Podcast, Racing, Running, Training

ROI of run training, the importance of hills, rethinking race selection – Coaching thoughts | EP#432

 May 16, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Coaching Thoughts - That Triathlon Show

A new format to the podcast (although familiar to readers of the Scientific Triathlon newsletter), I go solo and discuss three topics I've been thinking about recently in my coaching practice, and how you might think about them to become a better (and even happier!) triathlete.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • The ROI of swim, bike and run training, and how to optimise your distribution of the three sports
  • Running hills to run faster and stronger
  • Rethinking how you select races and events to sign up for

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Training distribution

04:30 -

  • When considering where to get the biggest return on investment (ROI) in distributing swim, bike, and run training, it depends on several factors: your strengths and weaknesses in each discipline, your athletic age in triathlon and the specific disciplines, your robustness and injury risk profile, your available training time, your race goals, and the demands of your upcoming race.
  • Let's assume you are an experienced athlete with balanced skills across swim, bike, and run, training moderately at about 10 to 12 hours per week, and have not had any significant soft tissue, overuse, or bone stress injuries in the past few years. For an athlete like you, who is evenly strong in all three disciplines, not doing excessive running volume, and proven to be injury-resistant, running often offers the highest return on investment.
  • For instance, if you find yourself with an extra hour or two to train each week, or if you are reconsidering your current training distribution, increasing your running volume might be beneficial. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. It’s important to consider your specific context, as this thought may hold for many athletes but not for all.
  • Two main exceptions are:
  • If you are prone to running injuries, focusing more on running usually leads to more injuries rather than improvement.
  • If you are a much stronger runner compared to a cyclist, you should focus on improving your cycling to balance your skills across the disciplines.
  • I believe that running often provides the best return on investment (ROI) compared to swimming. You can see improvements in swimming by adding an hour of training, similar to running. 
  • However, since swimming is the shortest segment of a triathlon, even significant percentage gains in swimming do not translate into substantial time savings during a race. That's the first reason why swimming offers less ROI.
  • Additionally, in swimming, increasing from two to three hours or from three to four hours per week will yield improvements initially. But from my experience, there's a ceiling in swimming improvement beyond which progress becomes minimal. 
  • In contrast, with running, adding an hour per week can continue to yield significant improvements even into the second year, whereas swimming improvements may stagnate.
  • When comparing running to cycling, it's important to note that cycling operates on a different timescale. In a standardized triathlon program, you typically bike around twice as much as you run in terms of hours. 
  • If your race results show that you're in the 50th percentile for both cycling and running, it suggests you're evenly strong in both disciplines within a triathlon context.
  • If you start triathlon training from scratch and dedicate equal time to running and cycling, say four hours each per weekyou'll likely become a stronger runner than a cyclist. 
  • This is because the running volume is adequate, but the cycling volume is relatively low compared to what top age-group athletes are doing. Easy running, even at a low intensity, is still physically demanding and utilizes a higher percentage of your VO2 max compared to easy cycling.
  • Looking at world-class athletes, top marathoners typically train 500-700 hours per year, while elite track runners train 400-600 hours. Many triathletes might train similarly or even more. However, world-class cyclists often train 900+ hours per year, sometimes much more depending on their profile. 
  • Thus, achieving world-class performance in cycling requires at least 1.5 times the training volume compared to distance running.
  • This means that increasing your running from three to four hours per week can significantly impact your performance as it represents a substantial percentage jump towards optimal training volume. 
  • On the other hand, increasing cycling from six to seven hours per week is beneficial but might not be as impactful because the percentage increase towards the optimal volume is smaller.
  • However, if your training is unbalanced, for example, running five hours per week and cycling three, it would be more beneficial to reallocate some of your running time to cycling. 
  • My perspective assumes an athlete with balanced training, such as running three hours and cycling six hours per week, ensuring roughly 50% more cycling volume than running.
  • From a physics perspective, the power required to increase cycling speed rises exponentially. For example, the power needed to go from 30 to 31 km/h is much less than going from 40 to 41 km/h. 
  • This diminishing return on power improvement is less of an issue in running due to lower speeds and negligible aerodynamic factors unless aiming for extreme goals like a sub-two-hour marathon.
  • Swimming, although slower, is done in water which is 800 times denser than air. Thus, any improvement in swimming power results in only a small speed improvement. 
  • This is evident in training and racing, where increasing effort doesn't proportionally increase speed. Therefore, swimming is more similar to cycling in terms of requiring significant power improvements for modest speed gains. 
  • Conversely, running shows a more linear relationship between fitness improvements and speed gains.
  • Running is highly time-efficient compared to swimming and cycling. Swimming requires commuting to a pool, where frequent turns in a 25-meter pool can reduce training specificity for open-water swimming. A 50-meter pool is better but still not perfect due to these turns.
  • Cycling, depending on your location, may involve inefficient commuting before effective training starts. Preparing gear and dressing, especially in winter, adds to the time. While indoor trainers are effective for power training, translating that power to outdoor riding, especially on technical courses, can be challenging for many athletes. 
  • Not all cyclists can transfer their indoor training gains to outdoor performance seamlessly.
  • Running is straightforward and time-efficient. You can start immediately with minimal preparation and no need for commuting. This lack of "dead timemakes running specific and effective. If you have 95 minutes, you can typically get in an 85-90 minute run, accounting for shower time. 
  • In the same period, you might only manage a 45-minute swim or a 60-minute ride, with a significant portion of that time not spent on effective training.

