Triathlon sounds simple enough on paper. You swim, bike, and run. But throw in the idea of transitions, race-day logistics and brick workouts, and it can quickly become high maintenance. Brick workouts—named for the idea of stacking one workout on top of another—are the foundation of multisport training. They usually consist of a bike ride followed immediately by a run; the idea is to tax the body by making it transition from smooth, powerful cycling to strong, powerful running.
As triathletes, we’re always hungry to master a technique or skill associated with our sport.
Simple enough? Not always. Unless you live in a temperate climate, winter can make it challenging to execute brick workouts smoothly. Cycling shifts from “ride whenever, wherever” to nabbing a spot in a local spin class or hopping on the trainer in the basement. Because of the preparations required to face the elements, or the lack of a free treadmill waiting for you after class, running immediately after a bike becomes much more infrequent.
When you can’t follow a brick workout as prescribed, it’s time to get creative and whip up a workout that will tax your body tri-style. As a triathlon coach in Syracuse, New York, I’m well versed in making outdoor training work indoors. I recently developed something called a Brick Buster program to train athletes for strong transitions through a 75-minute workout that includes a mix of spinning and step aerobics. The athletes ride hard on the bike, move quickly to the step for 15 to 20 minutes of plyometric-style exercises, and then get back on the bike. We make this transition two times, making the workout into a mini duathlon that blends smooth cycling with explosive, powerful exercises. It works because it mimics the three basic goals of brick workouts:
Work under pressure
I program 30 seconds for our transition from the bike to the step, during which the athletes change out of their cycling shoes into cross training or running shoes. This allows them to feel the stress of going from one activity to the next, while attempting to stay calm. If the transition starts to feel easy, I’ll add more tasks to complete—things like moving a five-pound weight from one side of the room to the other, or putting on a fuel belt before getting on the step.
Turn up the intensity
The point of completing brick workouts is to make the transition from bike to run despite the fatigue that occurs in the legs. Many spin classes last an hour, so you have to make the most of it when you’re on the bike. Add a little more tension during the faster tracks to get the feel of pushing in the big chain ring, and climb the inclines with a strong, solid pace. Whether you’re in a class or on your trainer, do what you need to in order get the legs fatigued. If you can’t easily go on a run after that, throw the legs immediately into another exercise—jumping rope, burpees, jogging in place with high knees, jump squats, or any regular aerobics class will do the trick. Just remember to keep the intensity up.
Look for the challenge
Bricks eventually become standard operating procedure and you get used to transitioning from one exercise to another. When this happens, it’s time to find a way to reinstate the challenge. As triathletes, we’re always hungry to master a technique or skill associated with our sport. We seek challenge because it gives us new milestones, and a reason to keep moving every day. Even if you have the ability to do traditional brick workouts without any issue, look for a way to make them challenging again. Add a set of 20 push-ups after each mile, or turn your run into a one-minute period of walking lunges every 10 minutes.
The challenge of juggling weekly workouts across three sports is something all triathletes must face. By nature, we are forced to get creative with how we schedule our time to meet training needs. Use that same creativity to make your workouts work for you. Just like on race day, our training isn’t always going to go the way it “should”—being able to come up with an alternative plan is part of the deal.
Lisa Barnes is a USAT Level 1 coach and an Ironman athlete who lives and trains in upstate New York. She also writes the monthly column Life Trainer, where she helps triathletes balance all aspects of life with their passion for multisport.