Speedwork: Is it time yet?

Over the Spring Iíve written twice about what I think are the most important elements of triathlon training: consistency; and maintaining a critical mass of work (links at the bottom of the page). My thesis is that a regular, dependable regimen of mileage subordinates any attempt at quality work, if the price paid for this quality is days off and missed sessions. If you train 12 hours a week at any speed, youíll be fitter, healthier, and faster than if you train 5 hours at high speed.

Better yet is if your work is symmetrical across disciplines. Well known by now is our equivalency scoring: 1 point earned per mile of cycling; per quarter mile of running; and per 100 meters of swimming. So, then, 80 miles of cycling, 20 miles of running, and 8000 meters of swimming is a very solid and entirely symmetrical age-group week (not that all your weeks should be symmetrical, but all your months probably should be).

That symmetrical week might take about 12 hours to transact (5 hours of cycling, 3 of running, and 4 of swimming).

Were I your coachóand if I was confident in your fitness, technical ability, years in the sport, and available training timeóI might endeavor to increase your training incrementally until you reliably achieved these totals. These 240 ďaerobic pointsĒ per week might be appropriate for you, or it might be 300, or it might be 180 or 140. Your speed, fitness level, time commitment to triathlon, weight relative to your ideal weight, and tenure in the sport, all accrue to determine this. How do you know what your optimal weekly mileage is for the 2009 season? If you increase your mileage incrementally without increasing your heartrate and intensity, youíll bump up against a bit of a wall after two or three months. Your body will cease its ability to absorb the work, and youíll need days off to recover. Your sustainable weekly total is apparently something slightly below this.

And all this is against the backdrop of the occasional time off, which you need as a matter of course. Not a bad model is one off day out of 7, one easy week out of four, and one easy (or off) month out of every five or six. One might quarrel with my attachment of rest periods to time increments unrelated to the bodyís training rhythms, and thatís fine. The point is the need for occasional rest, and if a day off out of every five, or ten, suits you better than one out of seven, Iíll not quarrel with that.

None of the above, youíll notice, leaves any room for speedwork. Youíll be a better, faster, fitter, healther athlete if you find a sustainable, and symmetric, amount of work you can perform. Can you move from a 600-point month to an 800-point month? From 800 points to 1000 points? Can you do this while keeping the lawn mowed, your spouse happy, and with your sense of humor intact? If so, then maybe youíre ready for some speed.

Before you lace up your track spikes, though, letís talk about this for a moment. If you ascribe to the sort of themes contained in the paragraphs above, your job prior to any speed at all is just doing the distance; doing the workówhich youíll perform almost entirely considerably slower than race pace (except for the swim, weíll talk about this special case in a minute).

Iím being facetious when I quip about track spikes, because many folks falsely equate speedwork with faster-than-race-pace work. I donít see it that way. I think speedwork, in the context of this next step in your training, is simply doing your training at a faster pace than youíve been going up Ďtil now. In fact, let me tell you what speed is for me, in its earliest-season form: the terrain is flatter; and Iím now wearing a watch.

In the early season, before Iím interested in speed and while Iím just trying to string together day after day of healthy work, I donít wear a watch. Why? The same reason a recovering alcoholic stays away from bars: because Iím addicted to performance metrics, and in the early season I canít be trusted with that sort of feedback.

So you see that when I wear the watch, especially on flatter terrain where I have established PRs, Iím now thinking about my pace. But Iím still not running or riding very fastónot in the beginning. Certainly nothing approaching race pace. Yet, this is still speedwork for me. My once- or twice-per week tempo runs are fairly slow. But instead of 10, 11, or 12 minute-per-mile trail runs over mountainous terrain, Iím now running 8-minute miles on flat terrain. And, truth be told, that is not an easy sort of run (not in the beginning of the speedwork season).

Likewise, speedwork on the bike entails timed rides on 15 to 30 mile courses where the terrain is flatter. And there is one additional difference on the bike: up Ďtil now, all my early season riding has been on my road race bike. Now, for these tempo rides, Iíve transitioned over to my tri bike. Why? Because, if you own two bikes, the road bike is generally for easy rides, the tri bike is for harder efforts, and now Iím ready for harder efforts.

As the weeks progress, these 2 or 3 timed sessions per week will get faster and faster, both on the run and on the bike. You wonít believe how much faster youíll get, and how quick that speed will come, just doing these tempo workouts. But for the first month or so theyíll still be slower than race pace.

Why am I transitioning to speedwork so incrementally? Because throughout this speedwork phase Iíll still endeavor to keep my ďpointĒ totals about where they have been. If Iíve been holding, say, 200 aerobic points per week during my build phase, then I wonít want to drop this weekly total once Iíve started speedwork (except for my once-per-month easy week). Iíll try to add speed incrementally, such that the day after my speed session Iíll still wake up fresh and ready to tackle the dayís workouts.

You will find that there is a practical limit to how many land-based speed sessions you can handle in a week. The younger you are, the more you can handle. That established, 2 to 3 is a pretty good number. If you canít handle this many, maybe your speed sessions are just too hard. As a triathlete, you have to be careful. Youíll do more workouts than your typical single-sport analog. Best to throttle back on the ball-buster workouts, and just make sure youíre able to return fresh day after day.

Letís talk swimming for a second because, while the approach is the same, the mechanics are not. Imagine what it must be like to train a ďgaitedĒ horse. If youíve ever seen a Tennessee Walker or a Paso Fino taken through his paces, you know what Iím talking about. Otherwise, imagine a harness racer (a trotter or a pacer) pulling a sulky (the ďcartĒ the horse pulls). First, you have to train the horse to maintain perfect formóto maintain this rather unnatural gait throughout the workout. If you train the horse mile after mile, even after he loses his ability to maintain that gait, then you simply reinforce bad mechanics.

For this reason, if you take time off from swimming each Winter, then during your return I donít advocate long slow swims, if you canít maintain proper form during the swim. Me, Iíll spend several weeks doing sets of 50s and 75s, and I might not do a set of 100s for a month or so after restarting swimming in the Spring. Why? Because proper swim technique is not natural. Itís not intuitive. Itís like teaching a gaited horse how to run. I canít hold proper technique for very long early in the year.

This doesnít mean Iím doing speedwork, per se, when I start swimming. Itís just that I literally canít hold good form in the water for more than 50 yards when I first return to the pool after several months worth of layoff. As I write this, Iíve been in the pool for two months after my Winter layoff, and my longest sustained swim so far this year has been 500 yards.

But that paradigm doesnít track with running and cycling. You can perform these land-based events at a slow pace, maintaining proper technique at a slower pace. Accordingly, I like the idea of slow, easy-on-the-brain, rides and runs, gradually increasing the distance, for months before very gingerly injecting speed into the mix. Even then, ďspeedĒ isnít very speedy, not for some weeks at least.

What about running repeat intervals on a track? Or fartlek runs? Or performing cycling intervals on a trainer? Or doing repeat hills on your bike? Theoretically, Iím not against any of this. But, these are very sophisticated workouts, and they wonít provide (most of) you any benefit that tempo runs and ridesóperformed slowly at first and only incrementally faster, and probably not above race paceówonít provide for you. The trick is to get faster afoot, and on the bike, without sabotaging tomorrowís workout. For this reason, categorize speedwork with caffeine, tequila and the Playboy Channel: it may be legal; it may be allowable; and you may be able to make a case for it. But use with care: before you know it itís addictive and ultimately destructive.