Effective Brick Sessions

Ease your transition between disciplines with these simple but effective swim-to-bike and bike-to-run brick sessions


Posted: 18 November 2009
by Rick Kiddle

Jelly legs. That dreaded feeling you encounter when you hop off the bike and onto the run affects every triathlete but it is possible to reduce the dead-leg feeling by training. Back in the 1980s, when triathlon took off in England, early pioneers of the sport used the term 'back to back' training to describe cross training within the three disciplines; now the term 'brick training' has also been adopted by triathletes and duathletes. Dr Matt Brick coined the term 'bricks' when writing about his duathlon exploits and his run-to-bike and bike-to-run sessions have proved to be highly successful.

Be specific

In triathlon it makes sense to train for the swim-to-bike transition as well as the bike-to-run part of an event. They both pose their own set of challenges and must be consistently tackled within a training programme as the season progresses. Unfortunately many triathletes do not train this way. Clearly bike-to-run 'bricks' are important but most of us tend to swim before work, run after work or at lunch time and cycle the next day. Follow this pattern and you'll become faster at individual events that include recovery between disciplines. To excel in triathlon and duathlon, you need to train more specifically and simulate swim-to-bike, bike-to-run or run-to-bike sessions, thus guaranteeing optimum response during racing.

Speed king

It's a good idea to base your brick training on the demands of your next race. Sessions can cover practising race pace; developing aerobic endurance, threshold pace and aerobic endurance; and even improving strength by training on hills. The sessions are always useful for developing speed in transition too. The closer you are to race day, the more often you should perform brick workouts until you start to taper for your race - when the duration of each session can be reduced while maintaining intensity.

No fear

Since many triathletes fear that heavy-legged feeling from the bike-to-run, this tends to be the most common brick session to include in training. Practising changing from the bike to the run will give you a physical and mental boost on race day but shouldn't be the only brick session you do. It's vital to include a wider variety of combinations to keep you motivated and help you to reach your goals.

Training tools

Using a heart-rate monitor will allow you to keep your training on track but if you'd rather leave the gadgets at home, you can monitor your effort by using the 'Rate of Perceived Exertion' (RPE) chart (see page 68). For more serious (or curious) triathletes, tracking your power measurements on the bike will give you the scope to measure your progress.  

Bike-to-run bricks

Super sprint and sprint distance

Brick sessions relax muscles, increase mobility and flush out lactic acid. They are also good if you're training for a shorter race and fit into your schedule easily as you can train in a number of disciplines quickly. These sessions are ideal and can be done up to two days before you race:

• A 30-minute fartlek (varying the speed and intensity) cycle at 65 to 85 per cent maximum heart rate (MHR - calculate this at www.runnersworld.co.uk/heartrate) followed immediately by a 15-minute fartlek run at 65 to 85 per cent MHR.

• A 20-minute fartlek cycle at 65 to 90 per cent MHR followed by a 10-minute fartlek run at 65 to 90 per cent MHR.

• A 15-minute cycle up to your threshold at the hardest effort you can sustain - normally between 80 to 90 per cent - followed by a 10-minute run at threshold pace, followed by a 10-minute cycle at threshold pace, followed by a five-minute run as hard as you can go.

Olympic distance

Over-distance brick: Completing some over-distance bricks in training will give you the confidence that you can tackle an Olympic-distance triathlon as well as training your body to burn fat and raising your lactate threshold - the point at which your legs become wobbly. You could substitute this session for a long weekend ride:

• A 70-90-minute cycle followed by a 30-50-minute run at 65 to 75 per cent MHR.

Race-pace brick: This session will build your race pace before an event:

• A 30-45-minute cycle, building in the first 10 minutes to race pace, followed by a five-minute run at race pace. Build this up to 20 minutes at race pace over four weeks. Warm down with an easy jog for several minutes then jump back on your bike for an easy 20-minute cycle. Once or twice before race day, complete a short open-water swim before starting this session to give you confidence in transition.  

Strength brick: The emphasis in this workout is on muscular endurance. You should complete the bike session on hilly terrain or with tempo efforts in large or high gears, followed by hill reps on the run. This session will develop the strength you need to run well off the bike:

• Start with a 10-minute easy cycle to warm up, followed by a 30-minute hilly cycle, followed by a 10-15-minute hilly run. If you ever feel weak once off the bike in races, aim to practise with a short run after every bike ride. You can vary the pace depending on how you feel, but if you're consistent it will gradually feel natural.

Ironman distance

• Long cycle, short run: Start with a 60-80-mile cycle followed by a 20-30-minute run. This session is designed to familiarise your legs with the feeling of running after experiencing high levels of cycling fatigue. When you're training six to eight weeks before the race, include hills and pushing big gears to build pace and cycle some sections at race pace. To make the most of this race preparation, practise eating and drinking what you plan to consume in the race as well as riding in an aero position if the course demands it.

• Short bike, long run: Start with a 30-60-mile cycle followed by a 45-90-minute run. You may find it hard to fit this session into a schedule where you are already doing one long run and one long bike ride a week, so if you struggle to fit everything in, substitute this session for your long run. With the bike fatigue in your legs, it's just as effective at building endurance as a run of three hours or more.

