IRONMAN World Championship, 1989. Dave Scott and Mark Allen

Triathlon training is a complicated act. There are endless pieces that get put together for a great race.

Science scrapes apart these individual pieces in an attempt to bring about a jump in performance when it counts most. But that miraculous machine called the body has way more going on than a lab can explain.

Want an example? How about that sore knee you had last year? Science has a tough time figuring out everything that made that happen. If it was easy, we would never get injured! We’d never have a bad day! Wed never be surprise by lifetime best performances because the numbers would predict it!

So the search continues for ways to better the best of our time, the best of our personal history. Some of that knowledge is going to be found through trial and error. Personal experience will help in ways that no scientific paper could predict. I had to use this less-than-linear approach in the early years of my racing. There was no body of knowledge about how to combine three sports into a single endeavor that could last up to seventeen hours!

Out of those endless years of untested triathlon training, there were two pretty big discoveries that I want to share with you. They are odd tidbits that you will probably be hard pressed to find much said about them anywhere else. These are things that I have seen to be rock solid even though no research paper that I know of can corroborate them. Interested? Read on!

How do you go from struggling to serenity with your running?

Odd Tidbit #1- The Eight Mile Barrier.

This piece of underground knowledge has to do with the switch point where running becomes your friend. You see, some people find they struggle with running even after years of steady triathlon training. Running is a very natural thing for a human being to do! Others, on the other hand, cross over into a whole different realm where they often forget that they are even running while doing it. Their mind floats through random thoughts. They might be aware of their breathing or cadence, but rarely are they struggling. Their run is a freedom in and of itself. This is in sharp contrast to someone who is always experiencing this simple movement as somewhat painful or uncomfortable. For them it’s certainly not a fluid oneness that allows their minds to just wander and be free!

So how do you go from struggling to serenity with your running? More training? More weekly miles? Longer runs? Faster paces, slower paces? If you are an endurance animal, the answer has to do with a magical distance of around eight miles. When a person starts running, even a mile or two can seem like a marathon.

Mark Allen IRONMAN World Championship, 1993

But over time as you run more you will likely start to see that a small portion of it can become ‘comfortable’ in that it’s not a struggle to cover the distance. Then you might start to build up your long runs so that they are six miles, then twelve miles, then even upwards of eighteen to twenty miles. But not all of that is going to be ‘comfortable’. In fact, you might be able to bust your way to a very long run but still feel like there is no ease anywhere.

The critical key is to adapt your triathlon training over time with a steady running diet of shorter runs, longer runs and some speed. Eventually there can come a point where about eight-miles is something you are able to cover comfortably. Once you hit that level your running as a whole will start to take on a totally different complexion. Getting enough of a running base in your body to the point where eight miles becomes an ease seems to tip the scale in favor of running being your friend rather than something awkward, boring, or potentially injurious.

It was not until my body adapted enough to have eight-miles feel fairly easy that running switched from being like a foreign language that I barely understood to a sport that I had fluency in.

For me this process took about three years from the time I started running as part of my triathlon training to get to the point where it switched and running took on ease. During that time I did longer runs. I raced in Kona several times. But it was not until my body adapted enough to have eight-miles feel fairly easy that running switched from being like a foreign language that I barely understood to a sport that I had fluency in.

Toward the middle of that third year of running I noticed that eight-miles was starting to feel comfortable. My mind would wander and I was only aware of the rhythm of my running rather than the pain or awkwardness of it. I felt fluid. Then all my runs started to take on an element of that fluency and fluidity. This is not to say that you can’t ever become comfortable if you never run even close to eight miles. If you still feeling like a fish out of water while running, stick with it! Eventually you will gain that feeling of running being your friend!

Odd Tidbit #2- The Three-Hour Barrier.

This one is going to be most useful for those of you who will be doing races that last over about three hours. It has to do with physiological resets that take place in training and racing about every three hours.

Here is the experience. You are doing a long bike ride that is going to last perhaps five hours. Up to around three hours into the ride you feel basically steady and on top of things. Then around that time you can go through a period of 10-15 minutes (sometimes longer) where things just don’t feel in sync in your body. Maybe your energy levels drop or it feels like you are struggling to maintain your focus. But then at 3:30 into the ride you are back into your groove and it more or less lasts through the remainder of the ride.

…design some training sessions that are also longer than three-hours.

Here’s the tidbit. There is some kind of shift physiologically at that three-hours in point. It’s a physiological transition area where your body is readjusting something. During the transition, just like when you go from bike to run, things can feel awkward. But you do make it through and get back in the rhythm and flow of things. Here’s the message to adhere to in your triathlon training: train this transition if you are going to need it in the race. If you are doing an event that will take you more than three-hours to complete, then design some training sessions that are also longer than three-hours. This will train your body to make it through that rough patch quicker with less impact.

Mark Allen IRONMAN World Championship in 1984 moments before he was started walking.

It’s just like when you practice bricks in your triathlon training (doing bike to run sessions back to back). You get into the run flow much quicker than if you don’t practice this transition.

If you are doing an Ironman, it can be extremely beneficial to practice the transition that happens at six-hours as well. You can gain the adaptation to handle this in a few ways. Go out and do a 6:30-7:00 hour ride. Or, split it up and do a 5:30 ride followed by a 60-minute run. Both will take you over the six-hour physiological transition that happens.

Prior to 1989 I never did any triathlon training that lasted more than six-hours. I never practiced that second three-hour transition. In the race I was fine in the first transition that took place at about three-hours into an Ironman, but I fell apart after the second one at six-hours just like clockwork. Finally in 1989 I did a number of workouts throughout the season that lasted over six-hours. That also happened to be the first year that I won in Kona and the first Ironman I did where I was strong after that second six-hour shift rather than struggling.

She almost burst out of her chair when I talked about this shift.

I mentioned this tidbit during a Fit Soul, Fit Body seminar a few years ago that Terrie Schneider was attending. Terrie was a top triathlete in the 1980’s and early 1990’s who eventually transitioned over into a world-class multi-day adventure racer. She competed in seven Eco-Challenge competitions (300-mile events nonstop in rugged unmarked terrain). She almost burst out of her chair when I talked about this shift. Terrie said that in the adventure races once you start to get depleted that about every three-hours you go through a short transition of 5-10 minutes. In those periods you can see things that aren’t there or suddenly be totally disoriented. You feel like you are somewhere other than where you really are. She said no one had ever talked about those transitions before but they were very real and she had experienced them personally in her adventure races!

So what should someone do who is going to take twelve or fifteen or close to seventeen-hours to complete their Ironman. Do they have to do triathlon training lasting nine-hours or twelve-hours? Is that necessary to be able to handle the shifts that take place there? It appears that the answer is no. If you do training that takes you through those first two shifts (at three-hours and six-hours) that seems to be enough to prepare you for any others you will encounter if you will finish in a time that takes you through other shifts.

There you go! Two odd tidbits that likely no one has talked to you about before. I hope they help!


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About the author Mark Allen More information on the author

I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.