Many athletes, beginners and veterans alike, believe that the sport of triathlon is actually three separate sports, but that’s a misconception.
Triathlon is a single sport that combines three disciplines that are interrelated and contested in a specific order: swim, bike, run. Combining these disciplines in a back-to-back-to-back fashion is the unique draw that triathlon has over most other sports. It also requires specific training sessions to be prepared. One of the most specialized training sessions is known as a brick workout, and they are crucial to your success on race day.
A brick workout is any workout that combines swimming, biking and/or running into a single session. The most common example is the bike to run brick, where you go for a run immediately after finishing a bike ride. However, other combinations can also enhance your training.
Brick workouts are important because they simulate the fatigue your body will experience on race day and train your body specifically for those demands.
“The biggest benefit of brick workout is preparing your body for the unique challenge of moving from one sport to the next in a single race, while minimizing any major drop in your performance,” says Heather Blackmon, owner and founder of FITaspire, an online coaching and health support platform.
Brick workouts also allow you to dial in your race-day nutrition and pacing strategy. What your body needs to keep you feeling strong will depend on the length of the race and level of effort. Using back-to-back sessions, you can try different pacing and nutrition strategies so nothing is a surprise on race day.
In addition to the physical training, these sessions build your mental strength.
“What is even more beneficial, I think, is the mental aspect,” says Joe Vrablik, a 12-time Ironman finisher. “By doing bricks, you’re getting past the mental limitation of, ‘I can’t possibly do this.’ You start to realize the differing muscle groups that you use and that the run isn’t the impossible feat you thought it was.”
Finally, brick workouts also give you a chance to practice your transitions from sport to sport. It may seem simple to peel off your wetsuit, pull on your shoes, helmet, and sunglasses and get on the bike, but with the adrenaline of race day what seems simple can quickly become chaotic if you haven’t practiced.
Three Brick Workouts
Bike to Run
The most common brick workout, bike/run brick workouts help you understand how your legs will physically feel after coming off the bike, build your aerobic and muscular endurance, and help you dial in your nutrition.
“There’s very much a benefit to just getting your body used to running straight off the bike,” Vrablik says. “When first getting into tri, you get off your bike after a long ride and your body feels as if it can’t possibly go for a run. Doing bricks really gets your body used to getting past this feeling.”
There are two ways to focus this workout. One is to ride hard on the bike and then see what the legs have left. This type of brick builds your ability on the bike and tests your legs’ ability to simply hold on. Another way to perform a bike/run brick is to ride moderately during the bike, almost using it as a warm-up, then going hard on the run. This version emphasizes your run speed and gives you a chance to build confidence in your run.
Both types are useful for testing your race-day nutrition. The longer your event, the more important it is to have a detailed nutrition plan. What tastes good 45 minutes into a run may not taste good after riding for more than an hour and running for 20 minutes. This process can take time, Blackmon says.
“For many athletes, refining the timing of nutrition on the bike to allow for a smooth transition to the run is trial-and-error,” she says. “You need these brick workouts to find the right timing for your body.”
Another advantage to the bike/run brick is that they are very time-effective and can be done two to three times per week throughout your training. If you struggle to fit the training into your schedule, a 20-minute run off the bike is a great way to get extra miles in that are specific to what you will need on race day.
– 60-minute bike workout: 20-minute easy to moderate warm-up, then 40 minutes at goal-race intensity (either based on your power or heart rate goal)
– 20-minute run building to goal-race intensity
Swim to Bike
This brick is slightly harder to perform, but still very crucial to your race day buildup. Bring your bike and riding gear to the pool or lake, and, after a swim, quickly get your riding gear on and head out for a ride. When swimming, most of your blood goes to your upper body. When you stand up, your body starts to shunt your blood back to your legs so you can walk. Experiencing this before race day is critical. Not only will you need to walk or run to your bike, you’ll have to get on and pedal it too!
As with the bike/run brick, the swim/bike brick is critical for nailing down your nutrition. It is one thing to have breakfast and coffee, read the paper and then get on your bike. It’s an entirely different thing to get on your bike after swimming hard for 20 minutes or more with no nutrition or hydration.
Due to their complexity, the swim/bike brick typically is not a regular part of your training. Best-case scenario is to get two to three of these brick workouts in, about six to eight weeks out from race day. A big key to this workout is that the swim should be continuous to simulate your race-day effort.
– 30-minute swim: 10-minute warm-up, then 20 minutes of straight swimming, starting fast, then settling into race pace
– 60-minute bike session going immediately into race-day goal intensity and holding it for the entire hour. (If your race is a sprint triathlon with a bike leg of less than 40K, you can cut the bike session down to 40 minutes.)
Swim to Bike to Run
The logistics can be difficult, but there is no better way to test your fitness, race strategy, nutrition plan and race equipment than by doing a full-race simulation. Due to the difficult logistics and toll it takes on your body, the three-discipline brick only needs to be done once or twice in your build to race day and is best to do about six to eight weeks from your event.
– 30-minute swim: 10-minute warm-up, then 20 minutes straight swimming.
– 30- to 45-minute bike session at goal-race intensity
– 10- to 20-minute run building to goal-race intensity
No matter what level of triathlete you are, brick workouts should be a critical part of your training. Performing these workouts will prepare you better for race day both physically and mentally.