Did Triathlon Training Build a Better Marathoner?

Posted: October 19, 2012 in Training
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On Friday morning at 4:48 a.m. on a darkened street in Avery Ranch I pushed away from the driveway where I was stretching my hamstrings and calves to start my workout.  The temperature had dropped to an even 50 degrees overnight.  The flag on our house lay limp from the post.  Not a single breath of air to move it.  In a word the running weather was …. perfect.

I had a late night on Wednesday night this week due to some travel and I decided that instead of running my Thursday Hill Repeat Workout and resting on Friday, I would simply flip-flop my workout days, rest on Thursday and then run on Friday.  Usually a decision like that – putting something off into the future for personal/selfish reasons – comes back to bite you in the form of a thunderstorm, high temperatures, ungodly humidity, a flood, locusts …. you get the picture.  That decision for a runner never seems to pay dividends.

This time however, it paid of handsomely.  Shorts, Singlet, light gloves and my Boston Marathon Race shoes carried me up the long hill to the top of the neighborhood for my 3-mile warm-up.  The loop would deposit me at the bottom of the hill where we run our repeats on Thursdays.  3/10 of a mile long, 65 feet of climbing from the base to the top where we turn around under the street light and make a slow recovery jog back to the bottom to do it all over again.

Hill Repeats have become a staple in our training since the Austin Marathon in February of 2011.  It was famously described by Frank Shorter as “speedwork in disguise” as if the workout is run properly, you are essentially running at 5K effort up a steep incline for anywhere between 400 and 600 meters.  To run at that intensity uphill is akin to running at far below your 5K race pace approaching your lactate threshold.

The runner gets the same gains as doing repeats on a track – but at a far reduced injury risk as the stride is shortened by the incline and you are not navigating any turns at a high-speed.

It also taxes your climbing muscles which creates not only a faster athlete on hills, but a strong fast runner on the flats as well.

That is why although there is hardly a hill that is not manmade on the Houston Marathon Course (think overpasses only), we are preparing for the race as if it were as hilly as Boston, NYC or Pittsburgh.

When I started doing this workout a couple of years ago I would be able to crest the hill in 1 minute and 47 seconds.  Approximately 6:25 pace per mile.

As I stuck with the workout my times per repeat improved and I was suddenly running them between 1:42 and 1:44 all the way up to 10 repeats.  Approximately 6:10-6:15 pace per mile.

A funny thing happened to me this summer however as Triathlon Season started and I was spending more time swimming and biking.  I got faster.

Instead of the 1:44’s or 1:45’s that would occasionally pop up – I was now “living” in the 1:41-1:42 range.

On August 30th, the day after Landry’s birthday and the day before Dawn’s, I ran an opening repeat at 1:40.  6:02 pace for the first repeat and the thought entered my head.  “Could I actually run a repeat under 1:40?”.

I jogged slowly to the bottom, gathered myself, made the turn and blasted up to the top of the hill.  I pushed the last 100 meters as hard as I could, hit the watch to mark the top of the hill and looked at the dial.  1:39.  I would run the third and 9th repeats also in 1:39 that day and a new threshold had been reached.  All during the ramp-up to half-ironman.

This morning was the first hill repeat workout since Kerrville as I stayed away from the hill sessions in the two-week taper prior to race day and the two-week recovery period.  But today they were back.

Repeat 1: 1:40
Repeat 2: 1:38
Repeat 3: 1:36 **
Repeat 4: 1:38
Repeat 5: 1:36 **
Repeat 6: 1:37
Repeat 7: 1:37
Repeat 8: 1:37

1:40 which was only two months ago a huge barrier both physically and mentally for me to push through was this morning my “warm-up”.  Hitting 1:36 (5:53 pace) not once but twice – amazing.  But what made me the most happy as I exercised patience by only running 8 repeats this morning, 9 next week and then finally 10 the following as I want to build back to that intensity and duration gradually to err on the side of “recovering caution” post race – is that my final three repeats were rock solid at 1:37 each.  No drop off, no slowing down.  In a word.  Perfect.

Training is all about stressing your body to force adaptation, then giving it the room and recovery time it needs to adapt and grow stronger.

It would appear that the Triathlon training this summer that put us in a position to excel in Kerrville at the Half-Ironman distance has paid some other dividends.  We are stronger, faster and have more endurance than we have ever had at any time to this point.

13 weeks to Houston.  For the first time I am not thinking about whether or not we will break 3 hours in the marathon.  I’m starting to think about by how much.


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