Athletes who do not come up through organized programs in endurance sports often struggle with how to improve their base speed. They simply never get put in situations where the pace is pushed enough to stretch their self-perception.
If your target race pace is 8:00 per mile, then your speed work needs to exceed that pace in training by as much as a minute per mile. Running 8:00 miles requires you to run 400 meters in 2:00.
Limits of Repetition
You can certainly approach your target pace by running that pace again and again in hopes of accumulating enough overall fitness to sustain that pace over the target distance you choose. But that’s pace work, not speed work. Real speed training involves running significantly faster than your goal race pace.
The benefits of speed work are twofold. Pushing the pace actually increases your overall fitness by pushing your heart rate higher and increasing your leg turnover or cadence.Thus speed work also creates both a perception and capacity for pace tolerance with less relative effort. The simple fact is that speed training makes your race pace feel easier.
This is true in cycling as well. So many cyclists ride in the same range of effort all the time. Typically this is in a range from 18-22 mph for group ride and criterium cyclists, where it is generally considered to be a good effort to have finished a 60-80 mile ride at 20+ mph.
In order to ride at a better average pace, one must create opportunities to ride much faster in training, up to 24-28 mph in order to increase that base case capability.
For triathletes the pace must come through building of overall strength and balance. But speed work can still play an important role in pace (and pain) tolerance on the bike and the run.
The math of better speed work is generally simple.
For example, an 8:00-per-mile pace is 2:00 per 400 meter lap on the track. Running this pace on a track can be enormously helpful establishing the “feel” of going along at your race pace.
But what you really want to accomplish is the feel that race pace is easy. That means your per-lap pace in speed work needs to be significantly faster than your target race pace.
The increments are plain and simple. Running 7:00-mile pace means you need to cover 400 meters in 1:45 per lap. Now you’re getting into the realm of real speed work.
A typical workout might involve a set of intervals such as 8 X 400 at your speed work pace. Give yourself that 400-meter job between to recover, and recognize that the first two intervals mile actually feel harder than the middle four. When your body warms to the task the pace often becomes smoother. The last two intervals tend to be hard because you’re growing fatigue.
Be sure to warm up and cool down well. If you’re sharp the first week of doing this work you can add some 200s at at a pace 1-3 seconds faster than your speed workout as well. Running these 200s with slightly tired legs is a wonderful test of fitness and perception.
Once you’ve accomplished 10 X 400 at speed workout pace you can add in 800s. Ladder workouts are also exceptional at helping you use speed over distance. 2 X 400, 1 X 800, 1 X 1320 and 1M and back down is a great way to go.
To increase cycling pace requires isolating speed into segments. The ideal place to do this is within a longer ride with defined periods of hard effort. Or, you can set up a criterium course of right turns around a quiet block in your neighborhood.
The same principles hold true for cycling speed work as they do for running. Ride hard for 2 minutes at 3-4 mph faster than your base pace at 40 miles. That is, if you can average 20 mph, you should do your speed workout at 23-25mph.
Six to eight of these intervals once a week should be incorporated into your “speed ride.” If you have riding partners you can do these together it can be wonderful to press each other.
Triathletes will want to consider the distance they are racing; sprint, Olympic, Half or Full Ironman. Here it is perception as much as base training that matters. But on a typical 70-80 mile ride it can shake out the muscles and build confidence to put in healthy solo surges and ride through the “recovery” phase to build that ability to work through race day fatigue.
Overcoming the dread
Some people dread speed work as the most difficult part of their workout regimen. But in terms of the most beneficial activity you can do to increase your fitness and improve your pace, there is no better return on investment.
So stop the dread and let speed work stretch your head. The pain is only temporary, but the benefits carry over to better racing.