3 Simple Steps To Achieving Consistent Underachievement

Part three of a piece on triathlon.  No surprises with what we come to after we’ve swum and we’ve biked.  Hopefully a transition without many bikes in it if we’ve applied the lessons learnt the hard way so far.

Great.  My strongest discipline.  If I have background it is in running.  If I list my PBs across all disciplines the running ones are the most likely to raise an eyebrow – especially from triathletes.  Whilst not stellar, a 2:39 marathon is passable for a coffin dodger like me.  Certainly plenty passable enough to show signs that a 3:15-ish run split is not beyond the bounds of possibility.  I’d estimate toeing the line at any IM I’ve ever done my fresh marathon pace would be inside 2:50.  So lots of rules of thumb and the like out there but very few would suggest trundling around a minute a mile slower should be a problem.  So I’ve nailed the 3:15 run repeatedly right?  Okay, so not repeatedly but at least once in ten attempts surely? Wrong!  Not even close.  I’ve consistently hit sub3:30 but that’s not good enough or in line with potential.  Not really the type of consistency I’m shooting for. Pants in the water…I can accept that I wasn’t a good swimmer.  Pants on the bike…slightly more acceptable as I wasn’t coming from a cycling background…but pants on the run?  That’s the poorest of the lot and bitterest pill to swallow. Pants on the run doesn’t end with the underpants run.

My first mistake was not cutting free from running.  I was a big mileage guy and therefore even doing half the running I was before I decided to have a pop at Ironman was way too much – even before you factor in the relative weakness of my swim and bike.  If the Pros call a big running week 80k then I wonder what they’d call the 80miles per week I was still doing sometimes in the ‘run’ up to my first IM? Certainly ticks the consistency box.  When I look back at my training over the past few years most of the sessions where I’ve worked hardest have been running.  I tend to do the London Marathon each April and that leads to an over emphasis on running in the 2-3months leading up to it.  I’m never that fussed about the result – anything starting with a 2 will suffice – but that doesn’t stop the ego getting the better of me, doing a weekly hard run club session and, therefore, ending up with too much interest in the outcome.  The time, or more importantly effort, I’m spending there (on my strength) would be far better invested making improvements on the bike to pave the way to nail the run.IMG_8823b

To borrow that phrase we’ve seen for swim and bike :-

There’s a reason we do what we like.  If you like to avoid it learn to like it.

… or even in this case you if you like it learn to avoid it.

Pretty conclusive proof that being a ‘good’ runner and focussing on the run won’t translate into a good IM run split.  You don’t need to run fast to be good enough to qualify.  If we assume a balanced race then we can call good enough around 3:15 .  A quick look at the finishing times for Roth in 2013 show that of those finishing in places 25-100 only 30 people broke 3:15…so the ‘speed’ required is only 7:30 per mile (or 4:40 per km).  Whilst it’s obviously a big ask at the end of an IM, looking at the relatively few people that achieve it, it still doesn’t involve actually running fast.  It’s more running slow without slowing.  A lot more to do with strength and endurance than any kind of top end speed you may possess.   A lot to do with consistency too…consistently hitting 7:30 per mile in fact.

Running is my strength and I’d say that having clocked up something over 30 marathons and very rarely if ever (outside an IM!) suffering an explosion in the back half that I’m a relatively strong (and consistent!) runner…but I can’t run strong in an IM when I want to.  Conversely I think a large contributory factor to that is too much running.  Well it’s not quite as simple or paradoxical as it sounds it’s more a consequence of too much running equating to not enough biking and also too much running having a knock on effect in terms of the quality and consistency of the cycling training.  Running without a purpose isn’t something you should do on purpose. Logistically easy shouldn’t have a bearing on your training choice. Running is by far the most stressful activity on the body and hence burns more matches per hour leaving less matches for cycling – where they are needed most…esp for a ‘not Eddy Merckx’ like me.  So strength on the run comes as a consequence of having enough strength on the bike.  Then you need the ability to maintain a not very fast pace for a long time.  Start slow and don’t get (much) slower. Festina Lente some might say.

If running is the most destructive then it follows that running fast takes a lot out of you.  Running fast AND long even more so.  The benefit of running long and hard is negligible and yet the recovery time is significant…the exact opposite of what you want from your training.  When running long the primary focus of the session is to build some endurance – there are plenty of other better opportunities to build some speed that don’t involve ruining yourself and subsequently the next few days’ training.  Trainers on, ego off, one foot in front of the other with zero effort, finish feeling as close to how you felt when you started as possible.  If that seems like a big ask the solution is simple although many find it hard to execute…slow down.  Festina Lente some might say.

The IM ability to run slow for a long time doesn’t come from lung-busting repeats that leave you spent where the total work time is 30minutes or less.  You’re looking at being at the coalface for a lot longer than that so you need to train appropriately for your event.  Go half as hard and do twice as many – the training benefit for what you want will be way more than twice as much.  Think more along the lines of slower than 10mile pace rather than quicker than 10k pace. The first third of the session should feel comfortable, the middle third steady and only in the last third should it start to get challenging to hold the pace…but still a long way off a balls out effort.  Unsurprisingly the key word for the pacing of these would be consistency.  Festina Lente some might say.

So what are the top things I’ve learnt up to this point about IM running :-

1)      You can run well off 3-4 appropriate runs per week – forget about mileage targets

2)      You can’t focus on a marathon and an IM in one year.  Pick one, enjoy the other.

3)      The ‘run with runners’ directive isn’t appropriate if running isn’t your weakness

4)      Strength trumps speed every time at IM

5)      It’s virtually impossible to start an IM run too slow

6)      It IS impossible to finish an IM run too fast!

7)      Run speed counts for little if not coupled with appropriate bike strength – ensure you have that first

All the consistency in the world counts for very little if you can’t transfer that to consistently hitting your desired IM pace for 26miles.  It takes more than consistency alone.


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  1. Thank for sharing Adam.

    I spotted this article on run training last year

    It has some similarities with your article, as such not emphasising speed but strength especially towards back end of run.

  2. Thanks. Yes it’s a little more specific and prescriptive but underlying principles seem about the same. Personally though I wouldn’t be running 30mins at standalone marathon pace at the end of my longest run – far too destructive (if you can truly hit fresh marathon pace) and I think the training benefit is negligible. I might be doing that in the last few weeks if I was training specifically for a stand alone marathon but neither of these articles are talking about that. Seemingly you don’t need to be 220 Coach of the Year 3 times to talk sense. NFRS after all is it?

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