If the fastest swimming, cycling, and running you do is in races, you’re not training right. Every triathlon training program should include speed work, or efforts that exceed race intensity. Speed work not only changes your perception of race intensity, making it feel more comfortable, but it also enhances fitness in ways that slower training does not.
There are right and wrong ways to incorporate speed training workouts. Doing speed work the right way is not difficult. A top triathlon training tip is to copy how professional triathletes go about it (which is not to say you should try to go as fast as they do!). Incorporating speed exercises all comes down to obeying these three simple rules.
Rule #1: Do some speed training workouts year-round.
The term “periodization” refers to the practice of dividing the training process into phases and assigning a distinct fitness objective to each. Traditionally, the first phase, known as the base phase, is all about building general aerobic fitness and endurance through large and increasing amounts of low-intensity training. Speed work is excluded from this phase because maximizing overall training volume is easier when intensity is kept low.
These days, however, most elite triathletes include a small amount of high-intensity swimming, cycling, and running in the base phase, and you should too. The reason is that when speed work is completely eliminated from training, the athlete loses the dimension of fitness that comes from speed work and makes it harder to get it back in later phases.
Just one small dose of high-intensity swimming, cycling, and running per week during the base phase will enable you to avoid digging this all-too-common hole. I recommend doing very short efforts at or close to maximum intensity, such as 8 x 25-yard sprints in the pool and 8 x 20 seconds uphill on the bike or the run.
Rule #2: Keep your total volume of speed training workouts low.
After the base phase of training comes the peak phase. During this period, which should begin 6-12 weeks before a race, you will want to increase your volume of speed work while keeping your overall training volume steady. But even at this time, speed work should account for no more than 10 percent of your total training volume.
Again, let the pros be your guide. In 2012, Iñigo Mujika of the University of Basque Country monitored the training of elite triathlete Ainhoa Murua as she prepared for the London Olympics (where she placed seventh). He found that she spent 10 percent of her total swim training time, 2 percent of her cycling time, and 7 percent of her running time at high intensity. These numbers are normal for elite triathletes and they should be the norm for you too.
While a little triathlon training for speed goes a long way, more than a little is counterproductive. This was shown in a 1999 study involving elite middle-distance runners. For the first several weeks of the study period the runners completed six runs per week, all at low intensity. Then they switched to a schedule of five low-intensity runs and one high-intensity run per week for a few weeks. Finally, they switched to a schedule of three low-intensity runs and three-high-intensity runs per week. The runners produced the best results in a fitness test when they were doing one run per week at high intensity and got the worst results when they did speed work three times per week.
Here’s an example of a sensible breakdown of training intensities during the peak period of training:
Tuesday: Swim 1500 yards w/ 3 x 200 at moderate intensity
Wednesday: Bike 50 minutes w/ 8 x 1 minute at high intensity
Thursday: Run 45 minutes w/ 6 x 3 minutes at high intensity
Friday: Swim 1500 yards at low intensity
Saturday: Bike 70 minutes + run 10 minutes at low intensity
Sunday: Run 10 miles at low intensity
Rule #3: Make your speed work increasingly race-specific as the training process unfolds.
The format of your speed workouts should evolve from week to week as the training process unfolds. The idea is to make your high-intensity sessions increasingly race specific. What does this mean exactly? It means that your intervals should become longer and slower (while remaining faster than race speed). The reason is that the true goal of speed work is not to make you faster—it’s to increase your fatigue resistance at higher speeds.
In the pool, I suggest starting with 25-yard sprints and moving step by step from there up to 200-yard repetitions. You should include longer intervals in your training as well, but these don’t count as speed work. On the bike and on the run, start with 20-second hill sprints and transition incrementally to intervals of 3 to 5 minutes. Don’t completely give up the really short stuff, though. Sprinkle in a few sprints even during the last few weeks before a race to maintain your highest gear.
Love it or loathe it, speed work is a critical component of effective triathlon training. But there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Now you know the right way.