Early Triathlon Season Training: Building Your Long Run

As most triathletes get back into the swim of regular and purposeful training, it seems that many jump back in with a little too much ambition. While building one’s training volume to meet your season’s goals is a big part part of training, too much, too soon is often the result. The key to success is to begin modestly, and relative to your current fitness levels, track your progress using heart rate, GPS, and your own Relative Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, and analyze. Let you fitness increases determine the rate at which you build volume and intensity in your training.

The following example and analysis of a series of “long runs” is of an age-group athlete whose goal this year is an Ironman race at the end of the summer. It’s currently the end of February, and this athlete’s first couple of months of focused training is in the books. It’s the beginning of the season after a three month off-season, so volume is fairly low. His long runs are 80 minutes long, and our goal is to simply prepare him for longer distances with some focused aerobic work and increased run durability. Over the course of three weeks, he ran three “long runs,” which, again, are only 80 minutes long. Additionally, his weekly run volume was between 2:30 and 3:00, amounting to 17-22 miles per week. Most of his running was focused on aerobic, Zone 2 efforts, but also included two sessions of 3-4x400m at 5k effort, and 2 sessions of 30-60 second fartlek intervals.

Long Run Number 1

hr-distributionOur goal here was to simply run at an easy effort for the duration indicated. We monitor heart rate and pace during the run, as not to push the effort beyond this athletes aerobic threshold of heart zones 1-2. We knew ahead of time that his pace would be about an 8 minute per mile effort on his treadmill at a zero incline* to start with, which we did for the first 6 miles. After mile six, the pace was increased slightly to 7:53m/m for two miles, then again to 7:47m/m pace for the last two miles. The result was interesting. This first (roughly) 25 minutes and 38 seconds of the run we saw his heart rate climb from low Zone 1 to Zone 2. The remaining 55 minutes and 27 seconds, his heart rate climbed slow and steady within heart zone 2. So, just past the mid-way point of the 6mi @ 8m/m pace section, his heart rate had climbed to Zone 2, where it stayed for the remainder of the workout.

If we look at the decoupling of heart rate and pace for this section of the workout, we see that his HR at 10 minutes in (I’m choosing 10 minutes as a starting point to allow the heart rate to adjust to the activity) is about 139bpm, and by the end of the 5 mile point (40 minutes), it has risen to 147bpm. This is a 5.75% increase in heart rate, while the pace remained constant at 8m/m. To determine an athlete’s fitness in an aerobic state, I like to use 5% as a cut-off point. Anything higher than 5% indicates that we should spend a majority of our training focus on increasing aerobic fitness. In this case, we see a decoupling of 5.75%, which tells me that we want to continue to focus on aerobic efforts for the next few weeks.
Example of HR Decoupling

Long Run Number 2

For the second long run in this block of training, we now had a serious focus on building aerobic run fitness. For the athlete, this particular week was less than optimal. He reported on several occasions that work stress was high, sleep quality was poor, and his diet was compromised several times. In fact, we ended up postponing this run by two days (originally scheduled for a Thursday, it was moved to Saturday) due to work obligations that prevented him from having the time to fit an 80 minute run into his schedule. Interestingly enough, his performance here seems to be a step backwards from the previous week, likely due to the added stress and poor diet choices made throughout this week of training.

The workout itself was intended to progress from the previous week. His instruction was to run at an 8m/m pace for 40 minutes (5 miles), then begin 10 minute blocks of slightly and continual increased pace up to the 70 minute mark, at which time he would run for 7 minutes at a “hard effort (HRZ3-4, but below LTHR of 172bpm).” The remaining three minutes of the 80 minute workout were for cool down. Other than the “hard effort,” he was to maintain a heart in zones 1-2, but not higher.

heart rate distribution, long run 2We see that right from the start of the workout, his heart rate is elevated compared to last weeks long run. At an 8m/m pace, his heart rate was into Zone 2 within the first 17 minutes, compared to over 25 minutes the previous week. The stress of the week had obviously had an impact. In fact, by the time he reached the 40 minute mark, his heart rate was at the top range of Zone 2, and thus increasing pace was not possible. Looking at his heart rate distribution for the entire workout, we see the majority of time was spent at a heart of 154-155bpm. The majority of the previous week was spent at 146-147bpm for comparison, an almost 5.5% increase**.

