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Bricks and Sweating the Small Things. By Bruce Thomas

 Bricks and Sweating the Small Things.

We race triathlons for fun, we train to get the best from ourselves from a race. Over the past few issues we have discussed the basic building blocks required to get yourself fit enough to complete a triathlon. I now want to look briefly at the role of a very triathlon specific training session: the brick. Most triathletes use this term to refer to training sessions that involve bike and run training in the same session. I would like to also talk about the usefulness of training sessions involving swim and bike training in the same session. Also, since a triathlon can take anything from 40minutes to 15 hours to complete, depending on the distance of the race and the ability of the athlete, your mind and “mind games” play an important part in enabling yourself to remain focussed for the duration of an event. Consequently, I want to discuss some basic “coping techniques” that will enable you to get the most out of your race an allow you to exploit the training that you have completed. Both transition training and mental skills are aspects that will help you to gain the most from your body irrespective of the distance that you are racing.


I have also discussed the importance of transitions in triathlon. Time spent on training for transition is time well-spent. The swim to bike transition is one that is crucial and often neglected. A good session to introduce into your schedule as a goal race approaches is a swim-bike transition session. This can be done at the pool with a wind-trainer. The distances that you will practise over will depend on the distance of the race that you are training for. Sprint distance athletes might indulge in a 100-200m interval followed by a short burst on the wind-trainer (10min or so) and repeat this 3 or 4 times. This trains your body to change from swimming to running and also gives you some practise at going through the steps of transition. As the race distance increases the athlete might increase the length of the swim interval, the run interval or the number of repetitions of the swim/bike combination. Of course, if you have the facilities to be able to swim and then get on the bike to ride on a road or track, this gives you a more exact replication of race transition and is consequently preferable.

Bike to run transition training is often referred to as a “brick” session. These are of crucial importance irrespective of the distance that you plan to race. A brick session can take various forms and can simply be a run following a bike ride or a be little more specific and target specific distance races. Training the muscles to “convert” from the riding action to the running action is the main priority here. Once your body has adapted to it, the feeling of running on the spot after dismounting the bike becomes a sensation of the past. To gain the most benefit from a brick session, they should be performed at race pace. Consequently, the riding should be solid – obviously faster the shorter the distance the race is that you are training for. Once on the run, try to settle into your race rhythm as quickly as possible. I am not a big fan of long runs off the bike. Generally, the physiological change over from ride to run is complete with in a couple of kilometres of running. Running for long periods off the bike is only good for confidence and does not have a huge benefit for your race preparation. I think that your time would be better spent doing shorter runs off the bike and having other sessions to achieve specific goals in running. This also avoids the potential of injuring yourself as a result of running in a fatigued state after a solid bike session. For long course athletes, doing several “mini-bricks” (10-20km on the bike with a 2-4km run off the bike) is a good sharpening and/or speed set that gives you some volume and also more opportunity to practise the transition process.

Coping Techniques:

Apart from the physical considerations the best advice for an athlete trying to maximise their potential in a triathlon is: “Don’t sweat the big things”. The “big things” maybe things like the weather or qualifying or beating a mate. These are things that can be too big to get your mind around and, in most cases, have components that are beyond your control. There is no point in wasting nervous energy on things that you can not control. Far better to worry about the things that you can control and focus on doing these to the best of your ability. So the saying: “Worry about the little things (the things that you can control) and the big things will look after themselves” is a useful one to keep in mind.

So once you get to race day, what are the things that you can control? Certainly, where you start in the swim is up to you. You should be aware of your swimming ability and position yourself accordingly. If you are not a strong swimmer and find the thought of sharing the water with a large number of other athletes somewhat daunting, then a start position towards the outside of the field would be advisable. If you are a strong swimmer you want to start near the other strong swimmers so that you can get the benefit of drafting off the athletes who will help you most.

At the start of the swim you should move off at a strong but not suicidal pace. A good training set for race starts is to swim some 400-1000m repetitions in which you swim solid for the first 100-200m and then settle into a steady pace for the remainder of the interval. If you have trained your body to cope with this style of swimming, establishing yourself in a strong swim pack becomes less of a challenge and can change the people that you ride and run with later in the race. This will then allow you to “pace” off stronger athletes which, if you are sensible and know your body, allows you to spend less mental energy getting through the race.

A lot of athletes are nervous about the swim leg of a triathlon. The thought of sharing a limited stretch of water with a number of other competitors can be quite daunting.. The best advice is to relax in the swim and think about your stroke. Swimming, being the most technical of the three disciplines of triathlon, does not require a high energy cost to go fast. A measured, efficient stroke will get you through the water more quickly than a far more tiring thrash. If you are feeling tired in the swim, consciously try to slow your stroke down and “hold” the water more effectively. This is something that you can control unlike other swimmers (who can often seem out of control).

The bike is usually the longest portion of a triathlon, both in distance and time. It is also most affected by outside influences such as the weather. While a strong wind can be frustrating on the run, it can be totally draining on the bike. You have to remain mentally focussed on the bike to achieve the best results. It is good to be aware of “positive spiralling”. If a situation occurs on the bike that you do not like, for example the wind picks up or your arch rival passes you, you have to have a process in place to cope with it. If you have no coping mechanism in place then the result is rarely good. If the wind picks up, the following would be an unhelpful and yet likely thought stream: “gee that wind is strong” -> “this is going to be a long bike” -> “I don’t know if I can hold this pace” -> “why am I doing this race?” etc. This is an example of “negative spiralling”: one negative thought leads to another and your performance drops off. Far better in this situation to have a plan to be able to develop a positive spiral. A more helpful thought train may be: “gee that wind is strong” -> “it is going to effect everybody” -> “I need to focus on the things that I can control” -> “I am going to concentrate on being aerodynamic in the wind” -> “ I am going to pedal efficiently” etc. Having thought about addressing negative situations with a positive thought process prior to racing will enable you to make the most of every situation in the race.

Come the run, what are the best coping mechanisms? By the time you are running, fatigue from the swim and the bike will be a factor. Speaking to runners, the feedback that I get is that, in a fatigued state, the most controllable part of the running gait is your cadence or stride frequency. As you get tired, your stride length will decrease. It is not easy to get your body to agree to increase the stride length again; however, the neuro-muscular energy required to keep your legs turning over is far less. So, if you are suffering in the run, think about your stride frequency and try to maintain it.

One other piece of advice regarding the run leg. When someone passes you on the run, particularly if it is someone you wish to beat, it is very deflating. In fact it can feel like you are suddenly trying to run through honey. This is usually because your form totally falls apart as you think about how disappointing it is that you have been passed. My policy is, as you hear another athlete approaching from behind, prepare yourself for the pass and totally focus on the things that you can control – like your running form – so that the effect of the “pass” is minimised and you will still end up with your best possible result for that day.

So to maximise your potential in a triathlon you need to have prepared properly, which, as the race draws near, includes transition and brick work. Beyond that, you need to be mentally prepared and have thought about the mind games that will get you to the finish line the most quickly. This means worrying about the little things (that you can control) and then the big things will look after themselves.

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