Can you properly train for a running race during the tri season? With careful execution, here’s how to do it.
As compared to triathlons, standalone running races are not only fun and logistically easy, they can also serve as an opportunity to test your fitness or set PR’s in various run distances. A focus on one leg of triathlon, however, means there’s an inevitable give and take with the other two sports. It’s a tricky balance to target a running race while you also have triathlons looming, and you don’t want to become a better runner at the sake of underperforming as a triathlete.
The good news is that with proper planning, training for a running race may actually better your overall triathlon season. “Racing shorter distances can be very beneficial for triathlon because improvement will trickle down to better performances during the run legs of triathlon races,” says coach Bethany Rutledge, the Atlanta Triathlon Club coaching director and fitness program director for Energy Lab Fitness.
Set your schedule
There are two ways to look at your goals for a running race. Are you “training through” a 10K to use it as a fitness marker? Or are you targeting the race for a personal best?
Training through: You can jump in a local 5K or 10K and treat it like you would a normal “B” or “C” triathlon. Bake it into your schedule and run it at a hard (race simulation or tempo pace) but not all-out effort, and give yourself a little bit of time to recover without completely interrupting your training schedule for your “A” race.
PR: Schedule your running race at least 8–12 weeks away from your triathlon “A” race, especially for longer races (e.g., a marathon followed by a target 70.3). “The running race should be set up as part of your overall periodization goals to be completed no later than eight weeks prior to the most important race of the year,” says exercise physiologist Krista Austin, Ph.D. “If someone is working to bring up his run for the year, it is best to put in a significant run block the first five months of the cycle and then race primarily for the run. This training can then be used in conjunction with the bike and swim to peak for the primary ‘A’ race of the year for triathlon.”
How much do I swim and bike?
“It will depend on how much of the training volume will be replaced with running to help build the strength needed, especially for a marathon,” Austin says. She says most athletes need at least one aerobic bike and mixed threshold/VO2max workout to keep fitness. And although swimming depends on the amount of time between events and your background as an athlete—former collegiate swimmers can probably get away with putting the pool on the back burner versus adult-onset swimmers—she recommends most get at least three swim sessions per week to maintain feel for the water.
“Other considerations are usually just about mentally handling that your bike and swim will not be there when training for the primary run race unless you are already strong enough to run it off of your current run capabilities,” Austin says. Ask yourself honestly: Can you come to grips with the fact that your swim and bike fitness will be sacrificed in order to achieve your run goals?
Most importantly, schedule your swims and bikes to accommodate your hardest run days.
Bottom line: Prioritize
If you’re the type who would race every weekend if you could, be smart and pick the events you want to excel at most. “Overall, it’s important to be realistic and give yourself a bit more time to transition between event types than you think you’ll need,” Rutledge says. “If you want to race lots of events of different types—which is a good thing—you need to set priorities and pick a couple where you want to do your very best. For the rest of them, you can still try your hardest, but you might not have that extra gear to give.”
What about running a marathon in the off-season?
It’s a trickier prospect, according to Rutledge. “If folks want to run a marathon specifically to boost their tri training or experience what it feels like before an Ironman, then I normally try to dissuade them,” she says. “However, if their goal is primarily to do well at marathons and triathlons, or if they consider themselves to be primarily runners and then triathletes, then I relax my stance a bit. Certainly, marathon training can cut into your swim and bike prep, but at the end of the day nearly all of us are doing this for fun.”
Ideal sample schedule
- Feb. 15 half-marathon
- May 17 10K training race
- May 30 Ironman 70.3
- June 26 Ironman
NOT ideal schedule*
- April 13 Cannes International Triathlon
- April 21 Boston Marathon
- May 2 Ironman 70.3 St. George
*As realized by the author of this article
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