When To Go Big With Your Triathlon Running

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Grand Raid des Pyrénées photo A.Begay
photo credit: akunamatata

In a previous post we outlined our recommended means of building run fitness across a triathlon season by emphasizing the importance of building fast over far. If you read that article, then you learned about the hidden cost of volume, velocity vs volume, and the importance of benchmarking. Or perhaps you have reviewed our online training manual (free, here) and seen how we build a season.

And if you are a follower of our blog, then you know we think running a marathon in the off season is one of the biggest multisport sins an aspiring triathlete can make.

This raises the inevitable question: At what point in your year can you actually go long with your running to get better?

Here are some macro level pointers on how we suggest you proceed.

1 — Separate Running from Your Triathlon Training

You can’t just add more running your triathlon training program and expect to see results. You’ll see change for sure, but most of those improvements will be short-term. Other deltas will most likely include sub-par cycling performance and increase levels of mental and physical fatigue.

Start the cycle off right by taking a training break before becoming a runner. Starting a major run block just two weeks after your last race is a recipe for trouble.

At the same time, we encourage you to leave the “Fast then Far” mentality behind for this run focused block. As you’ll only be running, you’ll have plenty of time to rack up the miles and hours. More time spent training means the intensity must come down if you are to absorb it all.

Instead of two hard runs (out of four) in a week, this might mean cutting back to just one short interval run at threshold pace (5 x 3 minutes at Threshold with 2 minutes of rest after each, for example) with the remainder of your runs done in zones 1 and 2. Or perhaps you hold the intensity for the latter stages of your program; maybe you skip it entirely. Only you know what’s best.

2 — Define Yourself As A Runner

Part of the separation process listed above is about finding your own identity as a runner. The running game is different than triathlon in that the type of recovery required is significantly more intensive. The fueling needs are different, both within your workouts and across your day. Take the time to find this niche, as what you think you’ll need (when you start) will ultimately be different than what you’ll actually need (as you evolve).

You should also consider a review of your running technique. After all, if you are going to spend 100% of your exercise time doing one thing, you want to be good at that thing! There are tons of resources available online, from clinics to coaches, from DVDs to mp3s. Explore what resonates for you and spend some quality early time building your new skill sets.

3 — Conservatively & Consistently Conquer Volume

A mouthful for sure, but if you can remember the mantra you’ll be much better off. As a “new” runner the temptation will be there to cook yourself. Road races outnumber triathlons as much as 8:1 in most areas, meaning you’ll have weekday and weekend options to put the hammer down. Resist.

Start your new program with the same number of runs you’ve been doing as a triathlete. Add time to each run then condense that time into a new daily run; then repeat. Good running form is like wine, the longer you give it, the more robust it will be. Once you have been at the new running game for 6-8 weeks, you can begin thinking about doing some longer runs. By longer I mean anything over 90 minutes.

Try not to go crazy. The average triathlete, regardless of goal race distance, spends anywhere from 8 to 14 hours a week training across all three disciplines. By comparison, a high volume running week doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s tempting to add more to the mix. For someone who averages 8:30/miles, putting in a 50 mile week is only a seven hour undertaking.

4 — Pick A Goal, Not A Race

It’s easy to drop a marathon on calendar in five months, it’s another thing to train for it. All of a sudden you’ll have a goal time and a goal pace. Next thing you know, you are measuring every run against those metrics. Before too long you are burned out and the run project’s a bust.

Instead of just racing, choose non-performance related goals that are consistent with your new approach to running. Maybe aim for a 30-days/30-runs challenge; or maybe try to run a set number of miles for a set number of days (8 miles a day for 8 days). Perhaps there’s a local hill you want to conquer or maybe you want to explore every trail option in the nearby state park. Whatever your goal, make it both challenging and fun.

There’s nothing to stop you from jumping into a race on short notice should things work out, but don’t let it be the carrot/stick that gets you going.

Here’s a quick snapshot of how an Ironman® athlete might proceed with a four month run-focused block of training. In this case the athlete builds from four weekly runs with a max duration of 60 minutes for the longest run up to six weekly runs topping out at 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s assumed that the individual runs will increase in duration each week, save for every fourth week where the volume cuts back a bit to allow for some recovery.

Per the guidance above, this runner doesn’t get really serious about long distance work until after 8 weeks, and any major volume goals (or racing) wouldn’t really happen until that last block.

Week # of Runs Longest Run Goal(s)
1 4 60 mins Easy start.
2 4 65 mins Add time, but conservatively.
3 5 70 mins Add one more run, cut times off all runs to compensate.
4 5 75 mins Recover, consolidate.
5 6 80 mins Bump to six runs.
6 5 90 mins Cut back but add volume.
7 6 90 mins Keep volume & add 6th run back in.
8 5 90 mins Recover, consolidate.
9 6 105 mins Move to longer runs.
10 6 120 mins Continue longer runs.
11 6 140 mins Longest run reached.
12 5 90 mins Recover, consolidate.
13 6 120 mins Long runs with hills.
14 6 140 mins Biggest week #1.
15 6 120 mins Long runs with hills.
16 5 140 mins Biggest week #2.


Coach P

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