Ask the Expert: Endurance Training with Gordon Crawford



Gordon Crawford

Gordon Crawford is a K Swiss Ironman and endurance running coach with a whole host of elite triathlon champions under his wing.

He joined us to answer your questions and offer advice on long distance training.

Q1. All the Ironman training plans I've come across start off at less hours per week than what I currently train at then build up to more than my current time training. If I am enjoying my training and feeling good on it would you recommend I cut back time training to follow the plan or stay at my current level until the plan catches up? - Honk

A. If you are enjoying your training and improving I would continue with your training until the programme catches up with you.  It is better if you have an individualised programme that considers your work, family and racing requirements. Planning your training can be difficult.  So it's a good idea to invest in a coach or a training programme that will help give you direction. Do whatever you can afford.

Many coaches will offer an online service, with a bespoke training programme and consultation by telephone once a week. This can range from £50 to £150 a month; the price depends on how much contact you choose to have with your coach. If you can't afford a coach, have a look online or in specialist triathlon books for a programme that will give you a structure to follow in preparation for a race. Another option is to go through your local triathlon club; many have volunteer BTF-level coaches who will be happy to offer you training advice.

Q2. How should the use of a treadmill be adapted to support going long? - SgtLard

A. If you are unable to train outside in the winter but can use a treadmill I would use it exactly the same way you would run train outside, particularly if you are going long. You can make the session harder by raising the incline.

The key run requirements for going long and training over the winter would be:

  • a long run, progressing up to 30-32k
  • a brick session of a longer bike, turbo or spin bike, with a longer run off from 15-20km at just below half IM pace
  • a longer running intervals session, at IM run pace with shorter recoveries with warm-up and cool down
  • possibly a recovery run at an easier pace

Q3. If training for long distance races, do you do long runs at target race pace? Or, alternatively, do you measure heart rate and just keep at around 70 % of max and let pace be dictated by this? - F. oggy

A. I would suggest that you try and run your longer run at as near to race pace for an IM as possible.

  • When I was preparing Fraser Cartmell for IM UK 2 years ago our long run, starting from 25km and working up to 32km was run at his target marathon pace, 4min km’s. He managed to run 2.40 on the Bolton course so we were not too far off.
  • This longer paced run was completed off a 90 min bike and I would always recommend that the longer race specific run was completed off a bike.
  • In terms of pacing for your IM run compared to a straight marathon run the time differential will vary depending on the experience level of runner and and their ability to run to pace.
  • You can run at 70 % HR but this will be dictated by the weather conditions and the course.

Q4. At work, I have an on-site gym, with free weights, machines, spin bikes etc. I have 4 x 1 hour lunches to fill, which ends up being 4 x 40 mins of training time. I run / bike commute, and swim in the evenings so that stuff is largely covered off. 

What's the best use of my time for these sessions?
 - O.rangeCannon Extravalanza-ing

A. If you have 4 sessions of approximately 40 mins per week I would suggest the following use of your time.

  • Core conditioning sessions that may include or be yoga. These sessions should work on core exercises that would ideally replicate, swimming positions, biking, balance, band or cord work, working your slings, stretching or running. I would suggest 2 sessions of this per week to make improvement in these areas.
  • 1 spin bike session if that could be used to develop peak power, effort up to 10 secs and or strength sessions up to about 4 mins with approx. 2 mins easy spin rest in between.
  • Possibly one of the 4 sessions could be a rest session and it sounds like you have quite a schedule.

Q5. What would be your best advice for training for a good even bike split whilst keeping enough in the tank to complete the run evenly? - Seren nos

A. A good even bike split is achieved by good even biking in training and trying to replicate the course that you will be racing on or simulating the course on a Compu trainer or Tacx turbo.

  • Train for good pacing on the bike and the run
  • I would always try and do a longer bike at an even pace followed by a run off the bike.
  • If it is possible work the bike training based on watts or average speed.

Q6. I have finished my first season of long distance triathlons and loved it. What's the best approach to maintaining endurance or fitness built over the last 9 months? Is there any benefit to attending tri training camps when preparing for long distance events next year? - ktpie

A. I would continue training regularly in the winter and work on the areas that you know to be weakness. Training camps for tri are great and are a great way to break up training in the winter.

  • join a tri club
  • get a coach or a training plan
  • have a support structure in place
  • rest and recover
  • have fun and work hard

Q7: Prior to starting base training, approx 30 weeks out from 'A' race, what should the goal be, endurance or speed?

