Brick by Brick – Building Race Fitness

Perhaps the most psychologically challenging aspect of any triathlon is the transition from sport to sport. The shorter the distance and the more competitive the athlete, the more important it is to reach your best effort race pace quickly out of T1 and T2. An Ironman athlete whose goal is to finish can walk several minutes and jog several miles out of T2 to allow for recovery. The age-grouper hoping to get on the podium at the local sprint needs to find her 5K pace immediately out of transition, or risk losing the few seconds that may make the difference in achieving her goal.

Red Brick Wall 300x200 Brick by Brick   Building Race Fitness

All in all it’s just a-nother “brick” in the wall… of fitness.

Training for this transition is as much psychological as physiological. Getting your legs going when all the blood is in your upper body after the swim is challenging. Running after putting out a big effort on the bike is even more difficult. The harder or longer the bike effort, the more difficult the transition becomes. How can you prepare yourself to successfully deal with these challenges?

Simple: practice!

Enter the “brick” workout. The origin of the term “brick” is debatable: personally, I think it refers to how your legs feel when you start running after riding hard; I’ve also read that it’s more along the lines of “Bike. Run. ICK.” Either way, the point is the same!

Simply put, the brick is a workout where you conduct two sports back-to-back with as short a transition as possible, simulating a race scenario. The most common is the bike-run (or bike-run-bike-run-bike-run…) brick, but I’ve played around with swim-bike bricks as well. I find the former of the most value in my training.

I think any triathlete should add brick workouts early in their training plans (starting in the offseason/base phases) and often (weekly). Performing bricks with this frequency makes the transition from sport to sport second nature on race day. Psychologically, you know your legs are capable of more than they feel like immediately off the bike because you have pushed them in training under similar stress. This is where the mantra “Shut up, legs!” comes in handy. As I wrote last season, your legs lie to you coming out of T2.

Below are some ideas for workouts you can implement in training for your next event:

  • Aerobic Brick. This is a longer, slower, bike-run workout that you can focus on one sport or the other. Anything from 30 minutes to two hours or more at easy effort on the bike, followed by a 15- to 30-minute run at aerobic (slow to moderate effort: slower than your 10K pace) effort works. The goal of this workout is train your body to adapt to running after getting off the bike while building aerobic fitness. It is best done early in your training plan several months before your goal race. For my training (competitive age-group sprinter), a good length is 60 to 90 minutes on the bike followed by 15 minutes of running at half-marathon or marathon pace. If you use a heart rate monitor, you should spend the entire duration in zones 1 and 2. (Linked is an introduction to training zones.) If you want to build more running fitness, shorten the bike portion (30-90 minutes) and lengthen the run (30-60 minutes).
  • Tempo Brick. Similar in construct to the aerobic brick, this workout focuses a bit more on effort rather than volume. 45 to 60 minutes on the bike with two or three 10-15 minute sub-threshold (moderate, slower than race-pace) intervals is enough, transitioning again to 15-30 minutes running at 10K effort or incorporating several longer (5-10 minute) 10K pace intervals. This is not race intensity for a sprinter, but is faster than an aerobic brick. On your heart rate monitor, aim for zone 3. These are good for everyone from sprinters up through ultra-distance athletes, with increased time/distance depending on your goal race length. Incorporate these after you’ve done several aerobic bricks, about two or three months prior to your goal race.
  • Speed Interval Brick. This type of brick is the best way to prepare your mind and body for the rigors of a short-course race (ultra-distance (half-IM and longer) athletes have little use for this type of work), and it only takes about an hour to complete. This workout is best done using your bike trainer and a fixed distance running course; a track is ideal, but I set up my trainer in the garage and run around the block which happens to be a perfect half-mile! After a thorough warmup spin on the bike (10 minutes or more), ride a five-minute interval with the first minute or two at an easy spin, and the last three to four minutes at race effort. After the bike interval, transition to an 800m/half-mile run at your goal 5K pace. (Pace is key, heart rate will lag effort too much and is not useful in this workout.) Transition back onto the bike, and repeat the bike interval above: two-minute spin (recovery between intervals), then three minutes at race effort. Complete the bike-run cycle three to five times, focusing on achieving your goal 5K pace immediately off the bike. Finish with a complete jogging or spinning cool down as this is an intense session!

During my self-experiment with CrossFit Endurance (CFE) last year, I struggled with running out of T2 in my first several races. My wife pointed out that I hadn’t done any brick work all season, and she was right. Once I implemented a few brick sessions (and after moving away from the CFE protocol), my run times improved quickly. I think the bricks were the key to making that happen. This season, my coach started my brick work about a month into my training plan. Now several months into my base-building foundational work, the bricks have gotten a bit faster and I feel much more mentally prepared for the rigors of next week’s first race of the season. It’s never too late to bring bricks into your training!

Do you have any brick workouts you like? I’m always interested in new ideas – leave a comment!

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