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Dear Coach: How Often Should I Run Off the Bike?

It can be one of the hardest parts of triathlon to master, but knowing how often you should run off the bike in training is a great starting point.

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Knowing how often you should run off the bike is important when structuring your training and preparing for your key races. For most triathletes, the toughest part of a race is after the transition from bike to run. Your legs might be quite tired from the cycling effort, you’ve already done a tremendous amount of work, and now you’re faced with what some consider to be the toughest part of a tri: the run. The best way to prepare for the run is to practice this often and get comfortable running on tired legs.

During the cycling portion of the race, your body is in a flexed position for quite some time. Depending on the duration of the race, you could be leaning forward in the aero position for anything from an hour up to six hours or more. Your quads, hamstrings, and glutes have been helping to push and pull your pedals, but upon arrival at T2, you’re suddenly upright again and asking these muscles to do something entirely different: start running! Your hip flexor muscles are now in a more extended position after being flexed for hours, and the muscles used for running now need to be recruited. Even if you’re well prepared and well trained for this, you might find your legs still feel like jelly and you must get used to being vertical once again. For this reason (among many others), I always tell my athletes to ease into the run for that first mile or so (unless it’s a very short distance race) to let their leg muscles get acquainted with the new body position.

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The key question here, though, is: How often should we practice running off the bike? And is it possible to overdo it?

The old cliche rings true here: Practice makes perfect. The best way to train for your legs feeling like jelly is to practice running off the bike often, also known as a brick workout. For those athletes racing sprint or Olympic distance, I start out their program with just one short mid-week brick workout per week, and as we progress I add another brick after their long ride on the weekend. The mid-week brick is usually an hour’s ride with a 15-20 minute run off the bike. The pace is usually aerobic in the beginning but as we move into the peak weeks of the program, I increase the pace of the run. The weekend brick is generally a one to two-hour ride followed by a 30-minute run. If an athlete really wants more or is seriously looking for a podium finish, I will add a third mid-week short brick effort during the peak weeks of training.

For long-course athletes, I typically have them do a shorter mid-week brick with a 75-minute ride followed by a 15-30 minute run. Since most age groupers are more pressed for time during the week, I don’t make this effort much more than 90 minutes in total, saving the longer brick session for the weekend. Usually, my iron-distance athletes do a long ride followed by a run on Saturday and then their long run on Sundays.

I’ll often give my athletes what I call a “revolving brick” workout. It involves riding the same six-mile loop several times and building the run after each loop. For example, ride the loop at race pace, transition at the track and run half a mile. Ride the loop just below race pace, transition at the track and run one mile. Ride the loop again, this time followed by a 1.5 mile run. The combinations for this workout are endless and it gets athletes accustomed to running on tired legs.

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Ultimately, I am a huge advocate of bike-to-run workouts, because the transition from bike to run is the hardest part of the race for most athletes. I’ve had beginner athletes tell me that when they dismounted from their bike their legs felt so tired they questioned if they could even complete the run. Regular brick workouts build confidence running on tired legs so that come race day it doesn’t seem so physically and mentally overwhelming.

Mary Timoney is an Ironman U-certified coach, a USA Cycling coach, and an ACSM personal trainer.