Also, I thought I'd try 6+ months of not swimming, before getting back into the water in the New Year and starting training for an IM swim.  I read somewhere that if you were OK at swimming then after a break, you could make substantial improvements on a return. Any thoughts? - M..TRIumphant

A. 30 weeks out from your race I would have the key component as endurance but I would still have elements of speed through the swim, bike and run.

  • The speed should be race pace and also faster than race pace.
  • It is very easy to lose speed, particularly as we get older
  • Key sessions should be very race specific

In terms of the swimming and your break there is a school of thought that on re-introducing swimming it is better for learning. This would have to balanced with:

  • Loss of swim fitness
  • Feel for the water
  • Additional time allocated to re-develop your stroke and fitness

Q8. I'm signed up for IM Lanzarote next year and I want to try to develop some more leg strength over the upcoming months to (hopefully) increase speed on the flat and prepare for the long uphill drags. Any pointers gratefully received. - FerrousFerret

A. Great choice of IM for next year! It will certainly test your leg strength on that course given the bike and the run. My suggestions would be the following for over the winter:

  • Some leg weights, leg press, hang cleans and squats
  • good hard turbos, 1 longer set that would incorporate over geering sets or single leg work or longer interval work: repeats intervals of 15 mins and longer up to 30 min efforts
  • Brick sessions that involve a long hilly bike, 3-4 hours with an hour run off. You could over layer the clothes on the bike and run to try and replicate the heat and sweating.
  • Mountain biking sessions are a  great way to develop general and leg strength.

Q9. Heart rate, or perceived effort - which is going to help most in training and convert best through to race day?  Caveat, as a nearly 50 year old I am struggling to read the numbers on my Garmin and Polar so while I would like to train to HR, the tech is becoming backup only (ie it waits until I get home to my reading glasses) and I am training off the data AFTER the run/bike! - PSC

A. Given modern technology available, including light weight prescription sports glasses, I would suggest for the IM that you use:

  • HR, kph on the bike and kpm for the run
  • During the race to maximise performance you need to work off live data and work to exact effort rather than perceived.
  • The information feedback you get can act to motivate and influence a performance outcome during the race.

Q10. Any tips on the best way of developing strength for short steep hills. I've signed up for IM Switzerland next year, it will be my 2nd iron distance - I did Outlaw this year. 

I understand there is a hill like this on the course (Hearbreak Hill??). I'm OK on long drags (slow and steady), any advice other than just practice? - bburn plO.dder

A. Short steep hills improvement advice:

  • Practice short steep hills whilst fresh
  • replicate aspect of the bike course, preferrably on laps and then when your training allows start to do the short steep hills within your longer ride, particularly when your tired.
  • you could also practice the short steep hills in a bigger gear so when it comes to race day you are really able to work the gears on the climb and should find a noteable difference.

Q11. If you're using HR data what approximate zones would you aim for in each discipline? Also, on race day how much food and drink do you think is needed on the bike leg?

Also, If I don't have a coach, what extra work do you think I need to put in? I keep a lot of records of what I'm doing, what I plan for the week, what my aims and PBs are. Is there anything else that is necessary to keep track of? - B_Kins

A. Zone 1

Most of your training - and some of the race - should be done in Zone 1, or between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. The reason is because this keeps you at a pace where your body is using your fat stores for fuel, which is more likely to sustain you for the long hours required. It may seem too slow for race training, but that's what training is for -- to teach you to go faster while maintaining a lower heart rate. The Ironman is about endurance, which is the ability to maintain higher speeds with less effort.

Zone 2

About a quarter of your training time and most of the race should be done between 70 and 80 percent of your MHR. During training, you'll use this pace to do longer speed work and your easier long runs, and this will be your "base" pace for the race itself. Zone 2 is still aerobic, using your fat stores for energy -- but it is just on the border of your anaerobic threshold. Going any faster during the race will force your body to use your carb stores for fuel, and they will be depleted within a couple of hours.

Zone 3

Zone 3 is between 80 and 90 percent of your MHR, and you shouldn't use this pace in the race at all if you hope to finish. In training, however, this is the pace to shoot for during sprint intervals and other speed training. Although it doesn't translate directly into the race, it teaches your body to become more efficient at using energy at higher speeds, and it trains your muscles to perform explosively. This helps you improve your overall speed, which helps you go faster at a lower heart rate.

The food and drink on the bike leg will depend on the heat, your size/body mass and your rate of sweating. There is no general answer to this but it should be specific to you, the event and the weather.

I would keep a track of your rest and recoveriy sessions in the week and month. Your body needs time to rest and adapt to ironman training.


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