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Should Triathletes Run Standalone Marathons for Ironman?

Today Ironman Arizona marked the conclusion of Ironman season here in the United States.   Some athletes met their goals, whether qualifying for Kona, setting a PR, or simply finishing the event.   Unfortunately, other athletes experienced the disappointment of disintegrating on the run.  Many athletes seek to remedy their Ironman run failures by signing up for offseason marathons.  Athletes who haven’t done an Ironman sometimes believe they need to run 26.2 miles standalone before doing it in a race.  This thinking sounds good on a superficial level, but has many drawbacks if you understand the costs and benefits.   

If someone wants to sample the endurance sport smorgasbord and participate in a variety of events without regard for performance, they can do whatever the heck they want as far as I’m concerned, so long as they don’t get hurt.   However, a more discerning approach is needed for optimal performance in the coming seasons; and yes, I do mean seasonS  , because short term race selection can have lasting effects in the coming years.  While I usually find myself going against the mainstream on a variety of issues, the view I am about to advocate for has become more accepted throughout the coaching community.  

"But I need to practice running 26.2 miles."

In short…no you don’t.  There are many reasons why people fall short of their goals in long distance triathlon. 

  1. Bike pacing – Not keeping the ego in check
  2. Lack of bike fitness
  3. Nutrition – Not having a plan, not sticking with the plan, or having a bad plan.
  4. Lack of swim fitness – If the swim is taxing, you’ll pay at the end of the day
  5. Run pacing – Starting the run leg too hard
  6. Run fitness – Not being in running shape (Duh!)

Running 26.2 miles at Ironman pace does not require running 26.2 miles in training, and one’s ability to race 26.2 miles during Ironman is not enhanced by racing a standalone marathon.  If marathon performance did enhance Ironman run performance, then we’d see the fastest marathoners in the field running the fastest run times.  However, the fastest standalone runners often can’t express their full run potential compared to the competition because of other deficiencies.  Running fitness certainly matters, but is best developed through long term consistent training and expressed through intelligent race planning and execution…not by putting undue emphasis on a single running workout or race.   

The costs of running a standalone marathon far exceed the benefits for someone interested in Ironman performance.  The marathon requires a 2-3 week taper and at least a 3-4 week recovery.  That’s nearly two months of training nearly lost, not to mention the opportunity cost of what could have been accomplished through swim and bike training (swim training in particular, as the winter months are best to devote one’s energies to swimming). 

Some athletes say “I’ll just do it as a long training run” but even that approach has drawbacks.  Most triathletes run relatively low mileage due to balancing three sports.  For many, the marathon as a training run involves running the athlete’s entire weekly mileage in one run.  The only real benefit is having aid stations, but that’s a relatively weak justification for going the full 26.2.  Additionally, most standalone marathons are on the roads, which are less forgiving on the legs, leading to a higher risk of injury in the coming weeks and months.  If standalone marathons did not exist, very few people would even think of running that far in training.  However, the “Because it’s there phenomenon” is a powerful one and often leads to ill informed choices.      

Can it be done?  Of course it can.  Many athletes do it every year, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.  A better approach is to practice long term consistent run training with an appropriate mix of physiological and technical elements.  Signing up for a marathon in preparation for an Ironman is basically saying “I think this one single run workout is more important than all that I could accomplish in two months of uninterrupted training.”  Having a goal offseason running event is a great idea for multisport athletes, but keep the race distance to half marathon and below.        

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