Rethinking the Value of the Brick Run for Long Course Triathlon

author : Rich Strauss
comments : 3

How important are bricks for half and full Iron distance triathlons? Here is one coach's opinion.

Making improvements to your training approach is a critical annual exercise if you are looking to improve. As coaches, we perform the same review, although we have the benefit of looking at training and results from a detached perspective. And our top change for the 2012 season is a big one: we decided to eliminate brick workouts (aka running off the bike) as a “special” workout.

After years of reviewing results and the feedback of our athletes, customers, and comparing both with our own training and racing experience, we have come to the conclusion that brick workouts become less valuable as the distance of your goal race increases. In other words, they are more relevant to sprint triathlon training than your next Ironman.

Brick Workouts Have (Limited) Value for the Long Course Triathlete
Before we go further, let’s be clear that there is some value to running off the bike on tired legs.

Mental Value: Feel it, taste it, experience it so that your first experience with running off the bike isn’t on race day.

Pacing Value: Learning the disconnect between Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and Pace. You’ve just been pedaling a bike for hours and now you are running. It’s very common for you to feel like you’re running at 8:00 per mile pace, only to actually be running at 7:30 per mile pace or faster.

In addition, because everyone around you is running too fast, you are getting a lot of feedback that this “too fast” pace is the correct one. In fact you’ll most likely feel as though you’re not running fast enough!  A brick run will help you experience this disconnect without the pressure of a race. It will also build your confidence to run your pace vs the pace that everyone else is running in the first critical miles on race day.

“How Do I Get My Legs Back” Value: It’s important to learn how to adjust your running form in the first couple miles in order to get your running legs back. A few bricks can help you develop and refine your own strategy to achieve this.

Become a Faster Runner by Creating Opportunities to Run Faster on Fresher Legs
We define fitness as the ability to do work. The "work" referenced here is the effort required to propel you down the road on the run, up mountains on your bike, or across the pool. Increased fitness then is the capacity to do more work.

The purpose of every single workout is essentially to increase your capacity to do work, and it’s under this lens that the value of a brick workout quickly disappears. Simply put, very often a brick run for the long course triathlete is a relatively slow run on tired legs. We’ve learned that the best way to become a faster runner is to create more opportunities to run faster on fresher legs.

Long Course Running is about Race Execution First, Fitness Second
There is no doubt that long course triathletes are very fit people. They swim, bike, and run a LOT, and they are doing a LOT of brick runs. But the vast majority of long course triathletes are under-performing -- running slower than their potential -- on race day, especially at Ironman.

Our experience across thousands of Ironman and 70.3 finishes since 2007 says that the majority of the time, failure to run to your potential on race day is a race execution issue. This is accomplished by either riding or running too hard, especially in the early stages of each leg of the race.

  • The Bike:  Riding the first 45 to 90 minutes of the Half Ironman or the first two hours of the Ironman bike too hard, especially when hills and headwinds are present.
  • The Run:  Running too fast in the first three to four miles of the Half Ironman or the first six to eight miles of the Ironman.

Just stand on a random hill on any Ironman bike course and you’ll see the majority of the field crushing it, working much too hard. Next, stand at mile one of the run course -- you’ll think that the majority of the field is going to run a sub 3:30 marathon because there sure are a lot of folks running sub 8:00 miles. But then go out to mile 18 and you’ll see these same very, very fit people running dramatically slower.

Yet after the race, the discussion around under-performance turns away from strategy to fitness. This is because triathlon culture presents training and fitness as the answer to questions about speed and performance vs becoming a smarter, better executing long course triathlete.

Running Off the Bike is an Issue of Skill
As a triathlete fit enough to ride and run, you have no issue getting off of your bike and actually running. The challenge lies in being able to synchronize how you are working (input) with how fast you are actually running (output). One brick run where you realize that your actual pace is significantly faster than your perceived pace is enough to drive home the lesson.

For most, the initial transition about bike to run is about finding their running stride. Learning how to get from the funny post-bike leg feeling to a smooth running stride is an individual process that, once learned, is effectively ingrained in your brain.

While running with your proper form is more efficient, it’s not necessarily any faster than the early time you spent running off the bike (as that’s usually faster than desired). If anything, finding your “run legs” means settling down into a pace that’s appropriate for the race itself.

The Wrap Up
We realize that two triathlon coaches telling their athletes and readers to not run off the very unusual! We have reflected on what we’ve learned in our nearly 20 years of Ironman coaching, over 40 personal finishes, thousands of athletes coached and dozens of races observed.

In summary, we’ve learned :

  • The vast majority of the time, under-performing the run is the result of overcooking the bike or the first quarter to one third of the run.
  • If you want to run fast you need to create opportunities to run fast, on fresher legs, vs slowly on tired legs.

Rich is a co-founder of Endurance Nation

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date: January 26, 2012

Rich Strauss