Take home message

19:04 -

  • It's important to consider how you allocate your training time among the disciplines. You might benefit from reallocating some of your swim or bike time to running. This approach isn't suitable if you're unsure about your physical robustness, but for some athletes, especially if race performances have stagnated, it could be a useful strategy.
  • While it's common to hear about the benefits of cycling for running performance—where inadequate run performance off the bike is often attributed to insufficient bike strength—there's sometimes an overemphasis on cycling and swimming, with running not getting the attention it deserves.
  • Running is highly trainable for amateur triathletes. It requires consistent work and mileage, but the time investment needed isn't excessive compared to biking and swimming. When considering your overall schedule, you might find that reallocating some training time to running yields significant improvements.

Hill Repeats - positives of using hills in run training 

23:25 -

  • In my opinion, the main benefits of running uphill are twofold. First, you have an increased mechanical work requirement, meaning your muscles and joints are forced to work harder. Second, you experience less impact stress due to lower speeds, which reduces the risk of injury. However, certain muscles, like the hamstrings, are heavily engaged, so you need to be cautious about potential strain, depending on the intensity.
  • To illustrate, I coach an athlete who recently had a breakthrough in an Olympic distance race, running a 32:44 10k on a very hilly course. Leading up to this race, nearly all of his harder run sessions were hill sessions. These included continuous hilly tempo runs ranging from 8k to 14k or hill reps usually lasting two to four minutes, often done on a treadmill. Because all the work was hilly, his training speeds were consistently slower than four minutes per kilometre, even in hard runs at 10k and 5k efforts, but on steep gradients, such as 6%.
  • Despite training at slower speeds, he managed to run the 10k race at a 3:16 per kilometre pace (5:16 per mile), which was a significant breakthrough. 
  • This example shows how hill training can make you a stronger runner, and running strong often translates to running fast. 
  • Maintaining a 3:16-kilometre pace isn't about sprinting speed but having the strength to sustain a fairly high pace over a long distance, which is where hills excel.
  • I'm not suggesting that you should only run hills, as specific circumstances, like a hilly race course, dictated this athlete's training plan. 
  • However, this example demonstrates that you don't need to train at high speeds to achieve high speeds in races. The strength and muscular capacity built through hill running can significantly enhance your speed.

Types of hill training sessions

26:30 -

Simple Hill Sprints

  • Structure: Include these as part of an easy endurance run, typically at the end of a 45-minute to 1-hour run.
  • Execution: Perform 4 to 6 sprints, each lasting 8 seconds, on a moderate to steep gradient.
  • Technique: Gradually build up to full speed over the first few steps to reduce the risk of injury, then maintain maximum effort for the remaining time.
  • Recovery: Walk back down and take a standing rest for at least one minute between reps.
  • Benefits: Improves running biomechanics, muscle recruitment, and top-end speed without significant fatigue.

Continuous Hilly Quality Runs

  • Intensity: Target an effort between LT1 (lactate threshold 1) and tempo (high Zone 2 to Zone 3), adjusted based on the athlete’s needs and event goals.
  • Effort: Aim for an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) of 6 out of 10, roughly equating to marathon effort, though this varies by athlete speed.
  • Elevation: Look for at least 10 meters of elevation gain per kilometre, ideally more (15-20 meters per kilometre is better).
  • Duration: Start with a 20-25 minute run and build up to 40-45 minutes.
  • Benefits: Provides a substantial training stimulus without requiring extremely long runs.

