For any triathlete, race day is the ultimate test of months of training and preparation. As with any other big test you’ll take, it’s helpful to quiz yourself along the way to check progress, identify areas for improvement and develop the confidence that you can pass the final exam. Week after week of workouts will surely improve your level of fitness, but in order to know exactly what you’re capable of on race day, it’s important to test that fitness a few times along the way.
Here are some running fitness-test workouts you can perform throughout the training cycle to ensure that you’ll pass with flying colors on race day.
Sprint and Olympic Distances
For shorter events such as sprint and Olympic-distance races, taking your workout to the track every few weeks is a precise way to practice running at goal pace, as well as get an accurate idea of how far your fitness level has come. Professional triathlete and two-time USA Triathlon U23 National Champion Ethan Brown regularly performs a session of repeat miles on the track within a month of peak races to get an idea of how his fitness has progressed throughout the season.
“The workout that gives me the best indication of my run fitness is probably 5 x 1 mile on the track with three minutes’ rest in between,” Brown says. “The idea is to descend the pace throughout the workout and go for best average. Because these are relatively short efforts, you need to have speed to post some fast times, but the fact that you’re doing five of them means it’s necessary to have a solid aerobic base.”
In the base phase of his training, Brown runs his intervals at about the pace he hopes to average for the full 10K distance later in the season. As his fitness progresses, those times will drop to around 10 seconds per mile faster than his goal race pace at a peak Olympic-distance event. When training for sprint distance races, Brown says the same principles apply but the number of intervals should be reduced. Running a session of 3 x 1 mile at goal race pace or slightly faster every few weeks will give you a good gauge of how your fitness has progressed and the confidence to run at goal pace on race day.
“If you can nail this workout you’re most likely fit enough to accomplish your goals on the run,” Brown says.
Half-Iron and Iron
As the race distance gets longer, your overall training volume will increase and the emphasis of your key run workouts changes as well. For the half-iron and iron distances, the long run becomes your most important run workout, and also the most telling of how fast you’ll be capable of running on race day. While tempo runs and interval work will help you feel fit, testing yourself from time to time in some of your longest sessions gives the best indication of how your specific endurance is progressing.
Caitlin Snow, 2008 Ironman Lake Placid champion, likes to use the data from her longest run sessions to assess how her training is coming along and to give herself the confidence that she’s ready to rip a good run off the bike.
“One of the key workouts that I do to check progress is a three-hour run split into two 90-minute sessions,” Snow says. “These are done at an aerobic pace with at least three hours in between. The second run is done off the bike, which is usually a two-hour easy spin. I use the correlation between the average heart rate and pace to infer progress.” Specifically, divide your average heart rate in beats per minute by your average speed in miles per hour. The smaller the resulting number is, the better your performance.
Snow performs this lengthy workout two to three times over the course of a training cycle, and also uses shorter versions of the same workout throughout the year when not focusing on longer distances.
“Physically, I’m pretty cooked when I’ve nailed this workout, but mentally I’m pumped,” Snow says. “It’s a tough workout that comes when we’re just about finished with the heavy training leading into Ironman—success in here really boosts the confidence leading into a big race.”
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