• Complete a half-Ironman race: This session is ideal preparation for tackling the Ironman distance in the future. Although it is important that you don't try to race all out and fatigue yourself. You can also use it as a dress rehearsal to practise your strategy for what you will do on the actual race day at the Ironman event.

Swim-to-bike bricks

During the swim phase of a triathlon you are in a horizontal position for the duration of the swim with the result that blood accumulates in your arms, shoulders and head. Stand to run out of the swim and the blood suddenly rushes away from your upper body and brain and to your legs, creating a light-headed, dizzy feeling that often leads to stumbling. 

By kicking your legs hard in the final 50 to 100 metres of the swim leg, the blood will start to return to your legs. Not only will this speed up your transitions but it will also have a positive effect when you run to find your bike and begin to pedal.

If you don't practise swim-to-bike bricks in the build-up to a race, you're likely to feel a heavy, burning sensation in your legs when you start to push hard at the start of the bike section. Even when the sensation subsides, the negative psychological effects of a bumpy start to the ride can linger, so it's important to prepare yourself.

Swim-to-bike training always poses logistical problems if you do most of your training in the pool. If possible, set up a turbo trainer (right) on the edge of the pool. Many triathlon clubs offer poolside turbo training sessions, which are a great way to stay motivated through a hard session. During the summer, if you're lucky enough to live near open water you can practise both swim-to-bike bricks and wetsuit transitions at the same time.

Here are some typical sessions that you can add to your training programme. These are best done at high intensity so aim to complete them just before or after a recovery day. As well as these brick session, include endurance sessions at around 65 to 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate - these could be your long bikes or, alternatively, runs on their own.

Sprint and super sprint distance

• A 200m-swim followed by a 10-minute cycle at 80 to 90 per cent MHR.

• A 300m-swim followed by a 25-minute cycle at 80 to 90 per cent MHR.

Olympic distance

• A 300m-swim followed by a 20-minute cycle at 80 to 90 per cent of your MHR.

• A 400m-swim followed by a 25-minute cycle at 75 to 85 per cent of your MHR.

• A 600m-swim followed by a 40-minute cycle at 75 to 85 per cent of your MHR.

Half-Ironman and Ironman distance

• A 1000m-swim followed by a 60-minute cycle at 80 to 90 per cent MHR.

• A 1500m-swim followed by an 80-minute cycle at 80 to 90 per cent MHR.

• A 2000m-swim followed by a 145-minute cycle at 75 to 85 per cent MHR.

• A 2500m-swim followed by a 210-minute bike at 75 to 80 per cent MHR.

Run-to-bike bricks

If you're training for a triathlon, chances are you won't go from the run to the bike in a race - unless something goes awry - but run-to-bike bricks are a useful additional to your training arsenal, especially if you plan to compete in a duathlon. Going through the run-to-bike-to-run-to-bike process several times is a really good way to avoid cramp and condition yourself for a tough final push, whatever the discipline you're working on.

For duathlon training, these sessions will improve muscular endurance and efficient muscle recruitment so that the second run is not much slower than the first one. Make sure that you have a good endurance base before attempting these tough sessions.

Ironman distance

Alternate these sessions, complete one a week:
• A 20-minute warm-up run at 60 to 65 per cent MHR, followed by a 120-minute cycle at 65 to 75 per cent MHR, followed by a 30-minute run at 65 to 75 per cent MHR.

• A 20-minute warm-up run at 60 to 70 per cent MHR, followed by a 75-minute cycle at 65 to 75 per cent MHR, followed by a 50-minute run at 65 to 80 per cent MHR.

Olympic distance

Alternate these sessions, complete one a week:
• A 20-minute warm-up run at 60 to 65 per cent MHR, followed by a 120-minute cycle at 65 to 75 per cent MHR, followed by a  30-minute run at 65 to 75 per cent MHR.

• A 20-minute warm-up run at 60 to 70 per cent MHR, followed by a 75-minute cycle at 65 to 75 per cent MHR, followed by a 50-minute run at 65 to 80 per cent MHR.

• A 10-minute warm-up run at 65 to 70 per cent MHR, followed by a 30-minute cycle at 65 to 80 per cent MHR, followed by a 15-minute run at 65 to 80 per cent MHR, followed by a 20-minute cycle at 75 to 85 per cent MHR, followed by a 10-minute run at 80 to 85 per cent MHR.

Transition bricks

Many triathletes feel that the challenge of completing a fast transition is one of the most fascinating and fun parts of a triathlon. The swim-to-bike transition requires that you deal with blood accumulation in your upper body, while the bike-to-run transition places the emphasis onto muscles that are in the backs of your legs, such as the hamstrings, after you've used the quadriceps and shin muscles on the bike previously.

Research has shown that athletes in transition often have heart rates close to their maximum. It takes specific training to learn effective transition skills and to be able to execute them at maximal efforts, so regular racing is always going to be one of the best ways to excel in transition.

This brick session will build your fitness and dynamic ability across all three of the triathlon sports:

• A 1000m-swim at 90 per cent MHR, followed by a 5K cycle or turbo at 90 per cent MHR, followed by a 2K-run at 90 per cent MHR.


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