starter.

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Me, tri coach, says to you, triathlete, that’s NOT a good idea to do a marathon if your goal is to improve your triathlon times.

That said, this is all just a game, your fitness is a vehicle for doing cool stuff and, for you, maybe this marathon is just something you want to do. I totally get that. If you read all of the above and it makes sense…but you just gotta do the Podunk Marathon because you’re running with your twin sisters and dad will be there to watch…go for it! Just don’t expect it to help your tri-mojo, may likely hurt it, but if you’re cool with it, go for it. However, if you are going to run a marathon, I recommend taking off the tri-hat all together and just train for an run a very, very good marathon.

Or train for a marathon and run a half marathon instead, as the recovery cost of that course of action is MUCH smaller than doing the actual marathon.

This opportunity cost, accommodation hole conversation is one I’ve had with about a thousand athletes over the years, especially fast dudes/ettes racing Boston in route to Coeur d’Alene or IMLP. Just a bad idea, but I get it, and support them, when they still want to do it.

Rich Strauss

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Coach P

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  • Trevor Garson

    Just ran WDW Marathon (my first) in January during my off-season. I feel it made a better runner, gave me more confidence in my ability to go long and most importantly it was just something that I have always wanted to do. I agree that running a marathon isn't necessary or even all that helpful to being a triathlete, but I don't think triathlon should keep you from pursuing your fitness goals outside of triathlon.

  • TriJenn

    Thank EN. I was going to run a marathon about 2 months before IM FL, but now I can see why it is a bad idea. I didn't take into consideration the recovery time of 2-3 weeks which basically means that taper starts right after the Marathon. I wanted to do it to train my weakness, which is the run, but I think now I will just train for a spring Marathon using my IM training as my base.

  • George FAIR

    I just finished IMLP 3 weeks ago and I will say that training for a marathon and training for an ironman marathon are COMPLETELY different. I thought after doing a 4 hr marathon and qualifying for Boston that i would be ready for the IM marathon ..
    Wrong. What a shock at LP . Completely not what i expected. That 112 miles on the bike was brutal and no matter what i tried to do the legs would not let me.
    I will do it again only next time i train my legs to run tired. Something you have to learn to do

  • Jim O’Brien

    Thanks very much for the triathlete’s view of marathons. As a runner at heart, who has developed a serious triathlon habit, I offer the following observations:

    1. Tapering is not synonymous with “going into a coma.” I continue to run and train, just cut back a little bit to let the ordinary aches and pains die down, and build up a little extra body fat for use during the marathon;

    2. Four weeks to recover from a marathon is, as far as I can tell, an old wives tale. I’m 63, and I’ve done over 30 marathons, 12 of them at Boston. Yes, immediately after a marathon, I usually feel like I’ve been dropped down two flights of stairs in a burlap bag filled with 20 pound free weights. The next day, or two days after, tops, I’m back running.

    As far as triathlons (Sprint and Olympic distance so far), I give away 10 minutes to my competitors on the swim, generally stay even on the bike, and have to make up time on the run. I find that after a marathon I have some residual increase in endurance. Nothing is going to make me any faster at this point, unfortunately.

    • EN Blogger

      Jim, thanks for your input and your perspective. Recovery is totally unique to each person, and we have to speak in general terms here when writing for the masses. Comments like your really add depth and value. Thanks for participating!

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