In my early years as a triathlete, I based my training largely on the advice I received from a friend and colleague named Bernie Freeman.
Although he had packed away his wetsuit in mothballs by the time I met him, Bernie had been an outstanding age-grouper in the late 1980s and early '90s, placing 14th overall at Ironman Canada in 1989. He based his training on guidelines offered by the sport's first generation of gurus, including Dave Scott and Ray Browning.
One of the workouts that Scott and gang taught Bernie to do, and that Bernie in turn taught me to do, was a run-dominant brick workout; that is, a bike-run workout in which the run segment was relatively more challenging than the bike segment. A typical example of a bike-dominant brick workout is a 90-minute moderate-intensity ride followed by a one-hour moderate-intensity run.
I'm not sure exactly how Bernie practiced these workouts, but I fell into the habit of doing a run-dominant brick workout every other weekend. On alternate weekends I did a bike-dominant brick (for example, a two-hour ride followed by a 30-minute run). On those weekends when I did a run-dominant brick workout on Saturday, I completed a long ride on Sunday. And on those weekends when I did a bike-dominant brick workout on Saturday, I tackled a long run on Sunday.
I found this approach to be an efficient way to develop cycling and running endurance in the right proportions and the ability to survive prolonged-running off the bike.
Gone But Not Forgotten
In 2007, the run-dominant brick workout appears to be nearly extinct. I know of very few triathletes who practice this workout anymore, and today's gurus actively discourage triathletes from doing real bricks featuring longer runs.
Traditional brick workouts have been replaced by so-called transition runs—short runs of 10 to 20 minutes off the bike whose purpose is to teach the body to quickly find its running legs after a hard ride. This is the only benefit to be gained from running off the bike in training, say today's gurus. Running long off the bike is just too stressful on the body and offers no fitness benefit that cannot be achieved in a less stressful way by doing short transition runs off the bike and long runs on separate days.
I'm not so sure about that. I think there's a pretty huge difference between running for 15 minutes after a hard ride in training and running for 90 minutes or more after a hard ride in an Ironman 70.3 (to say nothing of running for three to five hours off the bike in a full Ironman). Running long off the bike is indeed stressful on the body.
Since we have no choice but to experience this type of stress in longer triathlons, does it not make sense to get accustomed to it in training? Run-dominant brick workouts are stressful in precisely the same way that longer triathlons are stressful. Transition runs and regular long runs, while unquestionably beneficial, are decidedly less specific to the demands of longer triathlons. So let's bring back the run-dominant brick workout.
How to Do It
If you're currently training for longer triathlons with today's methods, you probably do a long ride followed by a short transition run every Saturday and a long run every Sunday, or vice versa. If so, I suggest that you replace this schedule with the old-school rotating weekend-workout schedule I described above. Here's an example:
Today's Standard Weekend
- Saturday: Long ride + Transition run (Example: 60-mile bike + 1-mile run)
- Sunday: Long run (Example: 12-mile run)
Old-School Weekend No. 1
- Saturday: Run-dominant brick workout (Example: 30-mile bike + 8-mile run)
- Sunday: Long ride (Example: 60-mile ride)
Old-School Weekend No. 2
- Saturday: Bike-dominant brick workout (Example: 45-mile bike + 4-mile run)
- Sunday: Long run (Example: 12-mile run)
With the old-school approach, you will do fewer pure long rides and runs (one every other week instead of one every week) than you do with today's approach, but you will more than make up the difference by doing a hard brick workout (either run-dominant or bike-dominant) every week. Assuming you spend the same total amount of time training with the old-school approach to weekend training as you do with today's approach, the latter will definitely be more challenging. And that's why it will make you fitter and able to perform better on race day.