by Coach Steve
I just got off the phone with Mark who just finished his second
marathon in 3:05. It was 17-minutes faster than his first and easily
fast enough to qualify for Boston in his age group. I attribute
his success to consistent training and a logical buildup with several
‘tests’ in the form of tempo runs and races. Each hard
effort was significantly shorter than his marathon race day, but
faster than planned race pace. Each hard workout was carefully timed
for full recovery to minimize the risk of injury.
Not all athletes will prepare for their target race as diligently
as Mark, but if they did, their race day results would be more predictable,
satisfying—and fast. As a coach I can only recommended what
I feel is the best possible preparation for a target race, and it’s
usually not the easiest route.
Many athletes prefer to train for their focus race within a familiar,
comfortable pattern of solo training. This can give a good result,
but it may not lead to a performance up to your full potential.
I recommend a logical buildup where each race (or training test
if no appropriate race is available) builds your fitness and confidence
for the goal event. For a marathon or Ironman this involves shorter
events at a faster pace. The idea is to develop your speed, then
stretch it out to the longer distance. The buildup races can be
either multisport events, or single sport. When logically timed
in a season’s schedule, each event has a specific purpose
in the overall plan.
In Mark’s case he completed his first season participating
in triathlon, then decided he wanted to race a post-season marathon,
looking for a PR and Boston qualification. His triathlon season
went well and his fitness at shorter distances was excellent, so
all he needed was to stretch out his endurance for a marathon.
He found two buildup events that fit: a ½ marathon and a
10-miler. The ½ marathon was 7 weeks out…but he overslept
and missed it. No worries, he went out and did a tempo run on his
own at the target pace which was ~20-seconds per mile faster than
his marathon goal. It went well and his confidence was on the rise.
Then he did race the 10-miler 4 weeks out from marathon race day
and it went well too. The pace was about 30-seconds per mile faster
than his target for the marathon, and from that we could project
realistic pacing for race day.
Of course Mark did complete the necessary long runs at a substantially
slower pace than the race day target. Without these endurance efforts,
the shorter buildup races would not have been sufficient distance
to prepare for 26.2. He also kept up with swims and rides, but fewer
than in tri-season. With the other two disciplines for additional
aerobic training time, Mark had less risk of injury than he would
by relying completely on runs.
A buildup for shorter races requires a slightly different approach.
Since a sprint distance tri is already the shortest distance available,
you should find events less important to you for a buildup. I prefer
short road races and sprint triathlons to build fitness, speed,
If you run a 5k road race, the goal should be to go at least 10-seconds
per mile faster than your target pace for the 5k at the end of a
triathlon. For a 10k road race your goal should be to run it at
your triathlon 5k pace.
Less important sprint triathons also work well for a buildup. Early
in your season you should look for a stronger performance in each
subsequent race. You can also focus on one discipline's split in
each events, looking to improve it relative to your age group peers.
For an Olympic or 1/2 Ironman distance tri, buildup triathlons
of shorter distances work well. I prefer a couple sprint tris followed
by an Olympic distance tri as the last event before my target Olympic
distance tri; I prefer 1/2 marathon runs and Olympic distance tris
for the buildup before a 1/2 Ironman. Note that as distances get
longer more time is required for recovery between races.
With a high fitness level, you can race a sprint distance event
successfully on consecutive weekends. You can race Olympic distance
every 2 weeks, but this might be in conflict with the long weekends'
training required for a 1/2 Ironman. Also when planning races, consider
the mental fatigue of potential travel and preparation, as well
as the actual stress of the race effort. There's no point in racing
if it becomes just another hard training day for lack of taper or
As you can see, I like to build speed with shorter races first,
then try to hold that intensity as I go up in distance. When making
the assumption that you're continuing to improve fitness through
the season this is possible. If everything goes according to plan,
you'll build fitness to a peak for your target race, then it's time
to take some active recovery time, perhaps building to another peak
for the season if time allows.