The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Brick Workouts

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Yesterday’s post started a little bit of an interesting discussion about bricks over on Google+. At the same time, this thread over on Beginner Triathlete was going on talking about the same thing. There seems to be a wide spectrum of opinion out there about the value of bricks for 70.3 distances and beyond. I see the points on all sides, but I think I fall some place in the middle.

What I have to say on the subject is a little long for posting in either of those places. Luckily, I have this venue. Now, I’m by no means telling anyone else what they should do. I’m not a coach, and I’ve probably given out more bad advice than good over the years.

Like everyone else, I used to swear by bricks and ran a 10% run after every bike ride. Why did I swear by them and do them so religiously? Well…because everyone else did. Now I’m not so sure that was a good idea, but it fit into my general training M.O. back then–empty the tank every single time you train. If you aren’t willing to empty the tank, don’t bother training.

Needless to say, I skipped a lot of workouts back then.

Remember, these are just my observations and opinions about what seems to work for me. I’m using “I” and “me” everywhere I can. Feel free to collect your own test data.

The Good

  • For beginners. I think bricks are vital for two reasons when you are first starting out. First of all, you need to know what you’re legs are going to feel like coming off the bike. Secondly, you need to know how long it’s going to last. If you don’t know these two things before your race, you’re in for a really big shock. But really–if you’ve been doing this for a few years, does that feeling freak you out any longer? It’s like a horror movie–really scary the first time, but when you already know what’s coming and have watched it over and over…meh.
  • For sprint training. I get the upside of “learning to run on tired legs” if you are going to need to go hard for the whole race. It kind of goes back to the first point of knowing how long the feeling is going to last and being able to mentally push on through that and keep going hard until it’s gone.
  • For testing a nutrition plan. A run of a few miles after a long bike ride will let you know pretty early on if you ate enough and hydrated right while riding. This can be pretty hard to figure out, and it may take a few sessions to dial it in. I actually think this is a HUGE upside to doing VERY EASY bricks for long distance training. But I don’t do any more of these than I have to.
  • For squeezing in a couple of workouts on limited time. Sometimes I have only one chance to workout on a day, but I need to get two in. This is an effective way to squeeze it in without having to prepare twice. Might as well make it a transition practice while you’re at it.
  • A race rehearsal. Not the entire race, just what you plan on doing out of T2. For me, that means thinking about cadence, form, and keeping the pace down. Yeah…I said keeping the pace down. A one mile run is more than enough distance for me to do this.

The Bad

  • For building aerobic endurance. Maybe there’s no detriment here either, but I don’t see any real value. If that’s the goal of the workout, why not get in the pool and swim instead? I’ll get all the benefits of the aerobic work without any of the pounding I get while running. Not that I recommend that either–swimming after cycling is probably begging for your technique to be destroyed. On second thought, that’s probably a benefit in my case. Aerobic and Anaerobic aren’t the same thing, and that’s important to remember for the second point.
  • “Learning to run on tired legs” for anything longer than an Olympic distance race makes no sense to me. For 70.3 races and up, why not  “learn to ride a bike for a few hours without tearing my legs up” instead? That means staying aerobic on the bike instead of deliberately trashing myself so I can go out and run a bunch of *ahem* shitty miles with bad form and throwing myself into anaerobic zones just to maintain some pre-determined pace I think I ought to do. Not casting stones if you do this. I’ve done it. A lot. I just don’t think it paid off for me.
  • Trashed isn’t just for today. I pay the price for a few days. I have to think of what a long hard brick does to me going forward. If I go out and do a 60m/10m brick on a Sunday and intentionally trash my legs during this workout, I’m sacrificing Monday completely, and probably at least part of my Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday as well. And what do I get out of it really? Maybe I prove to myself that I could do it? I’ve already done that. Again, I do try to get in a couple of long bricks in the middle of my training plan to test my nutrition plan, but I make sure the run is super easy–like “holy crap, I’m embarrassed by this pace and don’t really want to post it to DailyMile”  easy.

The Ugly

  • They take a really long time. I’m lucky to have the best and most supportive girlfriend* in the whole world. She gives me Saturday and Sunday mornings to do what I need to do to train. A 2-3 hour workout means that I’m usually home by 9:30 or 10:00 at the latest on both Saturday and Sunday. She’s never complained once. She’s even ok with me turning that into a 5 hour workout occasionally if it’s a nutrition test day. But I’d feel guilty about leaving her to deal with our three heathens for a whole day every single weekend. She does it all week already…weekends are when she has a chance for some help, and I don’t want to deny her that.
  • “What do you mean ‘all day’? Five hours is not all day!” Well, it would turn into all day if I went out and bricked it hard. Sure, I may be gone for only 5 hours, but I’m definitely going to need a nap that afternoon. And I’d be pretty worthless (bonked) even when I’m awake–basically one more heathen to care for. I know how I end up on the afternoons after a race–not fun for her.

So there you have it. I’ve learned this stuff (for me) mostly by experience and reading what coaches (love Coach Brett) have to say about it. Go ahead and rip it to shreds.

But before you do, consider this one little tidbit…

After tapering, you have ~2,000 calories worth of glycogen in your liver and muscles. You cannot process food fast enough to replace these calories at the rate you’re burning them while racing, no matter how much or what you eat. If you go out and “trash your legs” by going anaerobic, you’re going to be using those calories instead of using your fat stores for energy. Every notice how it seems like so many people hit the wall at mile 20 in a marathon? That’s why. Once those calories are used up, you are bonked.

For me, it’s mile 18, probably because I’m a little bit heavier and much more inefficient, so I burn the same amount of calories to go 18 miles most people do for 20. Another hard lesson (hopefully) learned.

So it makes complete sense to me to stay aerobic in most of my training (with some intense intervals thrown in here and there) and teach my body to burn the fat better. It’s just a simple math problem. In the perfect race, I’d start burning that stored up glycogen about 2,000 calories from the finish. The perfectly executed race plan would see me start my run on legs that aren’t tired and make sure they stay that way so I can finish on strong legs. So even in a brick, there’s no way I want to go hard on a bike and “learn to run on tired legs”.

The only benefit I see there is that you get to bonk. And from that, you learn that you never EVER want to bonk again if you can help it.

*Yes, we’re married, but we still like each other a lot, so I still call her my girlfriend.

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