Tri speed development
Dawn Hunter explains how she has helped triathletes develop their speed using interval training.
The aim of many athletes is to increase their speed in their chosen discipline. Many articles cover the different ways in which this can be achieved and this article aims 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 apparently 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 big factor when training for 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 be designed in such a way as to minimise the number of sessions required and maximise the benefits from those sessions. In order to fit sessions around other commitments it is also important that they are not too long.
Interval work, where the athlete works at a particular intensity for a particular length of time, is commonly 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:
This article will show how these factors were manipulated over periodised programs in order 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, then 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: number of intervals, length of the interval, length of recovery, and the speed or intensity of the interval.
The athletes all had previous 10k times which the speed of the intervals could be calculated from. However, if there is no 10k time available, there are various ways to arrive at a point at which interval calculations can be made.
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 race pace. So, for example, a previous best of 45 minutes for 10k would lead to (rounded up) intervals of:
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:
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:
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, but 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 actually a hard session in its own right, particularly if the descent down the pyramid is done 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 route 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 amount 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, then the next interval should start.
As the whole basis of the interval calculation is based upon the athlete's actual 10k time, it is specific to them. As their pace increases, their potential 10k time can be extrapolated from for example a 1-mile time trial every 4 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 difficult 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 for varying periods during that time with different athletes (based upon specific goals). All the athletes are posting considerably 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 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 truly quantify. Importantly, the athletes feel they are running well and they are pleased with their improvements to date. Obviously as a coach I am constantly on the look out in case there is something that will benefit my athletes further.
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About the Author
Dawn Hunter, a British triathlon Association Club Coach, has been coaching individual triathletes and a triathlon club for over 3 years. She also competes in triathlons up to half ironman distance.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: