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Tri speed development

Dawn Hunter explains how she has helped triathletes develop their speed using interval training.

Many athletes aim to increase their speed in their chosen discipline. Many articles cover the different ways in which this can be achieved, and this article seeks to add another viewpoint to the melting pot. The information covered here has been applied to the three disciplines of the triathlon (swimming, cycling and running) with equal success. However, running is under consideration here, as swimming and cycling are more technique based.

The tri-athletes with whom this method has worked mostly race sprint (750m swim, 20k bike, and 5k run) and standard (1500m swim, 40k bike, and 10k run) distances, so the run distances over which the speed has increased are 5k and 10k. Whether this method would work for other distances is not known.


Time is a significant factor when training for a triathlon, particularly when a full-time job is also involved, which was the case for all the athletes. This requires that any speed development programme is designed in such a way as to minimise the number of sessions required and maximise the benefits from those sessions. To fit sessions around other commitments, it is also vital that they are not too long.

Interval work, where the athlete works at a particular intensity for a specific length of time, is believed to be one of the best ways to increase speed, and the methods used here are interval sessions. The key factors in any interval work are:

  • length of the interval
  • length of the recovery
  • the number of intervals
  • the speed or intensity of the interval

This article will show how these factors were manipulated over periodised programs to improve an athlete's speed, without over challenging them. Speed development can be worked on throughout all the phases of a periodised programme. If the phases to be considered are base, preparation, and competition. The speed development will focus on speed strength in the base phase, standard speed in the preparation phase, and pure speed in the competition phase. Again, the variables remain as several intervals, length of the interval, length of recovery, and the speed or intensity of the interval.

The athletes all had previous 10k times and the speed of the intervals could be calculated. However, if there is no 10k time available, there are various ways to arrive at a point at which interval calculations can be made.

  • Following a warm-up, athletes could run a time trial - a set distance (which could be a full 10k if desired) where the time is taken to complete the distance. This time can be extrapolated up to a 10k time if necessary, using calculators on the internet (for example, try
  • Failing either of these and assuming that the athlete's goal is realistic, then it would be possible to work out target times based on the 10k time they would like to achieve, i.e. their goal time. However, this method should be treated with caution. In the event of the athlete's goal not being SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-framed), the intervals calculated would be too difficult, not viable, and lead to a sense of failure on behalf of both athlete and coach.

Speed strength

When looking at the base phase and the building of speed strength, the key components will be high repetitions, medium workload, and low rest. Over a 12-week programme of speed development for 10k running, this would cover 400m, 800, and 1-mile repetitions with one session of a combination of distances in a pyramid format over the 4-week base phase of the 12-week programme. The repetitions would be 12 for 400m, 8 for 800m, and 6 for 1 mile. The rest interval would be 60 seconds for all distances, and the intensity would be set at 98% of the current race pace for 10k, i.e. 2% faster than the race pace. So, for example, a previous best of 45 minutes for 10k would lead to (rounded up) intervals of:

  • 400m 1:46
  • 800m 3:36
  • 1 mile 7:03

Standard speed

In the preparation phase, the distances would be kept the same, but the number of repetitions changes to 10 for 400m, 6 for 800, and 4 for one mile. The intensity is increased to 96% of 10k race pace, i.e. 4% faster than 10k race pace, and to reflect this increase in intensity, the recovery interval increases to 3 minutes for all distances.

So, to take the 45-minute 10k example again the (rounded up) intervals would be:

  • 400m 1:44
  • 800m 3:28
  • 1 mile 6:55

Pure speed

The competition phase is where the intensity increases another notch, the repetitions come down, and the recovery increases again. So the repetitions would be 8 for 400m, 4 for 800, and 3 for one mile with 5 minutes recovery between each. These intervals are run at 95% of 10k pace, so 5% faster than race pace.

If the same example is used the (rounded up) intervals become:

  • 400m 1:43
  • 800m 3:25
  • 1 mile 6:50

Pyramid sessions

The last week of any 4-week phase is an opportunity to play around with the distances. The same principles apply in terms of intensity percentage and length of recovery. Still, extra distances can be added, for example, one week the session might be 100, 200, 400, 800, 1200, 800, 400, 200, 100, another week it might be 400, 800, 1200, 1 mile, 1200, 800, 400. This makes things a bit more interesting for the athlete and is a hard session in its own right, particularly if the descent down the pyramid is completed with a negative split!


Not everyone has access to a track. It is important to be able to measure improvement in some way, so some standard routes should be found for this purpose. Otherwise, the calculations remain the same, but the focus is on running hard for the amount of time set.

So, for pure speed medium intervals, the athlete would run for 3:25 as fast as they can for that length of time. If the same route is run as an out and back, they should (barring hills, etc.) get back to where they started at the end of each second repetition.

The pace could also be determined by heart rate, so for example, the athlete could run at 85% of max heart rate for the required length of time - many heart rate monitors can be programmed to beep if the heart rate fluctuates a certain number of beats away from the target.

Heart rate can also be used for the recovery intervals. If the heart rate is taken immediately following the warm-up, this rate can be used as the point at which the next interval is run. So, for example, if at the end of the warm-up an athlete's heart rate is 120, then after each interval, when the heart rate has dropped to 120, the next interval should start.


As the whole basis of the interval, the calculation is based upon the athlete's actual 10k time. Is specific to them. As their pace increases, their potential 10k time can be extrapolated from, for example, a 1-mile time trial every four weeks, and any change in the resulting 10k time can be reflected in the calculations. This way, the programme progresses as fast as the athlete does.


It is not easy to quantify the success of this method of speed development in actual races as it has only been in use for just over 12 months and varying periods during that time with different athletes (based upon specific goals). All the athletes are posting faster run times than before with improvements of between 3 and 5 minutes on their 10k times in previous races. However, this needs to be viewed with caution, as the triathlon run section is often variable in the true distance, is frequently on varied terrain and it is difficult to compare one triathlon 10k with another. In another 12 months, assuming the same athletes do the same races, it will be easier to see, but at the moment as some of them are moving from sprint, through to standard and even on to half ironman and ironman distance it is difficult to quantify truly. Notably, the athletes feel they are running well, and they are pleased with their improvements to date. As a coach, I am always on the lookout in case there is something that will benefit my athletes further.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HUNTER, D. (2004) Tri speed development. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 16 / October), p. 7-8

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HUNTER, D. (2004) Tri speed development [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dawn Hunter, a British Triathlon Association Club Coach, has been coaching individual triathletes and a triathlon club for over three years. She also competes in triathlons up to half ironman distance.