By Mike Ricci, USAT Level III Elite CoachD3 Multisport.com
A long time ago, way, way, way back in the early days of triathlon, a group of pioneers were out on their bikes riding along the California coast. Among these pioneers was Mike Plant who went on to write one of the most famous triathlon books called "Iron Will." (If you haven’t picked this up, I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy and read it from cover to cover. It will motivate you, inspire and put some fear into you. And those are all good things.) On this one day, Mike mentioned he was going to run after his bike ride, and added that running after the bike was 'just another brick in the wall.' What Mr. Plant meant was that it was part of the training to become a better triathlete and to get your run legs ready for the rigors of the run after the bike in a triathlon. Somehow that ‘brick in the wall’ phrase was translated to a ‘brick run’ and then finally we have the modern day term of 'brick.'
"Did you brick it today?"
"How was your brick?"
"How long was your brick?"
And as triathletes, we know that the reference is to the 'run off the bike.' Pretty neat history of sport if you ask me.
As a long time coach of triathletes and an even a longer participant of the sport, I can you tell with certainty that bricks are essential to your development as a triathlete. It’s one of THE most important parts of training that you should be doing. Can you get by without doing them? Absolutely. Would you run better and stronger if you included them in your training? Absolutely.
When we think about running off the bike, we always compare how much differential there is between your ‘open’ run times and your ‘brick’ run times. If you can run within a certain % of your open times you are doing pretty well. We can run all the track workouts, long runs, and tempo runs we like, and in the end we do these workouts to run faster off the bike. But in reality, there is nothing fast about running off the bike. For example, Chris McCormack recently ran 31:00 for a 10k at an ITU race. That’s five minutes per mile. When Macca runs off the bike at Kona, he is running 2:42-2:45, which is 6:10 per mile. Even Macca would tell you, in relative terms, that’s a pretty slow pace. What is the limiter for even someone like Macca on the run? It’s strength. It’s not being able to run 5:30 for 26.2 miles in a row. So, as an age grouper with about 5-20 hours a week to train, shouldn’t you be running off the bike to help your strength? Absolutely!
No matter what level of athlete you are, bricks are important. You will never run with fresh legs off the bike, and I don’t see the point (other than high quality track workouts), of running during the week with fresh legs. That defeats the entire purpose of training and allows you to run with a false sense of security.
Here are a few examples of the importance of bricks. Currently I am coaching the University of Colorado Triathlon team. The team has been successful over the last few years winning the National Collegiate title from 2010 through 2012. We have around 60 athletes who race in our regional race and each year we approach the race in the same manner, with athletes performing multiple bricks, week after week, on tired legs. As we get closer to this race, we add in a track workout on Sunday, which is run at a slightly faster than race pace. Some weeks are very hard, while others are a bit milder. Not a week goes by that we aren’t running off the bike at least two times per week. Do I think we’d run faster if we stopped doing bricks week after week? Of course not! We have some of the fastest runners every year at Collegiate Nationals. Yes, they have talent, and yes they work hard, but they are prepared to run well off the bike. Part of this is running off the bike often and sometimes quickly.
In another example, last season I was coaching a competitive age grouper with 20+ years of triathlon experience who hadn’t done bricks in years. We added in two to three bricks per week and his run time off the bike dropped substantially, to the point where he was placing top three overall at a few sprint races - just missing the overall win by seconds both times. He was running faster and it was in part due to the consistency of bricks in his program. All of his weekly runs, but one, were off the bike. Is this a coincidence that he improved his run off the bike? Personally, I don’t think so.
I think you’d be hard pressed to show data that proves not running off the bike helps you run faster.
There are many variations of bricks and we’ll go through a few here for each distance:
Admittedly, I’ve tried different approaches to training and nutrition over my twenty years of coaching. What I did ten years ago, I wouldn’t do now, and what I’m doing now, I probably won’t do in another ten years.
There have been a few constants that I’ve stuck with over the years with regard to long distance bricks. I don’t have my athletes do many of them, but I do have them practice a couple to see where their fitness, pacing, and nutrition IQ is relative to where they should be.
Most bad decisions on race day (e.g., I’ll skip this aid station) are nutrition related. If the first time you experience what it’s like to have low blood sugar and to make bad decisions is on race day, you are not going to have a good experience if you don’t know how to handle it. I can repeat this to you until I’m blue in the face, but until you experience it, you’ll never know. Obviously, I put a lot of importance on getting in a few longer bricks so you can understand what your body needs late in the race, when things start to go haywire.
For an athlete that’s racing a 12 hour (or more) iron distance race, it’s important to do a long simulation day. That means a full 4,200 yard swim, a 100-120 mile bike ride, and somewhere around 75-90 minute run. There are times I follow this up with a power hike after the run. The importance of this lies not in the endurance it takes to finish this workout, as most of you reading this can probably finish this workout if you absolutely had to, but in how your nutritional needs change throughout the course of the workout (and eventually the race). Early on in the bike, you’ll be loving your gels, carbohydrate drink and life is all good. At mile four of the run, your gels might be starting to get old and that same old drink could probably use a change. You might be craving sugar, salt, or even something like a PBJ sandwich. Whatever it is, you should be prepared and know how your body will react late in the race.
The only way to prepare for a 12-17 hour race is to train for a 12-17 hour race. In no way am I telling you to train for a full 17 hours, but if you plan on being on the race course for over 12 hours, then it’s probably best if you train somewhere in that vicinity a few times. It’s a different type of training than if you are training for a 10 hour iron distance race. Your body will likely get tired of what you are eating. Your cravings will change and mentally you have to stay sharp in order to make good decisions.
An example of a solid half iron distance race simulation would be a solid 2,500 yd swim. I would probably make the main set something like 10x200 or so. Then I would ride around 60-65 miles with the last 30 miles or 90 minutes at a tempo effort. Getting off the bike, I’d have you run 8-11 miles. Dialing in the race effort and nutrition will help you determine what works and what doesn’t for your upcoming half.
An example of an iron distance race simulation might be a 4,200 yard workout with 20x200 or 10x400 as the main set. It doesn’t have to be too fast or too hard, remember it’s a long day! Then onto the bike you go while riding around 110-120 miles with a few half iron distance efforts during the ride. Getting off the bike you would be running 8-10 miles and working on your iron distance pace. No need to crush it and no need to do anything but iron distance pace and take in the same calories you’d be taking in as on race day.
The key to long distance racing is being prepared and knowing what to do when things don’t go as planned. I like to say I have a pretty big 'tool box' on race day, and I know that I can go into that tool box to figure out how to fix what's going wrong. The only way to do this beyond doing several iron distance races per year, for several years, is to complete a few long distance race simulations each season. Instead of dreading a workout like that, look forward to finding out more about your training, your nutrition, and how it’s all going to work for you on race day.
I’ll say this many times each season, 'Race day isn’t the day to be experimenting with new pacing or nutrition ideas.' Stick to what works and the only way you'll know that is if you practice until you find out what does work!