Brick Workout

Rob Krar competes in—and often wins—100-mile ultramarathons. When training for these events, he never runs farther than 35 miles. From a purely mathematical standpoint, a 35-mile training run might seem like inadequate preparation for a 100-mile race. But there’s a reason Rob and other champion ultrarunners cap their training distance at or near 35 miles: The human body simply can’t adapt to anything longer. You will gain no more endurance from covering 40 or 45 miles in training than you will from covering 35, give or take, so there’s no point. In fact, it’s actually counterproductive to exceed 35 miles, because as fitness returns diminish (and ultimately peter out altogether) with increasing run distance, injury risk increases. Put another way, beyond 35ish miles, running ceases to be training and becomes punishment.

There’s not much scientific validation for this claim—it’s a difficult thing to validate scientifically—but we can be quite certain it’s true. Athletes have a way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work before scientists prove it. If you’re an ultrarunner and you want to optimize your training, you’d be well advised not to wait for science to catch up and instead follow the example of the likes of Rob Krar by capping your long runs around 35 miles. And if you’re significantly slower than Rob (and nearly all ultrarunners are), you should mix in some hiking with your running whenever you cover this distance and avoid doing pure runs lasting longer than 4.5 hours or so, which is about the amount of time it takes a Rob Krar to jog 35 miles.

That being said, I do believe there are psychological benefits associated with running farther. In particular, it gives you a taste of the suck you’re going to experience on race day. But because runs longer than 35ish miles are punishing, it’s best to attempt them only within the context of races. For example, if you want to be at your best both physically and psychologically for a 100-miler, consider doing a 50-miler eight to twelve weeks before it.

There are certain things you can do in training to further boost your endurance without defying the 35-mile rule. I’ve already touched on one of them: mixed run/hike sessions. By inserting hiking segments into a long run, you can spend upwards of five hours on your feet without crossing the training/punishment threshold—assuming you’ve built up to it.

A second option is back-to-back long runs (e.g., 20 miles on Saturday followed by 20 miles on Sunday). This method allows you to experience running on tired legs in a way that isn’t as risky as an extremely long single run. The magic happens in the second run of the two, which you will start with a certain amount of fatigue in your legs from the prior day’s run. I like to do single long runs and back-to-back long runs on alternating weekends during ultramarathon training.

Fasting offers another way to enhance the training effect of long runs. When you withhold carbohydrate in particular before and during long runs, your muscles are forced to rely more on stored fat to supply the energy they need. When done with some regularity, so-called depletion runs increase the overall fat-burning ability of the muscles and thereby increase endurance. In addition, when you run long in a fasted state, your muscles reach a deeper level of glycogen depletion than they would in a normal long run. This triggers genetic adaptations that improve aerobic capacity.

Finally, if you enjoy riding a bike, you can use what triathletes refer to as brick workouts to build endurance without defying the 35-mile rule. A brick workout is a bike ride followed immediately by a run. For ultrarunners, the bike portion serves to prefatigue the muscles for the ensuing run, but in a nonimpact manner, allowing you to get as tired as you would from a run longer than 35 miles while sparing your legs from the punishment that would come from actually running that far.

My 2010 book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel includes a chapter titled “Winging It” in which I advocate—for experienced athletes only—the practice of training without a formal plan. I don’t go as far as to recommend that athletes completely make up their training as they go along. Rather, I suggest they establish certain parameters based on accepted best practices and their individual training history and then fill in the details as they go along, based on where their body is at the moment.

This is exactly the approach I’m taking to preparing for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019. I have an implicit understanding of the path I intend to take over the next six months, but I do not have a single session scripted in advance on my Final Surge calendar. I am fully aware that this approach is not one a majority of athletes could pursue successfully, but I’m confident in it for myself because I’ve been doing it for years, albeit mostly in running.

A number of years ago—in fact, around the same time RUN was published—I profiled professional triathlete Meredith Kessler for Triathlete. I spent a day with her in San Francisco, and over dinner she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “I can drop in an Ironman at any time of the year if I want to. I’m even-keeled the whole year. I don’t have an off-season. I don’t really even taper. It never feels up or down. When [coach] Matt [Dixon] tells me, ‘You have a 10-day block,’ I look at it and say, ‘That looks like the same thing I just did.’”

It’s not the only way to train for Ironmans, but Kessler’s always-ready method really worked for her, and I’m adopting a version of it in my current preparations. Even though my race is more than half a year away, I’ve done three 100-mile bike rides in the past six weeks. The idea is to make the Ironman distances seem ho-hum, something I can do comfortably any day I please.

The one bit of structure that is absolutely vital if you’re going to make a good go of always-ready, winging-it Ironman training is a sensible weekly workout routine, or microcycle format. The one I’m using is actually two weeks in length, and it looks like this:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Run

 

Easy

Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Intervals or Tempo

Bike

 

Hills, Intervals, or Tempo

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Easy

Bike

 

Long Ride

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Long Run

Swim

 

Intervals or Tempo

Strength Swim

 

Tempo or Intervals

Strength Swim

 

Endurance

 

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Intervals or Tempo

Bike

 

Hills, Intervals, or Tempo

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Medium Long

Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Brick

 

Medium-Long Bike + Medium-Long Run

Easy Ride, Easy Run, or Rest
Swim

 

Intervals or Tempo

Strength Swim

 

Tempo or Intervals

Strength Swim

 

Endurance

You’ll see that a two-week microcycle is necessary for me because I wish to bike every other day and run on alternate days, such that I bike four times and run three times and bike three times and four times in alternate weeks. A two-week microcycle is also required by my preference to do a long bike ride and a long run every other weekend and a long bike-run brick in place of separate long rides and runs on alternate weekends.

Another salient feature of this schedule is that I do a transition run after every single bike ride. I see this practice as a powerful and efficient way to boost triathlon-specific running fitness. I haven’t actually begun to put this practice into effect yet because I’ve been hobbled by a groin issue that affects my running and because it’s early, but I’ll start soon.

Of course, I won’t do exactly the same workouts in every microcycle. You can’t get fitter by doing the same thing over and over and I’m currently far from the fitness level I plan to be at next May. My cycling volume is already fairly high, but my swimming and running volume are not and will have to increase significantly in the months ahead. My moderate- and high-intensity sessions in all three disciplines will also get a lot harder. It probably goes without saying that approximately 20 percent of my swim, bike, and run training will be done at these intensities!

I’ll probably peak somewhere around 9,000 yards of swimming, 200 miles of cycling (in four-ride weeks), and 50 miles of running (in four-run weeks) per week. Not super-high volume, but as a highly experienced, older, injury-prone athlete, I neither need nor can tolerate super-high volume.

So, that’s the plan.

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