Recently, I've come to the conclusion that track workouts are, at best, completely unnecessary and, at worst, detrimental for the vast majority of amateur triathletes training for Ironman and half Ironman-distance races. I've been forming this perspective as I've observed age groupers swear by their frequent track workouts to build running speed. Yet, when I watch these races, I see many amateurs jogging, shuffling, or walking on the run portion of the event. None are running anywhere near the paces they train on the track.
In looking to quantify these observations, I found a website publishing statistical analyses of Ironman race results. According to runtri.com, the average time for the marathon at Ironman Texas in 2013 was 5:17, which is 12:05 minutes/mile average. Knowing that Houston's weather at the end of May is less than ideal for running, I looked at Ironman Arizona. That race is held at the end of November, when temperatures are much cooler; there is almost no humidity, and the course is not particularly hilly. The average marathon time in 2012 was 4:59, an 11:24 minute/mile average. What about the half distance, where athletes should be running much faster than at the full Ironman? Runtri.com reports the average time for the half marathon at Ironman 70.3 Austin was 2:19, a 10:36 minute/mile average pace.
I realize these averages represent a wide variety of competitors, ability levels, and ages. My point is that hammering out speedy track workouts is an unnecessary part of training for these events if the average person is running 10:30–12 minutes/mile. My advice is geared toward 97 percent of competitors. The top 3 percent (professional and elite age group athletes) may need different types of training to perform at their level, but I urge the remaining long distance triathletes to consider my arguments. In fact, most professional triathletes I know do far fewer track sessions than amateurs.
I understand an athlete's urge for track sessions. Many people value the social aspect of training and thus join groups. Because track sessions have long been part of running culture, these groups often include weekly track sessions. It also feels good to run fast on the track. When finished, runners feel like they really did themselves good by hammering out those shorter, faster efforts. But for athletes training for longer triathlons, there are better training approaches to get faster.
Nothing makes an athlete slower than being injured. Most injuries are caused by too much volume or intensity, and the high intensity levels achieved on the track greatly increase the risk of injury. Track sessions may tip runners over the edge when training for that next race.
There's an adage in sports that you only have so many matches to burn each week in training. Think of the body as a matchbook. Every time a really hard effort is pushed, a match is burned. When all of the matches are burned, you risk injury. Most athletes push too hard on the track and, in doing so, burn a couple of matches. That leaves less physical and mental energy for other more important workouts specific to Ironman and half Ironman-distance training. Athletes would be better off saving that energy to work on increasing muscular endurance and strength on the bike, so they're fresher and able to run at a speed closer to their abilities in the final portion of a triathlon.
There's a trap in triathlon: athletes think they're training for three different sports. In fact, triathletes are training for one sport—triathlon. It has three disciplines and the tendency is to look at each separately. But the only time that matters is the finish. Yes, athletes have to train each discipline, but too many look at each sport in a vacuum. They think they need to train like a pure runner, pure swimmer, and pure cyclist. Those who head down this road set themselves up for burnout and injury. As I mentioned, the track is a staple of pure-running culture. An Ironman is an 8–17 hour effort, which is a very different event than training to PR a 30–50 minute effort at a 10K running race.
The types of shorter efforts people run on the track work the wrong metabolic systems than those critical for Ironman triathletes. Most people spike their heart rates for a few minutes, then stop and rest. In this case, the body is learning to metabolize at a more anaerobic rate than will ever be utilized in a 12-minute mile pace during an Ironman. This teaches the body to be efficient at the wrong effort level. What also compounds this is that swim practice is probably working these same systems. The heart and lungs only know how hard they're working; they don't care if it’s while running or swimming. Let's say an average triathlete is running, swimming, and biking three times per week per sport. Most masters’ swim programs give athletes sets of 50s, 75s, 100s, and 200s. So, already, three times per week at swimming, the metabolic system is working at that same 1–3 minute intensity level. Add in a track session, and now four out of the total nine training sessions are working in a system different than that most critical to performing in a half or full Ironman.
None of this is to say that athletes should never work on speed or intensity. In fact, it's important to work all systems—but in different ways and at different times in training. I could write more articles on speed-specific training for long-distance triathlon. For now, I want to open athletes’ eyes to the idea that pounding out efforts at 6–7 minute/mile pace on the track won't help if they’re running 12 minutes/mile in an Ironman. And if you think I'm just making this up, I'd like to point out I've won an Ironman and finished second overall in four other Ironman races…and I haven't stepped foot on a track in more than two years.