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What's Next? Stepping Up to a New Distance

by Mackenzie L. Havey

As triathletes everywhere plot their race seasons, many are looking for a fresh challenge. This often means tackling a longer distance race, moving from sprint to Olympic-distance or Olympic-distance to half-ultra or ultra-distance. Whether you conquered your first triathlon this year or you’re a seasoned veteran, taking that step up can be a tricky prospect. Not only will it require more time to train, but you’ll also have to revamp your previous plans to accommodate the additional distance. 

Charting a course for run training at the longer distances can be especially difficult because it’s the discipline that tends to lead to the most injuries. If you go overboard, you’re likely to be sidelined your entire season. “Be gradual and conservative,” said Michael Plumb, head coach for Triathlon Club of San Diego and TriPower Multisports. “I always remember one key quote: ‘it’s better to get to the start line 10 percent undertrained than 10 percent overtrained.’” When done correctly, however, adjusting mileage, intensity, strength training and recovery can lead to a successful entrance into longer distance triathlons. 

The first question triathletes tend to ask when looking at increasing their race distance is about mileage. While you will certainly add running miles to your training, Plumb said not to get too preoccupied with your weekly numbers. “The focus should be on getting in the key workouts,” he explained. “What I like to do for athletes who are bumping up in distance is to keep a similar training blueprint each week and within that, the key workout details can change.” 

This means you’ll still have a scheduled long run, tempo run, or intervals in the same way you did for the shorter races, but the speeds and distances will change. For distance, you should aim to increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent from one week to the next. So if you have been running 20 miles a week, do 22 next week, 24 the week after that, 26.5 the week after that, and so on. Over weeks and months, you’ll be able to gradually build a longer long run, as well as add in a mid-week semi-long run of 8-10 miles to build endurance. 

Intensity is another key aspect of any training routine that will change with a longer race. “If anything you may do less, but generally speaking, it would be a similar amount,” Plumb said. Although you’re training for a longer race and increasing your mileage, you don’t need to pile on a whole lot of extra high-intensity work. In fact, during the mileage-building phase, you may cut back slightly on harder workouts to conserve energy and avoid injury. 

With that said, Plumb warned that training for a more endurance-based race doesn’t negate the need for high-intensity training. “One common misconception is that because you are preparing for a marathon within an IRONMAN, you need to do less or maybe even no intensity in your run training,” he said. “The truth is that regardless of what your speed is, if you become a faster runner overall, your marathon within an IRONMAN will be faster.” So while you may not utilize interval pace within a longer race, it assists in building a stronger cardiovascular system. 

To help your body handle these changes in training, strength work becomes increasingly important. While strength training is recommended at every distance, it can play an even more significant role in preventing injuries as you move up to the longer races. “For longevity in the sport, strength training is important,” Plumb said. “By increasing the strength and flexibility of the muscles and joint connections, you decrease the likelihood of injury.” 

While every athlete’s strength program will differ, it should focus on your individual weaknesses. If you have a history of knee soreness caused by weak hips, pay special attention to hip-strengthening exercises. If you have a notoriously weak upper body, put in a few extra reps with the dumbbells or bench press. Regardless of how you structure it, added strength means fewer overcompensation injuries caused by one area working to make up for the deficits of another. 

As you increase your mileage and transition to longer distance intervals and tempo runs, be sure to listen closely to your body. The added run training may require extra recovery days. “I always consider the long run as a hard workout, meaning I incorporate recovery into the schedule after hard workouts,” Plumb said. “As the long runs start to become a lot longer, there is an increase in the amount of pounding the legs take and after those runs, I make sure to incorporate more rest and recovery.” 

Whether you need a day off completely or perhaps an easy swim or bike day, it is important not to forge ahead when your body is screaming for rest. Not only will a recovery day allow you to come back stronger for the next workout, but it also will help prevent injuries. In the long run, this means better and longer training over time, which will elicit a more successful race effort no matter what the distance. 

Mackenzie L. Havey is an IRONMAN triathlete, marathoner and author of the forthcoming book, "Mindful Running." She writes about endurance sports, fitness and outdoor adventure for a variety of publications, including Runner’s World, Triathlete, SELF,, OutsideOnline and Learn more at