“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours” says Forest Gump, “and then I stopped.” Running is the basis of most land sports. Some people train by running sprints and others with longer distances. Forest did both. However, regardless of the sport you do, running in some way usually matters. Being a triathlete requires a focus on running (as well as swimming and cycling) because it makes up about 30-35% of your effort for almost any race distance.
Today’s athletic culture has added weights for all around strength with CrossFit and Spartan type races now being the flavor of the day. The best philosophy for overall fitness is everything in moderation. However, this type of training makes you fit and moderately good at many things, but not exceptional at anything specific. If you want to improve your triathlon performance, you need to train specifically for the distance you are competing at. This is critical in endurance events when races can last from 1+ hour for a sprint up to a seventeen-hour cutoff for Ironman. It would be nice to get in peak shape doing something for the shortest possible time but this isn’t the case for triathlon or any of the three disciplines that make up the sport. The key to any repeatable action is to do it as long as possible until your form deteriorates. Once it gets sloppy, you should no longer continue with the activity because it creates bad habits. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do long runs or “Brick” runs, but to build them up slowly over months so that you can cover the distance with good form. There is no sport or skill that I know of where less is better because repetition builds power and speed if you train properly. However, you can only throw so many pitches or hit so many balls before your arm has issues. Similarly, the problem with running is that you can only do intensity or long distance runs every so often before two things happen:
- You get hurt
- You no longer improve
The way to eventually get faster is to add distance to your intensity so that you can stay faster, for longer. Even 100 meter runners run a decent amount of miles (30+) and some 1500-5000 meter runners run 100 miles a week. Running on its own has the potential to work in a way where “less is more” if your plan is precise and followed correctly.
As I have discussed on a number of occasions with the 3X3 Training Plan construct, a basic run portion of your triathlon training should consist of 3 runs per week. One run at 45 minutes, 1 run for an hour and another for 75-90 minutes for all distances other than Ironman. This will cover a shorter fast (Intense) run, a middle distance (Base) run and a longer Endurance (Build) run. If you can add additional Base running you should be that much better of a runner and triathlete. There is a distinct difference between running as a solo sport and running in a triathlon. A triathlete is required to start the run portion of the race in a fatigued state with about 65-70% of the event (time-wise) already completed. This would be similar to running a much longer stand-alone run distance like a half or full marathon. With the run portion of the race being last, it often takes place at the hottest portion of the day. This alone takes special training and athletes should make it a point to do at least one of their weekly runs in the midday time period.
I would be the first to say that running a marathon is not ideal for most people because the training to complete the race is often why athletes get injured--not during the race itself. Week after week of training, especially long runs, often causes injury and the runner doesn’t make it to the start line. In this case, more is not better because too much for too long eventually creates overuse injuries at some time in the training program. However, the counter to that is in order to get faster a runner must develop physiological changes by putting the body through physical stress. Although every athlete is different, a standard rule is around 40 plus miles per week to be considered an adequate foundation. Then and only then can you add more miles each week to a point that you eventually don’t improve. The stronger your base, the more endurance you have which is evident with better capillary development which in turn allows more blood to flow and increased cardio output. Keep in mind that the best runners in the world are running 120-160 miles per week to be at such a high level. In fact their taper weeks of limited volume is about 40 miles and most triathletes don’t hit that mark on their biggest weeks. A big reason for this is that trying to juggle three distinct sports is time consuming in itself but it also means you don’t need the volume of a single sport athlete. Always know that the heart doesn’t know what event you’re doing, just that you are doing something. A proper rotation of swim, bike and run training will ensure that you are getting sessions in on a regular basis but not over doing any single sport.
In your training world, look at a single run session per day to 4-5 times per week along with your other workout sessions. In the end it is all about consistency. Build a base, refine it and maintain. Then recover and build more. In any case, the most important thing is to do as much as possible but stay injury free. It is better to have a lifetime of something then a short term action. This may be contrary to Neil Young’s famous lyrics, because as far as running goes, it’s NOT BETTER to burn out then fade away.
By Doug Marocco
Doug is a 9X Hawaii Ironman finisher and a former USA Age Group National Champion who likes to work out (a lot).