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, and confidence.

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 fatigue.

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.

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