The Brick Run Conundrum

Since I began triathlon I’ve hated brick runs! Sometimes I’ve tacked on extra bike mileage as an excuse to avoid them. I wanted to state my prejudice before I wrote any more on the subject. I get the impression most triathletes love them and most Ironman athletes like them very long. I’m not about to suggest you avoid them, but question how much you do.

Specificity is a common theme of mine, it’s important how you train is relevant to your event and what could be more relevant than a brick session? I won’t devalue them for that, if you’re unfamiliar with the experience of running off the bike it’s worth practicing. My problem is with them as run training. Too often I’ve seen athlete’s blame disappointing run performances on insufficient brick sessions.

It would be a rare case where a lack of bricks was the cause of a poor run, yet they’re held in such high esteem. Perhaps a short course athlete has more to gain, but if you’re struggling with a marathon after a 112 mile bike you’re problem doesn’t relate to bricks. Run performance relates to your run and bike fitness and how you’ve paced the race, suitable training along with a well executed race plan deliver run results.

Given my dislike you may be wondering why previous posts have brick sessions in their plans. It’s a matter of time efficiency, especially when you see more than one in a week. Allocating time straight off the bike is usually easier than scheduling an entirely separate run. These brick runs aren’t key sessions, but they increase run volume and help time limited athletes develop run fitness.

In my early career time efficient run volume gains were the main reason I utilised bricks, but once full time I experimented further. Whilst living on the Gold Coast I tried running off every bike, over a month building from fifteen to forty-five minute runs. I’d added four hours run training to my week by the end of that block and the race that followed went well.

You can’t draw conclusions from a brief experiment, but the result wasn’t enough for me to adopt the practice. It’s impossible to tell if any impact in performance was specifically a result of brick running or simply because of additional volume. Periods of high run volume have yielded better results since so I suspect the increase wasn’t significant enough. I see advantages to running more, but little significance in whether extra running follows a bike ride or not.

For Ironman triathletes brick sessions can form a challenging training day and well executed are a good test of race pacing. An occasional four hour ride followed by an hours run makes for a solid day’s work (consider adding a swim too). My aim in these sessions is to build the effort on the bike and finish with a lot of race pace work then repeat that process over the course of the run. Building into race pace in both ensures this should be a tough session that gives feedback on race pacing.

I use these sessions sparingly, perhaps once a month and not at all over winter. My preference is to split bike and run over the day, it gives time to recover and eat so I run better later on. Learning to run on tired legs is often given as a reason to brick run lots, but I’m concerned too much reinforces poor run form. Rested legs will run better and the bulk of run training should be done with an emphasis on running well.

Fatigue is a natural part of the training week so you run on tired legs anyway. The long run delivers this experience, after an hour or two it takes effort to continue running well. A structured program should deliver enough run volume, but also enable some of those runs to be performed fresh. Brick sessions can fit in there, but shouldn’t dominate.

In training plans I tend to place the weekly brick run following a shorter threshold bike session. Logistically it’s easier to manage and the hard bike guarantees legs are in no fit state for running. A short well paced run after gives a good sense of leaving transition without too much impact on recovery. Those long brick sessions always concern me, if you push then the affects could carry into the next few days.

I’ve seen Ironman plans with serious brick workouts built around long bikes followed by two hour runs. If you can do that and recover to train as normal afterwards great, but I’d seriously consider their value. The training load achieved is comparable with racing which would be a far more enjoyable way for the same result. I want long bricks to be challenging, but I don’t want them to break me down to the detriment of the following week. This sort of session needs recovery, you’d be better dividing the work over a couple of days and keeping consistency.

I won’t deny there’s prejudice involved, but consider whether bricks are going to give you the improvements you want. Don’t remove them from your plans, but when you want to run better in triathlon don’t turn to them as the answer either. Run performance in triathlon is highly dependent on how you’ve paced your bike relative to fitness. To make improvements look to develop bike fitness further as well as working on run fitness. In the overall scheme brick sessions are fine tuning.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.