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A Solid Approach to Building Running Speed
for Triathletes

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As you enter your base work phase, plan ahead and learn how you can develop speed if endurance is your strength.

Many long-distance runners and swimmers have written to lament how they can go at a modest clip for miles, but can never increase their speed no matter how hard they try. They might simply be unaware of how to modify their training to accommodate their goals.

Lisa Gonella, 28, of New York City writes that in 2001 — her first year of running — she completed two half-marathons and the New York City Marathon. Pleased with her initial foray, she branched out into triathlons this year, competing in two Olympic-distance races.

However, Lisa notes that she is having trouble getting faster, and has set a goal for herself to place in the Athena division of her next triathlon.

"My swimming is usually in the top 25% of finishers, my biking in the top 50%, but my running is only in the top 70%," Lisa writes. "I can’t figure out if my problem is mental or physical, but my running just won’t get better and it’s starting to bring me down."

First off, as I stressed in last month’s Fitness Makeover column , be careful not to place unrealistic expectations on your performances because it can have a debilitating effect on your enjoyment of a sport (and enjoying what you do is the key to being successful at it).

Lisa finished a marathon in her first year of running, which is an accomplishment to be proud of. Wisely, she has expanded her athletic endeavors this year to include swimming and biking, which bodes well for a future in which she can avoid injury while cross-training and competing in various athletic endeavors.

But to feel discouraged because she is not improving may be a premature reaction to a problem that really isn’t there. Having seriously trained for barely two years, she is probably just now finding her groove, discovering her athletic strengths and weaknesses, and understanding her current physical capabilities.

The learning curve, or improvement curve, may be slowing down for this rookie — but that is no cause for alarm.

Simply put, to improve one’s speed, it is necessary to practice speed. Too many endurance-prone athletes are of the mindset that more is better, and they are unwilling to sacrifice training mileage for the type of sprint-work that is necessary to develop faster results.

It is important to remember that you do not have to sacrifice the distance you put in — you just have to refocus your training more on speedwork instead of endurance.

If you insist on covering 24-32 miles a week of running, you can certainly maintain that goal while incorporating short, fast sets into your schedule that will give you the results you want. Here are a few specific ideas of what Lisa can do to improve her running speed.

First things first

The triathlon season is over and winter is setting in. If there was ever a better time to develop, maintain, or increase aerobic levels, it’s now!

While aerobic capacity is vital for endurance athletes, it is equally (if not more so) important for sprinters. As tempting as it might be for Lisa to focus on sprinting now during the off-season, she should not forgo the type of endurance training she has been doing these last few years.

Take this time to build a platform of aerobic endurance that you can use to springboard into effective sprint training come spring. This may involve long trail runs of up to an hour or more, with typical weekly mileage spanning anywhere from 24 to 40 miles in Lisa’s case.

Anaerobic threshold training

Early next year, Lisa should concentrate on improving her anaerobic threshold (or AT, the point where blood lactic acid levels rise dramatically, resulting in the painful lactic acid buildup that produces muscle soreness and fatigue). Increasing AT can be done with an overall harder effort balanced with longer rest intervals during workouts.

In very simple terms, this means that Lisa needs to train on less oxygen while performing faster repeats. By exerting more effort during her sets, Lisa will attain her threshold quickly, and attempt to maintain it for longer periods of time — eventually resulting in a higher AT.

While I personally do my interval training on a running track, it is also possible to train by the clock if a track is not available to you. For instance:

  • 3 x 17- to 20-minute run @ just below AT

    (if her AT is at 140 heartbeats per minute, then her heart rate should ideally be at 130-135 during this set)

  • 5 minutes light jogging as recovery between each 17- to 20-minute run.

    Over the next few weeks, Lisa can modify this set by practicing 2 x 40 minutes at AT (or below) with 5 minutes of easy jogging between each set. She should try not to go over AT, but keep her heart rate at or below her determined rate.

    Spring 'sprint' training

    With the good endurance base and expected AT improvements, Lisa will be ready to launch into the speedwork that should result in improved running times next summer.

    Here is a sample workout for someone eyeing an Olympic distance triathlon (1,500-meter swim, 25-mile bike, 10K run).

    2 x 7 mins. just below or at race pace
    2 mins. rest
    3 x 5 mins. at race pace
    1:45 mins. rest
    4 x 3 mins. race pace
    1:30 mins. rest
    5 x 1 min. runs at race pace (not all-out sprints)

    Concentrate on keeping the right pace, with a similar heart rate on each set. Light steps and fast feet are important, so if you fatigue early in the workout, then cut it short rather than pound through the set with heavy feet and sloppy technique.

    The rest intervals should be a walk or light jog, and allow your heart rate to dip just below 100 beats per minute before starting up again. The last five 1-minute repeats should be fast and springy, and ideally performed at race pace without them feeling like a sprint.

    Improving speed is a laborious process that takes time. It can span the length of at least a full season, so it is important to be patient and persistent in your training and not expect immediate (or even very obvious) results.

    If Lisa is an 8-minute miler, then she should train with a goal in mind of repeating 7:45’s for each race-pace mile. In a 10K, this speedier pace amounts to an improved time of about 90 seconds. Not a huge difference on paper after a season of meticulous preparation, but nevertheless significant.

    Keep such improvements in perspective. As a rookie, it may take Lisa several more seasons to get to where she wants to be in her division. Cross-training in other sports (and simultaneously concentrating on speedwork in swimming and biking) will only help Lisa’s overall conditioning and speed in running.

    She will eventually achieve what she wants as long as she is patient with the process — it takes time, dedication, and discipline to make marked improvements in any sport. With specific drills such as the ones listed above, Lisa can count on speedy improvements to her running times if she’s willing to focus on the long term.

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