Will running races make you a better triathlete, or just lead you to injury? Garth Fox investigates.

Triathlon is one sport not three, and the cumulative fatigue we carry from one discipline to the next affects our overall performance, so it’s unlikely you will ever run a PB at the end of an Olympic triathlon. Even so, we often hear about top triathletes such as Alistair and Jonny Brownlee competing in (and winning) cross-country races over the winter. Is this all part of a carefully prescribed training plan, or is it just because they like racing? Let’s take a look at the benefits and pitfalls of using running races as training, and see if we can put an edge on your race-day run at the end of a triathlon.

Pinning on a race number is a surefire way to raise the hair on the back of your neck and get the adrenaline pumping. If you find yourself chasing that natural high on an increasingly regular basis throughout the year, you should beware. That feeling of ‘race hype’ may give you the edge that leads to PBs, but it is also physiologically stressful and mentally draining. Race all season long and you will flatten yourself physically, and your base training volume will be compromised due to fatigue.

The way to make training races work for you is to time them appropriately in relation to your most important race of the year. If, for example, that race is at the end of July, you should avoid racing too often in the winter when you are putting in the base mileage. Otherwise you will find that the higher intensities that racing engenders will lead to a rapid and premature peak in your form, closely followed by burnout. By all means throw in a few 5k, 10k or Brownlee-style cross country races during that early part of the year to provide variety and motivation, but absolutely not on a regular basis.

As you move closer to your key triathlon of the year, entering running races is an excellent way to tune fitness. The idea is to prepare the body (and mind) for the demands of racing; just keep it specific. If Olympic distance is your thing then there is no point in running half marathons as tune-up races – 5k and 10k races are better suited to your goal. Even if you only run at 95% of your maximum in these races you will still be running at a pace that matches or even exceeds what you can manage at the end of a triathlon. In other words, you can use them as effective training sessions without needing doing yourself any damage in the process.


Michi Weiss – 2011 World XTERRA Champion – uses running races as training, but only sparingly.

“Running races are a great way for triathletes to improve their run performance and to break up the off-season routine, but choose your race distance carefully. Recovery is just as important after a triathlon. In my experience, every 1km of race running takes one day to fully recover from. You should only build up to a running race after 6-8 weeks of base training. The goal in a running race is to run faster than in the run leg of a triathlon. They can be a triathlete’s secret weapon, but they must be chosen wisely and
planned properly.”

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in triradar.com’s Training Zone section.

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