Hill Reps

  • Duration: Hill reps can last from 2 to 8 minutes.
  • Location: This can be done outdoors or on a treadmill. The treadmill can make the workout more efficient by reducing recovery time.
  • Intensity: Tailor intensity to the athlete’s needs, ranging from 70.3 race effort to 5K race effort.
  • Gradient: Use a 5-6% gradient on the treadmill or find a moderate-grade hill outdoors.
  • Example Session: For a sprint or Olympic distance athlete:
    • Warm-up: 20 minutes easy
    • Main set on a 6% grade: 5 sets of 4 minutes at 10K effort with 2 minutes easy, followed by 2 minutes at 5K effort with 2 minutes easy (10 minutes total, repeated 5 times for 50 minutes, including 30 minutes of hard running)
    • Finisher: 4 x 30 seconds at mile effort with 1.5 minutes easy jog or standing rest.
  • Benefits: Improves muscular endurance and race-specific power.

Base Endurance Runs on Hilly Terrain

  • Structure: Incorporate these into regular base endurance runs.
  • Elevation: Aim for around 10 meters of elevation gain per kilometre.
  • Pace: Keep the effort easy, both uphill and downhill, to maintain the base endurance nature of the run.
  • Benefits: Builds strength without high intensity, enhancing overall endurance and hill-running capability.

Introducing Hill training in your program

31:53 -

  • To introduce hill running into your training, consider taking a six-week trial period where you replace half of your general endurance runs with hilly endurance runs or hilly endurance runs with hill sprints (8-second sprints, 6-8 times). 
  • Additionally, replace half of your harder runs (one or two per week) with an equivalent hilly version. For example, if you do a continuous tempo run, make it a hilly tempo run. If it's an interval workout, turn it into a hill rep workout. Give it a try and see if it makes a difference.
  • If you're used to mostly flat running, you're likely to see a performance boost from this simple change. However, your ability to do hill runs might be limited by where you live. 
  • Even in flat areas, you can usually find a bridge or parking garage for shorter intervals, but longer tempo runs or hill reps might be impossible to do outdoors without a treadmill. If you dislike running on the treadmill, that's okay; just focus on what you can do with shorter hills and make the most of any opportunities when you travel to hillier areas.
  • If you don't mind the treadmill, consider doing one run per week on it to get a good hill session.
  • Ultimately, the key takeaway is that hills are incredibly beneficial for improving your running performance. 

 Goal distances and goal events 

34:36 -

  • In endurance sports, there's a tendency to view shorter distances as inferior to longer ones, treating them merely as stepping stones. This mindset is prevalent in both running and triathlon. For example, in running, the ultimate goal often seems to be a marathon or even an ultra-marathon.
  • Similarly, in triathlon, there's an assumption that athletes start with sprint or Olympic distances only to build up to half or full Ironman races.
  • As a triathlon community, we need to shift this thinking. It’s unhealthy both personally and for the sport. This perspective excludes people who might be interested in triathlon but have no desire to do long-distance races.
  • Many people don't realize that triathlon doesn't have to mean Ironman. This misunderstanding limits the sport's accessibility and appeal.
  • Moreover, this obsession with longer distances creates a "one and donementality. Many people treat completing an Ironman as a bucket list item.
  • They train, compete, and then leave the sport because the commitment required is overwhelming. Triathlon is already a demanding hobby, but training for an Ironman is exceptionally time-consuming, leading to burnout and high dropout rates.
  • If we want to sustain and grow the sport, we need to be more inclusive and challenge the long-distance obsession. This will also help prevent burnout. Additionally, cost is a significant barrier. Long-distance triathlons are expensive—not just race fees but also equipment like TT bikes, coaching, nutrition products, and wetsuits. Sprint distances often require less gear, and some races don’t even necessitate a wetsuit, significantly lowering costs.

