Six Keys to Offseason Speed Development

By John Hansen | Feb. 07, 2019, 4:01 p.m. (ET)

Offseason Speedwork

The basic and traditional triathlon training model includes transition, base, build and race phases of training. Under this model, standard program development suggests athletes begin with steady-state endurance training in the beginning of the season; build on volume and/or intensity in the middle of the season; and end with lower-volume, hard interval training.

The goal of this model is to develop an aerobic foundation early in the season, and use that foundation to drive productive, harder and faster workouts at the end of the season to optimize race success. This model works for many triathletes. However, it is missing several key opportunities to enhance your overall fitness—not only for the current season, but over your career as a triathlete.

Specifically, this model lacks the important aspect of incorporating speed development in the “offseason,” base phase or non-racing part of the season. There are several good reasons to incorporate speed training in the offseason for any distance you are competing at during the year. First, it will help the transition to harder faster efforts in the pre-race and race phase of training. Second, it will help you to sustain your previous season’s enhanced physiology changes. Third, it will enhance your neuromuscular coordination, and improve your biomechanical efficiency. Lastly, it will improve your economy or your ability to extract and use oxygen for every minute you are working out or racing.

During aerobic training, the body’s physiology improves, but the focus is on slow-twitch fiber development, increased connective tissue strength, improved muscle fuel storage and enhanced aerobic enzymes. Elements that help you to be a better steady-state aerobic athlete, but the down side is that after months of long, steady training, your fitness acclimates only to the demands of aerobic intensity. This adaptation means that improvement is much harder to come by when there needs to be a shift to anaerobic, lactate and neuromuscular development.

Speedwork trains the neuromuscular system in a much more specific way to swim, bike and run faster. You’re recruiting a much larger pool of muscle fibers, and more speed-specific muscle fibers—both of which help you to be a faster triathlete. So incorporating a very modest amount of speed training earlier in your training program can be a great way advance these specific areas of development without leading to overtraining.

We know that being successful, even at very aerobic distances such as 70.3 and 140.6 races, that anaerobic or higher-intensity components must be a part of the training to help improve critical physiological parameters of success such as VO2 max and lactate management. Consequently, it may not be intuitive, but doing some basic high-intensity work in the offseason will allow you to balance out your endurance training and enable you to see improvements over the entire season.

Before jumping into any speed sessions in the offseason, there are several rules key factors to follow:

  1. Prepare for the higher intensity workouts with at least four weeks of basic conditioning.
  2. Keep the speed sessions short to give your body time to recover and adapt. (Higher volume speed training will come in the pre-race and race phases of training).
  3. Speed development will involve resistance and/or power training (hills for example).
  4. The volume of these workouts will not be as high as in the pre-race or race phases.
  5. For best results, incorporate speed development in the offseason or base phase, 1 x per week for running and cycling and 2 x per week for swimming.
  6. Warm up and cool down thoroughly before and after these workouts.

The kinds of speed workouts you do, the length of each session and the amount of recovery between each depend on many factors. These factors include, age, susceptibility to injury, years in the sport, goals in the sport and your preferred race distance. It will also include whether you’re an athlete with a higher proportion of slow-twitch fibers and therefore might benefit from more speed work, or if you’re more of a fast-twitch athlete who can regain fitness quickly with less speed work.

As a general rule, your early-season speed phase should be 5-6 weeks in length, followed by an additional 3-4 weeks of longer quality work (part of your build phase) before your first race of the season.With the additional recovery weeks, that means you should start your early-season speedwork about 10-12 weeks prior to your first race of the season. In addition, your total weekly training volume during this early season speed phase should be about 50 percent of the total training time at your peak training volume during the season to help ensure good recovery and to avoid long-term burnout.

Incorporate these example speed sessions into your early-season workouts to build speed and efficiency in each discipline.

Swim

  1. 2 X (6 x 25 sprint with 30 seconds rest between intervals) 1 minute rest between rounds
  2. 10 x 50 fast with 30 seconds rest
  3. 3 x (4 x 25 sprint with 20 seconds rest plus 100 fast with 30 seconds rest)
  4. 8 x 25 fast with 20 seconds rest using ankle straps
  5. 6 x 50 moderate with 20 seconds rest using parachutes

Bike

  1. 4 x 5 minutes in big gear at 50–60 RPM, moderate effort on slight hill, flat or trainer with 3 minutes easy spinning between intervals
  2. 5 x 1 minute in small gear at 95–100 RPM, moderate effort on flat or trainer with 3 minutes easy spinning between intervals
  3. 6 x 5-10-minute moderate to hard effort on modest climb with 3 minutes rest between intervals
  4. 6 x 2-3-minute hard efforts on modest to steep climb with 3 minutes rest between intervals
  5. 10-15 x 1 minute at 10% above race effort with 1 minute steady riding between intervals

Run

  1. Endurance run followed by 10 x 30 seconds @ 5k effort with 30 seconds rest. Do repeats on track or very flat surface
  2. Short endurance run followed by 6 x100-meter tire pulls, strong effort
  3. Short endurance run that includes 6 x 200-meter hill repeats at a moderate to hard effort, with good form, run easy downhill after each repeat
  4. 6 x 400 5k effort on track, 200 easy jog between. Include an easy 1.5-mile run prior to and after the intervals.
  5. 45-minute endurance run with a 30-second 5k effort every 5 minutes during the run.

Although this philosophy of training may sound backward, it has been shown to be very effective for all levels of athlete.If you are looking to optimize your success, this may be just the way to make that goal a reality.

References:

Matt Dixon, Fast Track Traithlete, VeloPress, 2017

Triathlete Magazine, Kim McDonald, 2013

Physiological Factors Limiting Endurance Exercise Capacity, Len Kravitz, PhD and Lance Dalleck, PhD 2002


John Hansen is a USAT and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach from Folsom, California. He has 23 years of coaching experience. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen has coached athletes from beginner to pro level, competing at many major U.S. Age Group National Championships and World Championships, as well as the U.S. Men's Pro championships. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team with multiple teams placing in the top 12 and several athletes placing in the  top 20, in the past eight years at the Collegiate Club National championships. He also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long-course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit HansenMutlisport.com or email john1hansen@sbcglobal.net.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.