Monday, November 3, 2008

Marathons & Triathlon

This subject routinely comes up at this time of year on triathlon forms and message boards: Should I run a marathon in the off-season? It seems counter intuitive, but if the desire is improving ones running in a triathlon - any length triathlon, the straight up answer is, "no, don't run a marathon in the off season"

Deeper questions need to be asked though before leaving it there: What is the athletes focus? Is it triathlon or do they have a singular goal of running a marathon, maybe qualifying for the Boston Marathon? How is their running in relation to the other two sports? Do they come from a running back ground? The answers to these questions, will give some guidance as to what direction to go.

If the triathlete has a burning desire to run a marathon. Great! My suggestion to them would be to take 6 months to maybe even a year and really focus on the marathon and do it right. The problem is many triathletes look at running a marathon in too short a period of time, just bolt on a few extra long runs, and hope/pray that running the marathon is going to somehow totally transform and improve their triathlon running. The actual impact on how they run in triathlons is minimal and over the short term, depending on the timing of the marathon and key tri races, can me detrimental to their triathlon running and performance. If they take the time to really train for a marathon and do it right ( and it's not just about all long runs all the time), they will have some very positive long-term impacts on not just their stand-alone running but their triathlon running to.

Now if the focus is overall triathlon improvement with a concurrent desire to improve their triathlon running, then the wise triathlete will eschew the off-season marathon completely. Again, seems counter intuitive, but if you understand what running in a triathlon is you will perhaps see where I am going with this. Tri-running is about running while tired. You start out with tired legs and often with poor running form after the bike. The pace you run has to be that all-day, I can run-this-on-trashed-legs pace. A potent builder of this sort of run fitness is high frequency running - running as many days/week as you can. Get out and run almost every day - for 20 minutes to up to 2 hours. Just get out and run. Don't worry so much about pace, or heart rate. At first just try and build up to running for some bit of time ( 20min minimum is a good place to start) for upwards of 6 or even 7 days/week. Once getting in 6 or 7 days week, then start to increase weekly volume slowly. Do this for 3 - 4 months in the off season and you will really deepen the base running fitness you have and your ability to run while tired. If the triathlete wants to race - do a few 10K or even 1/2 marathon races. These distances push key fitness parameters like lactate threshold, but you can recover quickly and get back to the high frequency program quickly without a lot of down time.

My wife, Paolina Allan (pictured above), has become a very consistent 3:20 marathon runner in Ironman runs. She is not a natural runner and she has never run a stand-alone marathon. She has achieved this standard of triathlon and IM runnning by using a program of high frequency running through the winter months and she races a number of 10K and 1/2 marathons and uses these as training efforts and benchmarks of fitness.

Hope this helps.


JB said...

Interesting reading. I have improved my run significantly this year following many of these principles and elected to run an off season marathon after a 12 week dedicated running plan. Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning 55 mile/wk plan starting at week 6 of his 18 week plan. Only biking/swimming once a week and plan to take several weeks off after the mary. Usually run an avg. of mid 20's at best weekly but have averaged over 50/wk for the past 8 weeks w/o injury. Weekly ART, massgae and ice baths and stretching help no doubt. Run was my weakness and it has really come a long way in the past 2 years. I plan to recover fully before next year so why not do a mary and see if I can "take it to the next level"?

Fleck said...


Everyone's a bit different. I think that many Age-Group triathletes run marathons because it gives them a goal to shoot for. That's fine and it that is a motivator then so be it. I still think that if they did the training but skipped the marathon, they may actually be better off :-)

Each to his own.

Best wishes for your marathon. You do sound like the run is coming along around for you and that is the bottom line.


JB said...

Roger that. Thanks and talk to you soon. J

Anonymous said...

Yes, interesting reading indeed.
I'm currently following a running focus plan to improve my poor running on an IM.
It's exactly what you describe : running nearly everyday or so, tired or not (especially when tired, of course...). Go to massage and use cold bath for recovery.
But pace : doesn't it matter in some way when building a run fitness ? Running at endurance pace is not exactly similar to IM pace. That's a good + 10-15bpm.
What do you think ?


Fleck said...


Naturally the pace is going to vary from person to person. You know you are doing the right pace when you can run about an hour and you are ready to go the next day - ie it's a decent pace, you are working hard towards the end of the hour, but it's not leaving you so beat up that you have to take the next day off. It's not that sexy, or complicated - just keep repeating this day after day.

BlueChance said...


I agree with most of what you are saying. Mileage makes you a better runner. Lydiard preached it and it worked and still works.

I was previous a collegiate runner with a 31:30 10K PR (many years and lbs ago). Now i have become an aging working stiff triathlete that can not swim to save my life but can ride as well as most any AGer and i survive the run better than most.

This fall and winter i embarked on a plan to get my run down from a 40min olympic run to AT LEAST sub, i committed to running consistently. I chose to do a 5 week program where i ran a minimum of 30 minutes everyday for 14 days then a week of running when i wanted to followed by 14 days of at least one full hour a day. In the end i ran 32 of 40 days.

I never ran so hard that i couldn't repeat the run the next day. Even as my legs become more and more tired i found myself running courses from earlier in the cycle at 30 seconds faster per mile but with a lower HR.

For those familiar with Training Peaks the 41 days saw me take my CTL from 23.7 to 46. I didnt run intervals or anything like that.

I simply ran more. During the middle of my biggest two weeks of running in 10 years i ran 18:30 for a 5K when 5 weeks earlier on an easier course i was only able to run 18:54.

as John Parker once wrote in "Once a Runner" is the trials of miles and the miles of trials.

oh, and i am learning from experience...the same works in the pool and on a bike.