The Half Marathon: How I went from running 1:17 to 1:10 off the bike in 2 years

Since my Ironman 70.3 Debut in early 2017, I have been fortunate enough to improve significantly. Most notably, I have knocked an average of about 7 minutes off my run splits from 2017 to 2019. I recently raced Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa where I finished 4th, but had a career best run split of 1:10:46. This is a huge improvement in a 2 year period, my best run of 2017 was 1:17:18 at Ironman 70.3 Steelhead. The swim and bike times have remained relatively stable over the same period. This year, I have achieved run times I honestly would never have guessed possible after my first 70.3 season. Here is how I did it, and how I hope to continue the upward trend.

Race Experience

Experience is a frequently preached cliche in our sport, and something I drastically underestimated when I began my career in triathlon years ago. Since my first 70.3 in March of 2017, I have started, and completed 21 Half Iron distance races. I remember each one in fairly close detail; what the result of each of the three disciplines was, how they each “felt”, along with how the overall race result was and how it “felt”. Although the importance of experience can’t be objectively measured, I know it is a critical component of my improvement over that time. The number of mistakes made over those 21 races is staggering, and for each mistake made came a valuable lesson learned. Let’s not forget, I’ve also done some short course racing in the past few years, and I raced a lot prior to 2017. I estimate that I’ve completed over 80 triathlons.

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead 2017, 4th place finish and my best run of the season

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead 2017, 4th place finish and my best run of the season

Dialing in the Bike

The half marathon after 1.9km of swimming and 90km of biking is a bit of a crap shoot for a new pro. Balancing the effort, especially on the bike, in order to be “in the race” and also able to run well is a fine line. in 2017, I often pushed the bike a bit too hard and suffered badly on the run. Once or twice, I nailed it, like at Ironman 70.3 Steelhead, where I ran a seasons best 1:17:18 off of a good bike leg. The rest of the time, my legs just didn’t have much “pop” left in them when I jumped off the bike, and I would run around 1:20. Although I could have run more 1:17’s and probably gone faster overall with a slightly easier bike ride, I don’t regret the typically aggressive pacing strategy that season. I learned to get myself into the race on the swim/bike, and trusted that the legs would adapt. In 2018 the run started coming along. My bike splits stayed much the same but my body began to handle the effort better. I had some 1:15’s, and was usually well under 1:20 that year. This year, I’ve dialed the bike fit and effort in even more closely. I’m now aboard my Ventum One, and I feel confident every race that I can have a competitive bike split (and sometimes the fastest on the day), but still have good legs left for the run.

Pacing the Run

I learned early on in my long course career that It shouldn’t feel very hard for the first 10km of the run in a 70.3. This is drastically different from what I was used to (short course), where it was hard for me to start fast enough. Sometimes, I rolled the dice and went for it early, but it never paid off. My best runs have always come from relatively even pacing. At Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant in 2017 and 2018, I tried running with someone out of my league for the first 5km, and suffered badly there after (Taylor Reid, then Brent McMahon). Since then, I have used internal cues or “feel” to pace the run, with good results. I never wear a watch. I let the first 5-8km feel smooth, then it starts taking some focus to hold it. At around 14-15km, it starts feeling like a constant acceleration to hold the pace, and the last few km is pure suffering. It helps to have a target ahead to shoot for in the last half of the run. but early on, I find its best to completely ignore those around me, unless we happen to be very evenly matched and can pace together.

Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant 2019, 1:14:31 run.

Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant 2019, 1:14:31 run.

The Shoes

This point is something that everyone is thinking, how much have the Nike 4% and Nike Next% shoes helped me run faster? I have absolutely no idea, other than that it “feels like” it is a significant benefit. My best guess is somewhere in the 1 to 1.5 minutes range per half marathon. I think they help in a triathlon situation more than when running fresh, because they seem to alleviate a lot of the stress off the calves . I actually would prefer if they weren’t allowed in competition, but since they are, I think a pro triathlete would be crazy not to wear a shoe with some kind of carbon energy return in their races. Its like using race wheels on the bike, it’s a speed benefit without question. I try not to train in them much, as I think it would have a de-training effect by alleviating too much stress from the muscles of the lower leg.

Consistency is King

Recovery

Recovery is under appreciated by most triathletes, and even some pros. The way to get the most improvements from your training is to recover optimally, it’s just as important as the training itself. I do what I can to shine in this category.

Since I started running in high school at 15, I have always taken steps to ensure I am getting adequate nutrition to support endurance training and recovery. This was something my dad stressed the importance of from the start, and I simply continued the habit. I’ve had extra carbs to fuel training, and extra protein (at least 20 grams within 30 minutes of finishing a hard workout) to recover from it. These habits have earned me the nickname “Snack” from my training buddies, I guess it’s a good fit so it stuck.

I have always used animal sources of protein rather than plant sources because they have the right ratios of all the amino acids and are easy to absorb. I’m using First Endurance nutrition this season which has made fueling and recovering properly very easy. The EFS drink mix and EFS liquid shots are perfectly formulated to keep the carbs and electrolytes coming in during training. Their Ultragen recovery drink has everything needed right after a hard workout. Sometimes I’ll even start taking in Ultragen before the end of a bike ride, during the cool down, to get a head start on recovery.

Since I started focusing primarily on triathlon 4 years ago, I’ve tried to continually improve my recovery. I now get a minimum of 10 hours of time in bed almost every day, and about 8.5-9 hours of sleep. Falling asleep is something I struggle with and continue to try to improve, to combat this I go to bed pretty early, usually by about 9:30, which allows extra time for falling asleep. I also try not to go on my phone much before bed, though admittedly I could be more strict about it. I use melatonin when trying to re set my body clock, or fall asleep extra early, usually about twice a week on average.

