Triathlon Training: Developing the Speed You Need for 70.3 – and 140.6!

By Chris Carmichael

With the countdown to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, I’m sure many of you half-IMers out there are wondering if you have what it takes to complete a full Ironman or qualify for Kona. The answer is yes, and the truth is that competing in half-Ironman events gets you into fantastic shape to make the leap to a full Ironman someday. In fact you’ll bring something more important to the race than someone who bypasses the 70.3 distance: speed.


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Triathletes sometimes suffer from a one-pace mentality, which is bred partly by a focus on achieving specific split times. When your goal is to run 8:45 miles for an Ironman, it seems to make the most sense to use primarily endurance and some lactate threshold workouts to get to the fitness level necessary to sustain that pace. It’s the sustainable aspect of triathlon that keeps too many triathletes from venturing into more threshold and ultimately VO2max training. The perception is that the sport is all about making steady forward progress, that one only needs endurance, and that somehow speed comes naturally from greater endurance. When you were a novice, finishing was a noble goal. Now it’s time to get faster, and it’s going to take more than additional time in the saddle and more miles in the legs at endurance pace to get the job done.

We need to get away from this “tortoise” approach to training. One of the lessons we learned from working with champions like Craig Alexander is that harelike speed can be advantageous in triathlon. It’s absolutely necessary for performing well in sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons, and speed was of primary importance in Alexander’s victories at the 70.3 Ironman World Championships. CTS Premier Coach Nick White worked with him as he made his transition to Ironman in 2007-2009, and has been fond of saying, “Craig had an advantage when he moved up to the Ironman distance; he already had the speed of an Olympic and 70.3 competitor. Building the endurance for Ironman is a cinch when you already have the speed.

Speed is certainly important for competitive performances in sprint and Olympic-distance events, and speed results from training efforts at and above lactate threshold. But the true value of training at speeds faster than you’ll need for Ironman is that it improves your ability to process lactate. This leads to larger, more rapid gains in your maximum sustainable power on the bike and maximum sustainable running and swimming paces. And once you raise those numbers, which you will automatically through the more intense training for a half IM, you also raise the pace you can maintain for a full Ironman.

On the bike, one of the best workouts for boosting your power at VO2 max is called a PowerInterval. These are very straightforward. You accelerate to your maximum power or pace over the first 30 seconds of the interval, and then hold on to that power or speed all the way to the end. Each interval lasts 2 minutes and should be a 10 on a scale of 1-10. If you’re using a power meter, aim for at least 115-120% of your lactate threshold power output for these efforts. You can’t really gauge these efforts by heart rate because there’s too much of a lag in heart rate response for efforts this short. The recovery time between intervals is equal to the interval length, so spin easy for two minutes. Beginners should do two sets of four 2-minute PowerIntervals, with 8 minutes of recovery between sets. Intermediate riders should do one set of seven 2-minute PowerIntervals, and advanced riders should aim for one set of ten 2-minute PowerIntervals.

- adapted from The Time-Crunched Triathlete (2010, Velo) by Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg

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