Being a strong athlete and being a fast athlete are not necessarily the same thing. There are a lot of athletes who have great endurance and can maintain a hard and steady pace hour after hour. This is especially true late in the summer when athletes have months of spring and summer miles in their legs. But frequently these strong athletes lack the punch for high-speed, high-intensity efforts. That’s why speed work is an important component of any endurance athlete’s training program.
What is Speed Work?
Speed work typically focuses on short bursts of high-intensity with extremely limited recovery between efforts. One example is a workout called Speed Intervals. This is an interval set of 30 seconds “on” and 30 seconds “off” that continues uninterrupted for 4-6 minutes. For elite athletes the sets get longer, up to 12-15 minutes. The idea is to “rev the engine” with a high-power and high-cadence effort for 30 seconds, and then bring your power/pace back to a normal endurance pace (not coasting or effortless spinning) for 30 seconds, and then rev again. I often recommend that athletes complete these efforts seated so the acceleration is really coming from applying more muscle to the pedals, not just more bodyweight.
How hard should you go?
That depends on the length of the set, but you want each 30-second effort to reach approximately the same power output (as opposed to starting really hard and then declining effort after effort). If the set is short (2-4 minutes) you can make the 30-second efforts harder, even maximal. As the sets get longer (5-10+ minutes) it’s normal for the goal power output to be above lactate threshold power but below max VO2 power. An important thing to remember, though, is that the acceleration is key. You want to have a lot of snap at the beginning of each 30-second effort and get your feet moving fast.
How do these intervals improve performance?
Part of it is neuromuscular training, in that you’re developing the ability to change cadence quickly and frequently, and alternate between very high- and moderate-power efforts quickly. The very high-power efforts also generate a lot of lactate, and you’re developing the ability to generate and process lactate (reintegrate it back into normal aerobic metabolism) while continuing to perform at a high level.
Who needs Speed Work?
In training we often talk about the principle of specificity, which says the training you do has to be specific to the demands of the activity you’re training for. Speed work is very specific to a wide range of cycling disciplines. It’s crucial for mountain bike, criterium, and cyclocross racing, all of which feature an endless series of short, extreme efforts with very limited opportunities for recovery.
Road racers and non-competitive athletes who do group rides and gran fondos also benefit from speed work. The ability to “rev the engine” and then recover quickly proves very useful when you’re in a pace line or you have to bridge a small gap. And versions of the interval set above are also used in swimming and running workouts to provide runners and triathletes with the same benefits.
Essentially, no matter what endurance sport you’re training for, you’ll be better off being both strong and fast. So do yourself a favor and add some speed work into your summer.