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Quality Vs. Quantity In Running

by Bobby McGee

As an age-group triathlete, you don’t have to run high mileage to be a good triathlon runner. 

If you want to run well off the bike, be bike fit. No amount of run training is going to deliver a great run for you in a triathlon without fully considering bike demands. Too often triathletes expect run training without sufficient conditioning work in the saddle to deliver a great run off the bike. Three-time ITU world champion and great runner Peter Robertson said he never fared well in major races when he was super run fit, but he ran great when he was bike fit. The idea is to be fitter than the bike ride requires in order to buffer your ability to run. 

Then run training is all about quantity of quality. This “quality” has many components. 

Run training without serious consistency is worthless, no matter how good it is. It is far better to string together six to 12 weeks of really consistent training through pacing and good sense than to post some magical single sessions that leave you busted up by being either injured or ill. Basic easy running (not slow, but easy relative to your physiology), not only allows pure physiological development of endurance, but prepares legs to deal with specific quality. This should constitute at least 80 percent of your run training. Remember, duration makes endurance, not intensity. Build longer runs only up to where you can effectively run again two days later. 

Run fast enough in this period to teach the legs to run at goal race pace and better than race pace. Simple, right? But not so fast! During this phase, these bits of speed work should be under 9 seconds and have at least 50 seconds recovery between each, for a maximum of six repetitions. For longevity’s sake stay away from long quality repeats. 

Once the body is accustomed to regular running without breaking down and not negatively impacting the quality and quantity of your bike and swim workouts and the season’s major races are some six to eight weeks away, it is time to start the quality work. 

Train no faster than one pace quicker than the race you are training for. For example, 5k pace is good for an Olympic-distance race, while half-marathon pace suffices for IRONMAN training. Distinguish what your greatest limiter is. Is it physiological, i.e. engine capacity, specific fitness, ability to tolerate heat, ability to process calories? Or is it a mechanical ability to sustain pace? Work specifically on these limiters. 

Your greatest fitness gains will come from accumulating as much threshold and subthreshold (tempo) work as possible, but see the previous two bullets again to guide you. Remember, easy running should still form the bulk of your work. Do anything faster, like VO2 max work, if your event needs it (like a sprint race), either on an incline, i.e. hill repeats, or on the bike such as all-out 30 second efforts. 

Try to simulate race conditions on a regular basis to see how your run holds up under those conditions, loads and speeds. Being very fit and being able to hold a specific pace on a flat course under cool conditions does not add up on race day if you have hills, heat and a tough windy bike to contend with. 

If you don’t lose a lot of speed off the bike relative to your open run ability, don’t overdo the brick work; it’s risky training of little physiological value. Evaluate your workouts in terms of what run training you need versus running that you feel you have to do to be confident on race day. These are often not the same thing. 

Determine whether you hold your form during the course of your run in a race. You can ascertain this with early and late video during longer quality sessions. Address what shows up. It will always be related to fitness and fatigue, but the fixes may come from either more specific training or some supplemental work in the gym. 

Train clever on the run, and you’ll be surprised at how easily you master the run through some savvy application of the above principles. Considering specificity in training both in terms of physiology and demands of your target race will bring you the performances you seek

Bobby McGee is a Performance Advisor for USA Triathlon with 30-plus years of coaching experience.