Time for Speedwork

If ya wanna go fast

Scott Tinley's in here somewhere

Last week I wrote about setting goals, LSD training, and base training. Depending on how much time you have for each phase of your training, anywhere from one month to three months can serve as your base period. Obviously, if you have three months of base training, you will be in better basic shape. One month of solid base training will also serve well as your foundation, though. The major difference will be that your total volume of training will probably not be as high (unless you come from a super fit background and can jump back up to previously achieved levels, but that’s another subject).

So you’ve got your LSD training done. You are ready to start going fast again. And you should be ready. If LSD training is the foundation of your athletic ability, then speedwork is the I-beam that holds your racing ability up. If you want to race fast, you need to practice fast.

There are two types of skeletal muscles in your body, and you probably know them, but here’s a brief refresher course. Slow twitch muscles are muscle fibers that can generate power for longer amounts of time at a lesser intensity. Fast twitch muscles are muscle fibers that can generate power for short amounts of time at a higher intensity.

For the most part, triathletes use their slow twitch muscles to race. However, there is a range of exercise where these muscle groups cross over. Basically, LSD training uses your slow twitch muscles. When you do intense speedwork, you are using your fast twitch muscles. An intense running speed session would be something like warming up, stretching, and then doing 8 x 200 meters all out with 3 minutes rest in between. I wouldn’t recommend this kind of workout except for advanced athletes with a strong running background. This workout is almost all fast twitch muscle.

A less intense workout that borders the fence between fast twitch and slow twitch is the kind of training that will help you in an endurance event like a triathlon. It’s not all out, but it’s not just cruising either. What these workouts do is get your central nervous system used to moving at a quicker than normal speed. They also adapt your slow twitch muscles to moving at the upper end of their ability. A running workout like this would be 3 x 1 mile at 5k race pace with 2 minutes in between (always warm up and stretch before a speed workout).

Forget about the science, though! It comes down to one thing: To race fast, you have to train fast. End of story.

So what kind of a workout schedule will work for a working stiff who wants to get faster but doesn’t have all the time in the world to do it?

1. Step number one is to pick one or two days each week where you will focus on a speed workout.
2. Step number two is to make sure you actually do the workout.
3. Step number three is to tell yourself good job.
4. Step number four is to make sure you get an adequate recovery afterwards.

There are always going to be some people in the world who have innate natural ability, and can go out and do hard workout after hard workout, day after day, race great, and never get hurt. But it’s probably not you. So you need to plan around these hard workouts and make sure you get some recovery time from each of them. Speedwork will break down your body, and you need recovery time to repair. Each time your muscles repair, they will be ready to go to a new level. If you don’t let them repair, you are hurting yourself and will probably pay for it at some point in the future.

In addition to speedwork, it is also an intelligent move to continue one LSD workout in each discipline per week as well. Other workouts are what can be called maintenance workouts. They are basically training sessions that keep you generally fit but don’t have a specific purpose. Sometimes exercise is the purpose in and of itself. Get out and run 3 miles at lunch. It’s a nice day. Why not?

Enough with the talking – Here are a couple example weeks incorporating speed workouts.

Week One

Monday – maintenance swim 3000 yards
Tuesday – running speedwork
2 mile warm up, 4 x 800 at 5k race pace with 1.5 minutes rest in between, 1 mile warm down
Wednesday – LSD 30 mile bike ride
Thursday – maintenance run 4 miles
Friday – swimming speedwork
800 warm up, 12 x 100 on tight interval, 500 warm down.
Saturday –
AM – bike speedwork. 20 minute spin, then 10 x 1 minute at 95% effort. 1 minute easy ride in between each. 20 minute warm down.
PM – run maintenance 4 miles
Sunday – sleep in

Week Two

Monday – LSD 7 mile run
Tuesday – swimming speedwork
600 warm up, 400 kick, 30 x 50, 1 all out, one kick, one drill, repeat 10 times. 300 swim down.
Wednesday –
AM – 20 mile maintenance ride
PM – run speedwork. 2 mile warm up. 8 x 400 at 5k race pace –5 seconds (if you’re 5k pace is 6:00 per mile, then your 400 split is 1:30 – 5 =1:25 per 400). 1.5 minute rest between each. 1 mile warm down.
Thursday – LSD swim 3500 yards
Friday – LSD 35 mile ride
Saturday – sleep or easy swim or run
Sunday –
AM – bike speedwork. Find a group ride and stay with people who are faster than you. This is aerobic speedwork.
PM – maintenance run 5 miles

I hope you can see some of the nuances in these two weeks. You can do a LSD ride or swim the day after a running speed session, but it’s not a good idea to do a LSD run the day after a speed session run. You can do a LSD or maintenance run on the same day after a speed session on the bike (as long as it feels OK). If you can do doubles, then it’s a good idea to bike and run in the same day.

Step number four: Time for some bricks.

A brick is what triathletes call running and riding in the same workout. You can also do swim – bike bricks (or swim - run bricks for aquathlons). What bricks do is get your body used to the feeling of using one muscle group and then immediately switching into using a different muscle group. This simulates racing conditions.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about brick training is that people think they need to run long off the bike for it to be effective. Wrong. The only thing you need to do is a transition run. This can be as simple as running one mile when you get off the bike. This gets your body used to moving from one exercise to another as well as prepares your mind for how bad it can feel. And it can feel bad sometimes. That’s the name of the game. No one ever said this was an easy sport. If you want easy, go play checkers.

As the racing season approaches, I like to do at least one and sometimes two bricks per week. Every Wednesday there is a fast paced group ride that starts near my home. I usually ride over there, do the ride, and then come home and run between 3 and 8 miles, depending on how long and hard the ride was. If the ride is not too hard, I will run farther.

Just about every other Sunday I do a longer brick that consists of a ride between 50-100 miles and a run between 4-8 miles. I am slowly building up my distance because I signed up for an early season Ironman race and need to get ready to run after sitting on the bike for five hours. If you are training for sprints, then the only reason you should ride more than fifty miles is because you enjoy it and your body can handle it. It’s not necessary for sprint distance racing.

The swim-bike bricks can also come in handy as the race season approaches. Swimming uses your upper body muscles while cycling is legs only. It’s a good idea to do a few swim-bike transition practices, but they are nowhere near as important as the bike-run bricks.


Listen to your body. You may be able to go weeks and weeks without taking a break, but remember what I wrote about last year. Listen to your body! Take mini-breaks during intense training. Sleep in once in a while. Eat enough food. Get enough sleep. Don’t ignore injuries. Talk to other athletes for advice and support. Train with other people. Have some fun, damn it! That’s an order!

So here are the steps we’ve covered so far:

1. Set realistic goals
2. Do your base (LSD) training
3. Time for speedwork
4. Bricks, baby, Bricks!

Next week I’ll cover:

5. Visualization
6. Race day strategy

I’ll also tell you some of the workouts I do on a regular basis, but they’re nothing special. If you pick up any of the cycling, running, or swimming magazines or books, you will find plenty of specific workouts as well as different training strategies. Different things work for different people. All I can do is tell you what has worked for me, and what I’m still experimenting with.

Train safe,

Marty Gaal - January 2001