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Lionel Sanders’ 70.3-Winning Run Workouts

Canadian Lionel Sanders broke the tape just ahead of Sam Long in last week’s epic duel at North American 70.3 Championships. We share the inside track to his prep and two of his key workouts.

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Lionel Sanders was at his box office best last Saturday, winning his third Ironman 70.3 St. George title in a pulsating battle with American Sam Long. We caught up with his coach, David Tilbury-Davis, to learn about the preparation and the specific run sessions that helped the popular Canadian reach the top of the podium once again—including one run workout that looks exactly like the scenario Sanders faced in Utah.

“That’s the most I’ve ever suffered. It’s probably the best battle. I never went that deep that far into the race.” Those were the words from an emotional and exhausted Sanders after a five-second victory earned him the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship title in Utah over the fast-rising Long.

It backed up a win at 70.3 Galveston in April, which had followed another impressive showing when he finished runner-up to Jan Frodeno in Challenge Miami in March. But while on a hilly course, against a stacked field of 63 pro men, the 33-year-old had to produce a race-best 71:03 half-marathon and a last-minute sprint to the line to get the job done, his coach says he’s not even on his “A game” yet.

“That’s no disrespect to Sam, but like many athletes we’re focused on September and October for the Ironman World Championships,” said Tilbury-Davis, adding that Sanders is first looking to clinch a Kona qualification slot in Coeur d’Alene in June.

It might be surprising to some readers who have followed both his racing and the brutal workouts on his immensely popular YouTube channel, but Sanders is not a high-volume triathlete. At least, not any more. “Six or seven years ago he might have been, but his physiology now, we take a top-down approach—one that sports scientists might call reverse periodisation,” Tilbury-Davis explained. “We build his speed up first and then segue way into race pace work as we move into the season and the races get longer.”

As for the individual disciplines, the swim has been long been acknowledged as a weakness, but Sanders is now honing his ability to operate at “goal effort” with good technical competence and feel, under the guidance of Justin Slade at Aquabear Swim Club in Arizona.

“We’ve concluded that what works for Lionel is to say: ‘This is the pace and effort to hold’—about 1:07 per 100 yards at present—and he’s doing lots of swimming at that pace,” Slade said. “It might slide about a bit if we’re focusing on takeout speed for the race, but it’s not the engine that’s the problem, it’s the capacity to express it.”

The bike training has transitioned from “raising the roof” (Sanders’ ability to push huge power) to concentrating on race-specific work. “A lot of the interval work has become more specific to being in an aero position and riding at 70.3 effort,” Tilbury-Davis added. The run has been a mixture of building resilience through a lot of trail running and keeping the top end sharp, as shown in the run sessions below.

But tactics also play an increasing role when racing at this level. “With so many athletes on the course, you can train to hold a given power, but you also have to be prepared to respond to others’ tactics in a way you’re certain you are physiologically capable of.

“Lionel knows he can press so hard for so long, and he knows if his average power drops because he’s in a pace line, it’s not a big deal. The reality of racing at the pointy end these days is that you not only have to be able to play poker, but you have to know your hand,” Tilbury-Davis said.

There’s also the research and reconnaissance to understand the challenges of an essentially out-and back run course, and where the opportunities might lie. “We studied it and decided what the best way was to approach it tactically,” he added. “The first three miles in St. George is straight uphill and an athlete can blow their doors off. So, run strong but don’t kill yourself. Then, if you can carry speed into the rolling section, the half-marathon turns effectively into a 10-mile race and a 3-mile downhill sprint.”

When laid out in the aftermath, it all makes perfect sense, and it won’t just come in handy for Saturday’s triumph: The Ironman circus returns to the (nearly) same course for the much-anticipated Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September—one he’s yet to crack. Sanders’ best result is fourth from 2014, the first year he started racing pro.

However, there’ll be plenty in his favor when the season rolls back around to St. George, and for all the talent and will of his competitors, they know that if they’re left running shoulder-to-shoulder with Sanders over those final yards, they’ll face one hell of a battle. “Lionel’s mental toughness is on another level,” Tilbury-Davis concluded about his win. “He’s one of those guys that will be stretchered off… or win the race.”

Below, Tilbury-Davis has shared two of Sanders’ run workouts, including one that could have just been the ticket to victory against Long in Utah. With some modifications, the run workouts can also be done at home, as a part of a balanced training program. Victory over your rivals, not guaranteed…

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Sanders’ Sessions For Victory In St. George

Session 1

Broken Miles

Total distance:~8 miles 

Warm-up: 30 min. (including 6 x 20m “fast strides”)

Mile 1:
800m run at 5K race pace
90 sec. recovery walk or slow jog
800m run at 5K race pace
150 sec. recovery walk or slow jog

Mile 2:
800m run at 5K race pace
90 sec. recovery walk or slow jog
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.
90 sec. recovery walk or slow jog
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.
150 sec. recovery walk or slow jog

Mile 3:
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.
90 sec. recovery walk or slow jog
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.
90 sec recovery walk or slow jog
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.
90 sec. recovery walk or slow jog
400m run at 5K race pace minus 15-20 sec./mi.

Cooldown: 10 min.

Tilbury-Davis said: “This is a session to maintain your turnover and top-end speed. If a triathlete does too much tempo or 70.3 effort running, it can damage their ability to run fast. It’s a hard session, but not a lactate-inducing type workout, more a neuro-muscular session.” 

Session 2

The Money Shot Session

Warm-up: 15 min. building pace, including some fast strides

Part 1:

4 x 400m “Very Fast!” with 3 min. walk/jog recovery between each rep

Part 2:

6 x 800m at 70.3 goal race pace with 30 sec. walk recovery between each rep

Part 3:

1km at “threshold-like effort”
Straight into…
400m faster than the fastest 400m from Part 1

Cooldown: 15 min. easy jogging

Tilbury-Davis said: “This is more a race scenario session than a flat-out sprint. Running at 70.3 race pace is relatively hard, but not super taxing, given the athlete will normally have a 56-mile bike ride first, so it’s not quite as aggressive as it might sound. Part 1 is to build up the lactate. Part 2 is running on tired legs, and then you finish with the money shot—the final 400m where you are visualizing the last part of the race, and how you’ll be competing with your rivals and gunning for the tape.”