Get to Know the Brick Workout
Known by many names, the brick workout can encompass a bike-run or swim-bike (or any combination). Why do triathletes need these workouts and what do they achieve?
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Ask ten triathletes why a brick workout is called a “brick” and you will likely get ten different answers.
“It’s because when you run off the bike, your legs feel like bricks!”
“The workout helps lay the ‘bricks’ of a good triathlon foundation.”
“It’s an acronym for bike-run-in-combination.”
Another simpler explanation: Dr. Matt Brick coined the term when writing about his bike-run and run-bike sessions while training for a duathlon.
Regardless of why it’s called a brick, the fact is that this type of back-to-back, combo workout is highly effective. While the most popular type of brick workout for triathletes is the bike-run, more commonly referred to as a run-off-the-bike (ROTB), a brick might also consist of a run-bike-run or even a swim-bike.
Benefits of the Brick Workout
Pete Alfino, owner and founder of Mile High Multisport, explains that the biggest benefit for the beginner triathlete is muscle adaptation, but there are numerous advantages for the more seasoned triathlete as well. One of the main reasons many triathletes do brick workouts is to acclimate their legs to the wobbly feeling that occurs when they get off the bike and start to run. But it can also be a good time to practice race simulation efforts, nutrition, and transitions.
“The brick is the perfect time to dial in race day pacing, nutrition, and hydration,” Alfino said. “For those of us who are strapped for time, the brick is a great way to add in a quality run during a training segment. This is also a great opportunity to practice your transitions.”
For his athletes who live in cold weather climates, Alfino often prescribes a brick to break up the monotony of training indoors. “By breaking up the workouts, you break up the monotony of sitting on a trainer or treadmill for a long time, while also practicing your transitions, all while keeping your heart rate elevated. You will be surprised how quickly the workout goes by breaking up runs and bikes into 20-30 minute segments.”
Jason Lentzke, of Toro Performance in Arizona, believes the brick workout is essential to success at triathlons of all distances. “When you’ve just completed a ride, running feels completely different than if you were to start a run first thing in the morning. This is especially true if the ride was long or performed at a high intensity,” he said. A brick workout helps teach the body to adapt to these sensations and to learn to run with good technique and pacing under load. Brick workouts can also give you a sign if you’re fueling well on the bike, he said. If you finish your bike workout on an empty tank, you’ll have a poor run. “It’s always better to make these mistakes in training, so you can refine your fueling protocol for race day.”
For the long-course triathlete, run durability is often a major limiter on race day, so Lentzke believes athletes should frequently run off the bike in order to train tired legs. For the short-course athlete, it makes more sense to run more frequently on fresh legs, so the body adjusts to race intensity, but the brick run is still an important tool to use on occasion.
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How to Do a Brick… the Right Way
Since the whole point of a brick workout (whether swim-to-bike or bike-to-run) is to do the sports back-to-back, the most benefit can be gained by focusing on those transitions and moving quickly from one to the next. Set up your run shoes, hat, and glasses so you’re ready to go.
“The biggest mistake I see is that people miss a great opportunity to really hone race day skills,” Alfino said. “Set up your transition area and move from the bike to the run like you will in a race. Taking 10-20 minutes to transition and just getting the run done for the sake of checking off a box is a missed opportunity.”
The brick workout is also a great time to practice run pacing. Because cycling cadence is higher than run cadence, it’s common for your brain to play tricks—convincing you that you’re running too slowly on wobbly tired legs. “Almost always, athletes tend to run too fast, too early, off the bike,” Lentzke said. Actively combat that by making your transition runs negative split runs (meaning you get faster in the second half).
Of course, it’s also important to remember that running is different from triathlon running—but it shouldn’t be that different. Lentzke argues that if you’re pacing the bike properly and there are no nutrition limiters, then there shouldn’t be more than a 6% difference from open run times to tri run times for a 70.3, and 12% for a full. “For example, if your open half-marathon time is 1:30, you shouldn’t run slower than 1:36 off the bike. If your decoupling is greater than 6%, focus on your swim and bike volume before you reevaluate your run volume.”
Don’t forget about that swim and bike training. Brick workouts alone will not turn you into a better triathlon runner, Lentzke said. “The metabolic cost of limited swim and bike training always cascades into the run. Swim fitness is bike fitness and bike fitness is run fitness.”
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Brick Distance and Frequency
Determining how long and how frequently to run off the bike depends on your experience, race distance, and individual goals.
“The distance of bricks is something that has changed over the years,” Alfino said. “When I first started coaching, I always gave short bricks. For my sprint- and Olympic-distance athletes, there was a speed element to the brick. For my half- and full Ironman clients, the bricks were twice a week for 30-45 minutes. In recent years, I’ve changed this to incorporate longer bricks and, in some cases, eliminated the brick altogether for some clients who are prone to injuries.”
ROTB distance and frequency is individual; but, at a minimum, an athlete should do a brick 6-8 weeks out from a race, at least once per week. “The distance doesn’t have to be long as the goal is to get accustomed to running off the bike,” he said.
Lentzke is also a huge fan of the run-bike-run brick as a great way to distribute a higher run load across a few hours. “I prefer this method, as opposed to having an athlete slog away on the pavement for two hours,” he said.
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Although the main goal of a brick is to acclimate the legs to the sensation of running off the bike, there’s still an opportunity to include some intensity.
“For the majority of my clients, I use the brick to prep the legs, and it’s aerobic in nature,” Alfino said. But for those athletes with time or performance goals (and the experience to back them up), he uses bricks with pace and distance targets to simulate racing.
Incorporating bricks at race intensity is important in order to build an athlete’s confidence. It’s also an opportunity to dial in fueling at a particular heart rate. “You may be able to ingest calories at a low heart rate more easily than when it’s higher, so it’s essential to train your gut,” Lentzke said.
While the main brick workout most athletes will do is a bike-run, race simulation also comes into play in the swim-bike workout (particularly for more elite or draft-legal athletes who are attempting to maintain a high swim intensity right into a high bike intensity on race day). These athletes might attempt race-pace swim sets straight into a bike trainer effort, in order to practice settling into the pace and eating coming onto the bike.
Whether a brick is aerobic in nature, or includes some spicy efforts, including training variety and race prep is always a good strategy.
“A coach should work with every athlete individually to apply the right stimulus to raise their V02 ceiling, build durability, and give that athlete more room to increase aerobic output,” Lentzke said. And for triathlon that includes bricks.
Jason Lentzke Sample Brick Workouts
Sprint or Olympic
- 8 min. easy
- 12 min. moderate
- 5 min. hard
Transition (under 2 min.)
Run: 10-12 min. at moderate effort
- 15-20 min. easy
- 2 x 20 min. at 80-85% FTP, on 5 min. rest
- 5 min. easy
Transition (less than 2 min.)
Run: First 2 miles at 70.3 HR. Last 2 miles easy to warm down.