Training Injury Free

When it comes to training, consistency is absolutely critical and irreplacable. The most important part of my training is simply not missing it. I could count on 1 hand the number of total workouts missed each year. This isn’t because I grind through training when I’m sick, injured, or run down. I get blood tests 3-4 times a year to ensure all is good with iron, red blood cells, and testosterone, and may reduce training if any of them are low. Notably, I can “feel” if my testosterone is getting low (I get weak and fall off the pace uncharacteristically) and will adjust training accordingly. It sometimes happens late in the season at the end of a hard training block. I have been mildly sick 4 times in 3 years and dialed back the training for 2-3 days when necessary. I also haven’t had an injury over that time (knock on wood). I have been working with DK Orthotic Solutions since 2016 when I had a bout of plantar fasciitis. Since then, I have used DKOS running, cycling, and recovery orthotics to help my legs handle the training load. I’ve been thrilled with my lack of injuries or aches and pains.

Ironman 70.3 St. George 2019, 1:14:28 run.

Ironman 70.3 St. George 2019, 1:14:28 run.

When it comes to injury prevention exercises or strength training, I don’t do much, but what I do is a critical component of staying healthy for me. I have a core strength and motor control routine I do about 3 times a week. It can take anywhere from 15 to 50 minutes. For me, the most important thing is ensuring the right muscles are firing at the right times, which transfers over into my training and racing. I almost never do static stretching or foam rolling, mobility simply isn’t an issue for me. I used to confuse “tight” muscles with “sore’ muscles a lot, and did a lot of stretching. I learned a few years ago that ensuring my glutes were working made those “tight” (sore) muscles in my hip go away, and have been doing minimal stretching since.

I’m finally at the part where I talk about training. As triathletes, I think we are a little too obsessed with how someone trains. The bottom line is, all pro athletes train hard, and the world’s best athletes don’t necessarily train harder than everyone else. I think what separates the best athletes is the small details of all aspects of their training, recovery, mental game, racing etc, not how hard they train. That being said, obviously training is a critical component to getting better at triathlon, so here’s generally what it looks like for me.

Since 2017, my training hasn’t changed drastically, perhaps a 15% increase in total volume and run volume. A typical training week (not a recovery or taper week) would see about 75-95km of total running. This would be spread across about 6 runs, with no runs over 25km, 2-3 workouts a week and the rest easy mileage (between 4:45/km and 5:30km pace). This is probably about average mileage and intensity for a male 70.3 pro, though I probably run my easy mileage a bit slower than most. The specifics of those workouts changes a bit throughout the season, usually there is a mix of VO2 or threshold work for the bulk of the hard work, supplemented with a bit of tempo and above VO2 work. The content of those workouts is not likely as important as the consistency, getting 2 solid sessions in per week and consistent base mileage has been critical in my running improvement. I’ve done this since joining LPC in late 2012, and I believe I still have a few years left where I can improve my run. I can say the same about my bike and swim training, the spread of intensity vs. easy mileage looks very similar. Again, I probably do my mileage at an easier pace than most pros, in an effort to really nail the hard intervals.

Looking Back to Move Forward

Me, my Dad Brian, and friend Nic

Me, my Dad Brian, and friend Nic

I’ve Come a Long Way

Looking back several years, it is hard for me to believe how far I have come in this sport. My very first triathlon as an 11 year old, I came last in the swim, and finished mid pack after the bike and run. In the few draft legal races I did as a junior, I was always near the back of the field, sometimes getting passed by the women who started 5 minutes behind me. I knew my strength would always lie in the non-drafting side of things, but success wouldn’t come easily there either. In what I thought was supposed to be my “A” race of 2015, the Des Moines triathlon (Olympic Distance non-drafting), I finished 1 spot out of the money, and about 9 minutes behind race winner Cam Dye (can’t find the official results anymore). That result briefly had me considering quitting the sport, as I had hoped to be much more competitive with the front of the field.

Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant 2019

Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant 2019

I started seeing success in 2016, with a trio of podiums in the Rev3 pro series including a win. My 70.3 debut at Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico went well, finishing 7th, 7 minutes behind the stellar race winning performance by Taylor Reid. This gave me the confidence that I’d found my niche in long course. Since then, I’ve enjoyed steady improvements. My first 70.3 win came at Raleigh 2018, a slew of podium finishes followed, and my biggest win, 70.3 Mont Tremblant 2019.

Focus

I look back at this and can’t help but be proud of what I have achieved, but also wonder, how can I continue to get better? And, how much better can I get?

I rarely thought about where I want to get to or how long it would take, all I’ve tried to focus on is the task at hand. I got through each rep of each workout to the best of my ability, then focused on what came next when I got there. Of course I look forward to the next race, or a fun workout coming up in a few days, but that’s the motivation, not the focus. By thinking about the task at hand, I’ve come a long way, and I don’t intend to change that. The few times where I thought about how much better the best guys were than me, or how far I had to still improve, I got discouraged and needed an attitude adjustment.

So what should I focus on for future goals. Can I eventually finish top 10 at world's? Podium? Take the win? What goals should I set for Kona in years to come? I don’t know any of that. All I know is that I want to be he best long course triathlete I can possibly be. The best way to do that is to take it one step at a time, make good decisions, and learn as I go. Where I end up is anybody’s guess.

Right now I’m taking it one step at a time, and walking a fine line of fitness and fatigue at this point in the season. My motivation each day? Ironman 70.3 World Championship, Nice, France. I’ll be ready.

Let’s do this.