Again, looking at the decoupling phenomenon, we see it still exists, and, another indication of the impact of a stressful week, it has actually grown to 8.5%. The fact that it has grown is not surprising, and, in this case, is not an indication that the training process is off. We simply have to take into account the outside factors that have impacted this performance. We stay the course, have patience, and trust that the coach knows what he’s doing 😉

heart rate decoupling example 2

New in this workout is the 7 minutes of “hard effort” at the end of the run. The intent of this is to force the athlete to lift his effort at the point in the workout when he is likely beginning to feel some fatigue set in. It teaches our body to finish strong, and it also primes our body for an increase in duration/distance as the training progresses in the near future. It adds a bit of “tempo” work to the program, keeping a variety of efforts familiar. According to the athlete’s report, he was able to maintain about a 6:58m/m pace for the 7 minutes of “hard effort.”

Long Run Number 3

Fortunately, in week three, the athlete’s work stress had subsided, and he was back to his normal eating and training schedule. Our hope was that the consistency of training, even during the stressful second week, would begin to show some improvements in his aerobic fitness.

Keeping with our aerobic focus, but also progressing the training ever so slightly, the instruction for the workout was to run at an 8m/m pace for 40 minutes (5 miles), then begin 10 minute blocks of slightly and continual increased pace up to the 66 minute mark, at which time he would run for 10 minutes at a “hard effort (HRZ3-4, but below LTHR of 172bpm).” The remaining four minutes of the 80 minute workout were for cool down. Other than the “hard effort,” he was to maintain a heart in zones 1-2, but not higher.

heart rate distribution example 3What a difference a reduced stress week can have! Heart rate distribution indicates significant signs of improved efficiency as 48% of the time spent running was between 140-145bpm (compared to 27% at 146-147bpm two weeks prior). Another sign of improved efficiency is the fact that the transition from heart rate Zone 1 to Zone 2 took 51:32, which included 40 minutes at 8m/m pace, then 10 minutes at 7:53m/m pace. This is more than double the amount of time it took two weeks prior, and at a faster overall pace.

Decoupling showed great improvement as well. In this workout we see a heart rate of 137bpm at the 10 minute point, and 142bpm at the 40 minute point, which is a decoupling of only 3.64%:  a 37% improvement! When I see an improvement such as this, it is a clear indication that the athlete is adapting well to the training stimuli, and also indicates it is time to add to the work load.

heart rate decoupling example 3

The “hard effort” in this workout was increased to 10 minutes this week. The athlete reported that the effort was much easier this week than it was the previous week, and that he may have under estimated the paces for this effort. We see this in the heart rate graph above, where his max heart rate during the hard effort only reached 163bpm, however according to the athlete, he was running at a 5:58m/m pace by the end of the interval, and could have likely gone faster if the interval were longer. He started the interval based on what he was capable of doing in the previous week, which was as instructed, and ended up being too slow. The fact that the previous week was a bad week for him lead to beginning the interval very conservatively now that he was feeling better. This is actually a good sign.

After three weeks of 80 minute long-runs, we now have clear proof that the athlete is ready to jump to the next level in pursuit of gaining fitness for an Ironman race.


*A 1996 study conducted by exercise physiologist, Andrew Jones, concludes that treadmill running at paces less than 7:09 m/m at a zero percent grade is not significantly different in energy expenditure than that of the same pace on a flat road. More about this study can be found here. Basically, if you are running slower than a 7:09m/m pace on treadmill, you should be setting the incline to zero. Faster than than 7:09, raise the incline to 1-2%, up to 5:21m/m pace (the fastest pace tested).

**This is a great example of how sometimes heart rate training parameters can be misleading. The effect that a stressful week had on this athlete resulted in an elevated heart rate. In this case, the effect was a higher heart rate at the same or slower paces, but still with the parameters of the main point of the workout. In other scenarios though, solely using heart rate as an indicator of effort can be misleading, and lead to less than optimal training. Your best option is always to use a combination of heart rate, pace, and RPE.

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