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Most triathletes are much more comfortable with “going long” than going fast—they can run all day, but put them near max and the wheels come off. This is only compounded by the culture of Ironman, in which an athlete’s worth is measured by miles per week instead of miles per hour. Here are the first steps to develop speed after distance-focused training.
1. Reframe your idea of what constitutes a hard training week. Your hours/miles per week will decrease when focusing on speed, but the quality of training will be much higher.
2. Learn to value the importance of recovery between workouts. Cramming in training for time efficiency is perfectly acceptable when the intensity is low. But once the focus shifts to higher-end speedwork, you must allow for full recovery between workouts.
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3. Adapt your nutrition (less important during shorter speed workouts, paramount before and after). Working at high intensity pushes blood away from the stomach and to the muscles, so it may be a good idea to opt for recovery fluids instead of solid food immediately post-workout. It is still essential to respect the glycogen window and refuel with a mix of carbohydrate and protein within 30 minutes to two hours after.
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4. Focus your speed training on, well, speed. At first it may feel awkward to turn your arms and legs over at a higher rate. It will feel this way for a few weeks before the body adapts to the faster pace and higher intensity. I begin each season with some speedwork in the winter and, even as a former short-course athlete, it feels terrible for about three weeks. After that, the increase in VO₂max allows me to perform longer efforts at a much faster pace.
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5. Start small. Think 25s and 50s in the pool on long rest intervals, 200- and 400-meter repeats on the track and 30–90-second intervals on the bike, all with full recovery. These intervals may not sound like much but can be very challenging. Many athletes get attached to the idea that each week must contain a long run and a long ride, but combining volume and intensity is a recipe for burnout and injury. You’ll add volume back into the program later, but to focus on speed, workouts should be an hour or two at most.
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6. Practice speed under controlled conditions, such as on a treadmill or trainer. This allows you to focus on high turnover and maximizing your effort without having to deal with distractions such as cars, wind and hills. My biggest improvement in running came after a winter in which I performed all my hard runs on a treadmill. Setting a goal pace on the treadmill allows you to turn your brain off and just run, and it forces you to maintain a higher cadence. As you can imagine, there is no slowing down or “settling in.”
The most important step toward regaining speed is to put your ego aside and stop counting mileage. But if bigger numbers still make you feel better, you can always join the rest of the world and count your weekly volume in kilometers.
Olympian Samantha McGlone is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship. She is now retired and is a medical student in Tucson, Ariz.