Staying Sharp in the Offseason

By Mike Ricci | Jan. 16, 2019, 4:26 p.m. (ET)

Winter track workout

The early part of the training cycle is usually dedicated to building fitness (or base) and getting your body ready to train hard for the upcoming season. There are lots of opinions on whether you should be doing a “base-building phase” focused on volume vs. intensity, or an upside-down periodization model that’s more focused on intensity vs. volume.

My opinion on this is if you are a professional, then go ahead and bang out those 20-hour-plus training weeks. If you’re an age grouper with unlimited time, go for it as well. The average triathlete, however, will find it hard to get in more than eight to 12 hours per week. Keep in mind that 10 hours a week is about 90 minutes per day, so that’s more than enough to keep one busy in the winter, when we have less daylight and warmth than we do in the summer months.

I’m a firm believer in keeping the fast-twitch muscles engaged year-round by doing drills, pure speedwork, and anything that’s fun and has you moving fast. It will certainly benefit you come race season. The way I define “speedwork” is a specific period of time (less than one minute) at pretty close to maximum speed or effort. Let’s review a few workouts for each sport to keep those fast-twitch muscles firing.

Swim Speed Workouts

Workout 1: 12x25 – All-out on equal rest. I base these swims off your fastest 100 pace. If you swim 100 meters/yards in 2:00, then that would break down to 30 seconds per 25. Your goal for these 25s would be to swim them faster than 30 seconds, hopefully closer to 25 seconds. The beauty of swimming is that you can swim all out and beyond being a little winded, you likely won’t feel sore muscles.

Workout 2: 8x50 with 1/3 rest. Swim 25 all out/25 cruise, and then 25 cruise/25 all out. This workout is a good one for changing speeds and forces you to concentrate during different parts of the swim. For example, if you swim 25 fast/25 cruise for the odd-numbered intervals, you could swim 25 fast/25 cruise for the even-numbered intervals. There will be points where you’ll swim back-to-back all-out 25s (end of one interval and beginning of the next interval). This will put a different stress on your system, since you’ll be forced to swim fast when you are tired.

Workout 3: For an advanced swimmer, swimming 75s or 100s under 1:00 would be another great speed workout—just an all-out swim with plenty of rest (30 seconds to 2 minutes) to really work on pure speed.

Cycling Speed Workouts

There are many VO2 workouts that you could do here, from 20-second all-out efforts all the way up to 60 seconds, but I’m going to give you a few examples of high rpms, spin-ups, and variations to shake up your training a bit.

Workout 1: An oldie but a goodie. Spin at 100 rpms for 4 minutes, 110 for 2 minutes and then 1 minute at 120 rpms. This is one of those workouts where you’ll be bouncing in your seat the first time you do it. But it will get better by the second time, and you’ll master it by the fourth or fifth session. Smoothing out your pedal stroke at 120 rpms will make 90 rpms feel like a walk in the park. You can also do more than one round of this set to add to the challenge.

Workout 2: Spin up to 110 rpms for 30 seconds, every three minutes. Do this for 10 reps, 15 reps, or 20 reps. Do as many as you like but keep the quality high.

Workout 3: This is more of an “add-on” to the end of any bike workout, but I like to see athletes do maximum rpms spinning at the end of any workout. This could be up to 30 seconds, but the idea is to get way out of your comfort zone and hit the highest rpm you can. You could hit 130, 140 or even up to 180 rpms. (Don’t limit yourself. Let it rip!) You can also do 4 maximum-effort spin-ups (gradually increasing cadence to as fast as you can control) with 1-2 minutes easy spinning in between would be a great addition to any workout.

Running Speed Workouts

Running seems to be a bit more challenging due to the potential for injury. Typically, you can swim and bike as hard as you like and not have significant aftereffects, but the same can’t be said for running. Go to the local track or hop on a treadmill and run as fast as you can for 100m x 10 reps, and I would imagine you’d be pretty sore the next day! While we want to add in some run speedwork, we need to be smart about how hard it is and how much of it we should do.

Workout 1: On a treadmill, run 9-15 reps x 1 minute very fast. These are meant to be slightly faster than 5k pace and they should push you a bit to hold on at the end. To make this workout harder, you could add some gradient to it, either outside or on the treadmill.

Workout 2: One of my favorite speed workouts is running a pyramid of 30 seconds fast, 30 seconds easy, 45 seconds fast/easy, 60 seconds fast/easy and then back down again – that’s 3.5 minutes of speed. Two to four rounds of this will definitely get your fast-twitch muscles firing. Once again, slightly faster than 5k pace will do the trick!

Workout 3: Short, explosive hill repeats can be very beneficial to your run program as well. Running something like 8-10 seconds all out on a 5-7 percent grade with three minutes of easy running in between may seem like an ‘easy’ workout. But if done properly, you’ll a nice improvement in your stride length and paces over the coming weeks.

These are just a few examples of the many workouts you can do in the offseason to tune up your speed and keep training fun. You don’t always need to hammer yourself into the ground with 500m repeats in the pool, 5-minute intervals on the bike, or mile repeats on the track. By following a progressive plan with your speedwork, you can come out of the winter feeling fast, fluid and strong, while remaining mentally fresh.

Mike Ricci, USAT Coach of the Year, and USAT Level 3 Elite Coach. He is the owner and founder of the D3 Multisport coaching group, through which he coaches all levels of athletes from beginner to elite. Mike is also the former head coach of the University of Colorado Triathlon Team, and guided them to four consecutive collegiate National Championship titles from 2010-2013. Mike has written training plans for Team USA several times, was the USAT World Team Coach in 2017, and has helped many athletes to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Learn more about D3 and Mike


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.