Run Your Next Personal Best: Triathlon Edition

by Jason Fitzgerald

2011 is the Year of the PR – have you run faster than ever yet?

If not, there’s still time. But to do something you’ve never done before, you have to do something you’ve never done before: better workouts, longer long runs, smarter training, or even training for a triathlon.

Most runners are hesitant to reduce their running and start biking and swimming. But triathlon training is a powerful tool to help your running. You can increase your endurance, reduce your risk of injury, have more fun, and reinvigorate your training.

I spent three months doing triathlon-specific workouts and my running improved dramatically while running half the mileage. Cycling and swimming build a general endurance base that, when used properly, can help you run faster when you go back full-time to running.

Triathlon Training For Your Next PR

How to Train for Your First Triathlon

I reached out to Coach Patrick McCrann for newbie triathlete advice. Patrick is an Ironman finisher, Boston Marathon qualifier, and the author of Competitive Triathlon in 10 Hours a Week.

I asked: ”If a runner wants to make a triathlon debut, what 2-3 key principles should she keep in mind?”

Coach Patrick:

Most runners come to triathlon because they have to, not because they want to. Sidelined by an injury or recurring problem, these hard-core folks take up cycling as an alternative activity and soon find that they love flying down the road 3 or 4 times faster than they can run. From there it’s only a short leap to adding swimming and before you know it, they have caught the triathlon bug.

Along the way, these runners begin to realize the value of longer aerobic sessions that don’t require pavement pounding. Their fitness improves, they recover faster and they thrive in a diverse workout environment. Don’t wait for disaster to strike to explore triathlon and expand your running fitness. Here are some things to consider as you explore the local tri-scene.

#1 – The Compound Effect of Training

As a runner, you are used to lacing up your kicks and heading out daily to earn your miles. As a triathlete, you’ll be cycling and swimming in addition to running. Don’t make the mistake of adding these other workouts on top of your existing running plan — that will only lead to burn out or potential injury. Try to strike a balance by dividing your week between all of the disciplines.

An example would be 3 x runs, 3 x bikes, 2 x swims. It’s more working out than you’ll do in an average running week, but it’ll feel like less. Trust the plan and put your extra energy into improving your swimming and cycling skills.

#2 – Run Frequency Trumps Volume

Since triathlon is a fun stop along the path of your larger running career, you don’t want to lose any of your specific running fitness. And you don’t have to if you structure your training according to the frequency principle: more frequent, shorter workouts are more beneficial than longer sessions that require more recovery.

An easy way to add frequency to your triathlon week is to include “brick” workouts. These workouts are a combination bike and run session, with the bulk of the workout being on the bike. Simply have your running gear accessible and make the quick switch when you get back home. Even a 15 minute run is enough to do the trick, although you can run up to 30 minutes depending on your racing and workout goals.

By transforming your three weekly bikes into brick sessions, you now have a total of six runs in your week — just at far less volume.

#3 – Keep Your Endurance with One Weekly Session

If you are a long-distance runner with half-marathon or marathon goals, you can do triathlon and still keep that endurance. Instead of worrying about two longer sessions, simply focus your long run into a once weekly session. Here a long run of 75 to 90 minutes will be sufficient to maintain your running endurance, and odds are you’ll only need one day off (or a swim-only day) to recover. The best part is this single session will allow you to transition quickly back to running long if your schedule requires such a switch.

My next question for Coach Patrick: “How can triathlon training improve a running race?”

Coach Patrick:

I think triathlon training forces you to constantly monitor and care for your energy stores; some days you got it and some days you don’t. This self-monitoring skill is a critical part of being a successful racer in any discipline.  For some it’s pacing, while for others it’s nutrition. At the end of the day, your triathlon toolkit will most certainly make you a better racer!

Triathlon Training Tips and Tricks

From my own admittedly limited (but successful) triathlon career, there are some training strategies that you can implement to get the most from your tri training.

Pay attention to total training time, not just the time spent in any one discipline. If you usually run 25 miles per week at 9 minute mile pace that’s 3:45 of total time spent doing aerobic exercise. When you’re training for a triathlon, you can afford to do more than this because biking and swimming are non-impact exercises. You’ll get a lot stronger too!

Strength and flexibility exercises are still important. Just because you’re running less and putting your body through a lot less impact does not mean you can skimp on strength work. Developing a base of general fitness and progressing to more difficult strength work throughout your triathlon season will help you avoid injuries and become a better athlete.

Work on your swimming technique. Too many first-time swimmers ignore this golden rule and thrash around in the pool for an hour without having a clear training goal. You can decrease your effort and increase your speed by learning to be more efficient in the water.

Maintain quality runs during a triathlon training cycle. Fewer of your runs should be maintenance runs that are at an easy pace (unless they’re part of a brick workout). Maintain your fitness by going long once a week and including faster paced running on your other running days.

On race day, don’t fear the swim start. It can get hectic but learn how to tackle an open water swim before the race so you’re more experienced. With a few swims in open water you’ll be ready to start your first triathlon. Breathe and stay calm!

A BIG THANKS to Patrick McCrann for helping me out on this article. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of spending time in a triathlon training period and it’s something I recommend for almost every runner.

Patrick is also one of the head triathlon coaches for Endurance Nation, a community of triathletes that race full and half Ironmen races around the country. He has written Competitive Triathlon in 10 Hours a Week for those who want a triathlon training program.

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{ 2 comments }

Canadian

I am hoping to do a sprint triathlon in mid-August. To that end I have been taking a swim class once a week (to make sure my technique’s okay), as well as swimming on my own to build endurance. I am also biking to work when the weather permits. And I still run three times a week. I am confident I can complete the triathlon, though I’d like to be faster than I currently am (to be assured to not finishing last!), and I haven’t yet done any bricks or practiced the transitions.

What I am wondering though is whether training for a mid-August triathlon is compatible with training for a half-marathon in late September… I know you can train for a HM on 3 runs a week (as per FIRST). But do I have to taper/recover from a triathlon, and would that interfere with my HM training?

Fitz

I think that you can train for both and still be successful. After your triathlon, you could take a few days of recovery (if you need it) and then transition into more specific half-marathon prep. But I’d recommend against only 3 days of running for a HM – 4 would be a minimum in my view.

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