Off Season Marathons for Triathletes

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marathonThe end of the 2015 triathlon season is drawing near. Typically highlighted with the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. As the season ends, the “off-season” begins. This is a contentious time for many triathletes. The conundrum being how to spend their time between the end of this season and the beginning of the next.

In general, the off-season for the triathlete is very different from that of the marathoner, cyclist or long distance swimmer. Remember, as a triathlete there are three sports that need work, not just one. As an athlete plans their off-season, they need to prioritize and organize. Is it the run that has been your limiter for your goals? Now the athlete must ask why. Is it strength, endurance, speed or form. The off-season is a GREAT time to work on one or all of these items but every item comes at a cost. You can work on endurance and strength but the cost is typically speed. You can work on form, but speed and endurance typically take a hit, etc.

When it comes to the run, many people are under the impression that you work on speed, strength and endurance at the same time so a fast marathon seems the best way to “cram” your training in. This requires the athlete to ask themselves the question, is speed the limiter? Can the athlete run a 7 minute mile? So is speed the problem or is it actually endurance/strength? They have the speed they desire but not the endurance/strength to carry that speed. By that rationale a marathon is exactly what the athlete needs. Right? Maybe not. Read on.

The problem with running, is that most athletes have poor strength and poor running form. They run with bad posture, with low run economy or with just bad technique. These poor techniques typically lead to injury which in and of itself makes for a bad off-season. The athlete starts their next season recovering from injury or having missed a great opportunity to improve during the off-season. This all comes back to the original question, should a triathlete do marathons in the off-season?

The answer is, it depends. Often times triathletes have a bad run because of poor pacing on the bike or generally bad bike fitness. In short, athletes go too hard or they just aren’t fit enough on the bike to go as fast as they want and then run off the bike. In many cases, working on strength and bike power during the off-season translates to a better run. That being said, it doesn’t mean that the athlete shouldn’t consider the off-season marathon, however, it is recommended that the athlete do an inventory of what they actually need to focus on.

“It could very well be that no other sport is so popular yet as potentially harmful as marathon running. Studies on marathon runners indicate that the physiological stresses of running a marathon far outweigh the physiological benefits. At best, a successful marathon runner will have a few thousand fewer calories to carry around and, once the recovery process is complete, stronger bones, heart, and muscles. “

This quote is from “The Physiology of Marathon Running” by Jake Emmett, Ph.D. The paper puts in perspective all the damage that is done physiologically by marathon training and racing. The damage to the body, the immune system and the prolonged recovery can completely alter the following season and really limit the possibilities of improvement during the off-season of the other two legs of triathlon.

The race itself, when simplified, is the most destructive. The average runner puts between 30,000 and 50,000 steps into a marathon. When running the range of impact is 4x-15x (the faster the pace, the more the impact) the runner’s body weight. Applying that math on a conservative low-end (30,000 x 160 x 4) the athlete finds a marathon distributes 19,200,000 lbs. of force on the ankles, knees, hips, and spine! This is why the physiological blood markers for “repair” can be found for up to 40 days following a marathon. If the typical triathletes takes a week off and goes right back into triathlon training, the athlete will likely not fully recover for a much longer period of time. The worse the run form, core strength, pelvic girdle strength or athlete’s weight the much harder this is on the body.

In short, the athlete must decide if the focus on completing a marathon lines up with their multisport goals. Running a marathon isn’t bad. Doing triathlons isn’t bad. The question is which one is the priority?

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