As endurance athletes, triathletes understand the off-season (winter for many of us) is prime time to begin building a solid base for the upcoming race-season. For many, this includes developing an aerobic base through long, easy workouts, and developing overall strength through a variety of anaerobic workouts (ie. Weight lifting, Pilates, Yoga, Plyometrics, etc.).
The general idea is to develop these basic cornerstones of triathlon to their peak before more specific race training begins. Once they are developed, they can then be maintained during the race season so that more time may be spent on race specific aspects of training that pertain to your specific race distance (ie. muscular endurance, lactate clearance system, VO2 Max etc.). After studying and researching the subject, however, I have found that there is a third cornerstone of this base that also deserves attention over the off-season. In his book, “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” Joe Friel refers to this third cornerstone as “Speed Skills” (Friel, 2009 p.87).
I believe that endurance, strength, and speed skills are necessary for any distance triathlon, be it Sprint or a full Ironman! They all deserve attention in the off-season. But what are “speed skills?” I was not familiar with speed skills when I first started training for triathlons. But since then, I have incorporated them into training and have seen and felt great results. Training speed skills involves developing better economy.
“Economy is defined as how much effort you use when” performing a specific task (Friel, 2009 p.89). Have you ever seen a runner who seems to be swinging his arms side to side in front of his body? This is wasted movement that does not help propel him forward and might even be impeding his forward movement. By simply changing his arm swing to more forward and back, and less side to side, he is accomplishing the same thing (maintaining the same pace) without using as much energy! He has improved his economy. In his book, “Daniel’s Running Formula” Jack Daniels refers to developing better economy as “Repetition Training” (Daniel’s, 2005 p.131). All professional athleteshave excellent economy and make swimming, biking, and running look effortless.
Cyclists “with strong speed skill can pedal smoothly at a high cadence” (Friel, 2009 p.88). Runners who practice at Repetition Pace (or R-pace) “learn to run more relaxed and faster, and race pace becomes more familiar and comfortable. In R training (or speed skill training) you recruit the exact muscle fibers that you need for economical running” or cycling, or swimming (Daniel’s, 2005 p.131). Repetition training or speed skill training is not aerobic, but rather it is “aimed more at anaerobic and biomechanical factors” (Daniel’s, 2005 p.131). One example of economy is pedaling on the bike. There is a lot more to spinning the pedals of a bike than we might think. While you are pushing down with your right leg, you are simultaneously pulling up or relaxing with your left leg. By incorporating speed skill sessions into your training early on, you teach big and small muscles (fast-twitch and slow-twitch) exactly when to contract and relax. Just think, if you are pushing down with your right leg and aren’t really relaxing your left leg all the way, then you are fighting against yourself! This may seem like such a trivial thing, but how many rotations do you perform on the bike portion of an ironman? Or how many strokes do you take? How many steps do you take on the run? It is clear that “by improving economy you can go faster using the same effort” (Friel, 2009 p.89).
You can see that by perfecting technique and training your neuromuscular system to work a certain way, you can save precious energy that would be otherwise wasted! So now that we understand what economy is and how it will affect your race performance, how does one go about developing better economy?
Well, there are some rules when it comes to speed skill or repetition workouts. The mostimportant concept, and one that is often hard for people to understand, is the rest or recovery period between the speed/drill sessions. Remember that you are not focusing on endurance or power here, but rather, you are perfecting your technique. Therefore, you need to fully recover between each session. Recovery time should be 2-4 times as long as the effort. “The purpose of reps is to improve speed and economy, and the best way to run fast and with good technique for repeated work bouts is to be fully recovered from the previous run before starting the next” (Daniel’s, 2005 p.133). “The type and amount of recovery following each work bout is determined subjectively. Simply put, you recover until you feel you can perform the next run as well as you did the previous one” (Daniel’s, 2005 p.132).
Second, is the intensity and duration of the work bouts. Early on in the base period it is important to start with basic drills. These can be one-leg spin drills on the bike, or high knees and butt kicks on the run. And surely everyone knows plenty of swim drills. If you don’t I suggest findingsome because swimming is arguably the most technique oriented sport in triathlon. When you are fighting your way through water which is 1,000 times denser than air, economy is king! Back to the intensity and duration…after perfecting drills, one should slowly increase the intensity toward a very high intensity (usually higher than race pace) but not all out sprints. Duration should be kept to less than two minutes.
Speed skill or Repetition training is hard on the body and should always be accompanied by proper warm-up, cool-down, and stretching. Here are some example workouts that I have come up with for myself using both of the books that I have referred to. You can use the structure of these workouts and fill in your own intensities/durations. Remember, at first work mostly on drills tohone your technique and as the winter progresses, works more towards using that technique in high intensity (usually faster than race pace) short work bouts.
These are all just examples of key workouts that I have designed for myself to develop better economy. Remember that you are not working on lactate threshold, endurance, etc., recover fully between work bouts, and keep technique above all. You should always end a speed skill / repetition session feeling like you could keep going. Take the time to develop your economy this winter and you will be racing faster with less energy.
Daniel’s, Jack (2005). Daniels’ Running Formula, 2nd edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Friel, Joe (2009). The Cyclist’s Training Bible, 4th edition. Boulder, CO: VeloPress.