The Medium-Long Run: A Triathlete's Secret Weapon

Last month's column described the various subtypes of long runs, which in turn are one of the three most important kinds of run workouts for triathletes to perform. Here, we'll look at long runs' vital yet often ignored little sibling.

Those who come to triathlons with experience in marathon running may be familiar with Advanced Marathoning, a book co-authored by Pete Pfitzinger (with Scott Douglas). Pfitzinger is a two-time U.S. Olympian in the marathon who now works as an exercise physiologist and triathlon coach.

The utility of the medium-long run lies in its addressing several components of endurance at once.

One of his athletes, Debbie Tanner, was 10th in the Beijing Olympics, and of the various popular marathon-training schemes dotting bookshelves and the Internet landscape, Pfitzinger's remains unique for its emphasis on the midweek medium-long run, or MLR.

The utility of the medium-long run lies in its addressing several components of endurance at once. Any run lasting between 90 minutes and two hours is long enough to stimulate physiological adaptations that do not occur to an appreciable extent in shorter efforts, yet not so long as to prolong recovery.

Also, the distance of such runs—commonly 10 to 15 miles, depending on a runner's speed, training load and experience—allows for the integration of a variety of intensities that long runs do not and durations that "normal" (shorter) runs do not. The MLR, therefore, is a strong ally owing as much to its flexibility as to its distance.

3 Types of MLRs

As with long runs, it is convenient to separate MLRs into three categories. Each serves a distinct purpose and skimping on any one of them will deprive you of the full range of benefits that the MLR offers.

These runs are basically everyday runs sustained for an extra 30 to 60 minutes. They aren't recovery runs, but they aren't hard and should not require special recovery. A target heart rate of 75 percent to 80 percent of maximum (representing about 70 percent to 75 percent of maximal oxygen uptake) is desirable.

In warmer weather, be sure to start taking in fluids early on, and don't skimp on carbohydrates in the latter stages and immediately after finishing. Well-trained athletes can get a little extra bang by doing these runs on hilly courses, although care should be taken not to pound the downhills too enthusiastically.

The tempo run—known to some as a lactate threshold (LT) or an anaerobic threshold (AT) run—has become a staple among distance runners since Jack Daniels coined the term about a quarter of a century ago.

The term is used in a variety of ways, but strictly speaking, threshold effort is that which a well-conditioned runner can maintain for approximately an hour under optimal race conditions. So for most people, tempo pace lies between 10K race pace and 10-mile race pace.

Daniels' original recommendation for the masses was tempo runs of 20 minutes or so, but true endurance athletes, such as marathoners and triathletes, can absorb more stress and hence benefit from longer tempo runs. Therefore, LT stretches lasting as long as about 40 to 45 minutes can be worked into MLRs, either at the end or in the middle.

Fast Finish
As with long runs, it can be useful on occasion to run the first 85 percent to 90 percent of an MLR at the usual pace, then pick up the pace in the last 10 to 15 minutes in a progressive manner, starting this process at roughly tempo-run pace and winding up at 10K pace or even faster in the last few minutes.

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