Issues with a long-distance bias

38:15 -

  • From a health perspective, focusing solely on long-distance triathlons can be detrimental for several reasons. First, it can easily lead to burnout, both physically and mentally. 
  • This is especially true for newer athletes who may not have the support of a coach or experienced teammates to offer guidance.
  • Second, long-distance training can become less enjoyable and more stressful, particularly during busy periods of life, such as raising small children or intense career phases. I've seen many athletes decide to quit triathlon altogether during these times.
  • However, it’s entirely feasible to participate in shorter races, like sprint distances, which require less training time. This allows athletes to stay engaged with the sport without overwhelming their schedules.
  • Third, long-distance triathlon can be less healthy than it should be. For example, many busy athletes sacrifice sleep to fit in training sessions, which is not healthy. Excessive stress and lack of sleep can negatively impact overall health.
  • Finally, the extensive training required for long-distance events can strain social relationships, as all free time gets devoted to training. This can isolate athletes from their friends and family.
  • I want to emphasize that I’m not against long-distance triathlons. They are fantastic and rewarding. However, some athletes might benefit from focusing on shorter races or periodizing their training.
  • For instance, doing an Ironman every two years and focusing on 70.3 distances in between, while including plenty of sprint and Olympic distances, can help reduce mental and physical burnout and stress.

Reasons to do more short-distance events

40:50 -

  • Reason number one for incorporating shorter-distance races into your calendar is that it can make you a more well-rounded athlete.
  • Focusing on shorter distances can improve skills like speed and racecraft, which can ultimately benefit your performance in longer races like Ironman. It's a great way to break out of a monotonous Ironman cycle and challenge yourself in different ways.
  • The second reason to include shorter races is that it allows you to race more frequently, which is not only fun but also helps you develop general racecraft. Racing more often provides valuable experience and helps you become a better athlete overall.
  • If you have the opportunity to race in a draft legal format, it opens up a whole new dimension of racing. The dynamics are different, with a unique bike leg and race strategy.
  • While draft legal racing might not be available everywhere, it's worth seeking out for the exciting and enjoyable experience it offers.
  • Choosing shorter distances also relieves pressure, especially if you're trying a new distance or format for the first time.
  • Without the pressure of achieving specific time goals or PBs, you can focus on enjoying the race and gaining valuable experience without the burden of high expectations.
  • Lastly, supporting shorter-distance races contributes to the growth of the sport as a whole.

The creation of "pelotons" in long-distance events

44:45 -

  • There's been a lot of discussion lately about the issue of large groups of athletes riding together in races that are supposed to be non-drafting events. 
  • This has understandably led to a lot of frustration among athletes because it seems like there's nowhere to go when faced with such a situation. 
  • While some athletes intentionally choose to draft, many others are simply caught up in the large peloton due to the sheer number of participants on the race course.
  • These situations often arise in massive races with multiple-loop courses, making it challenging to avoid drafting entirely. If you've had negative experiences with this, it's important not to let it taint your view of the sport. 
  • Instead, consider seeking out events with smaller fields, such as races with 250 participants instead of 2,500. In these smaller races, drafting is less of an issue, usually involving only a few individuals rather than entire pelotons.
  • Whether you're interested in grassroots, half, or full-distance events, or even considering draft-legal or non-draft sprint or Olympic races, competing in smaller events offers a different, and sometimes more rewarding, experience. 
  • Racing with fewer athletes reduces the frustration of navigating crowded courses and supports independent race organizers, which is beneficial for the sport as a whole.
  • This isn't meant to discourage participation in Ironman or other large-scale events, as they have their appeal. However, it's essential to remember that there are alternative options available that can be equally enjoyable and fulfilling. 
  • Don't limit yourself to just the Ironman circuit—explore other races that offer unique challenges and experiences.

Additional races to add to your season

46:50 -

  • A final point I want to emphasize is the importance of diversifying your racing calendar to prevent mental and physical burnout, especially from focusing too much on long-distance races. One strategy to achieve this is to explore non-standard events.
  • Additionally, mixing up multi-sport options like duathlons, swim runs, or off-road triathlons can add excitement to your routine.
  • I recently participated in a draft legal sprint distance race after a few years and found it incredibly enjoyable.  
  • While I still appreciate longer races, trying something new injected fresh energy into my racing and practice.
  • It's essential for us as multi-sport athletes to broaden our perspective beyond long-distance triathlons. 
  • Embracing different distances, formats, and terrains can not only enhance our athletic performance but also make our journey in the sport more enjoyable and fulfilling. So, I encourage you to explore the diverse range of options available and find what resonates with you.


No links specific for this episode, but do check out the latest episodes of That Triathlon Show:

Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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