Ultra distance racing requires large volumes of aerobic level training. There may be little room for more peripheral training in an already stretched training time budget. However, athletes tend to fall back into bad habit with long slow distance training, especially when they are chronically fatigued. Running fast causes certain natural adaptations towards better economy. For instance, the arms naturally tend to swing front to back, better directing energy, and contact time is limited.
There is a difference between speed training and high intensity training. Speed training does not necessarily have to be overly fatiguing or damaging to the body. Run strides, pickups, turnovers and drills are great tools to maintain neuromuscular firing and speed without breaking down the body or requiring a separate training session. A small amount of speed training goes a long way towards maintaining economy, and it can be incorporated into regularly scheduled workouts.
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The best time to incorporate speed/skill training is after a brief warm up. Start off at a relaxed level and increase speed slightly with each 20-30 second effort- never going all out. Remember, the objective is to maintain the mind/body connection and preserve good form, not to set a new 100m record! Once your form "feels' right, carry it forward into the remainder of your workout. You can set your watch to beep every mile and do a "form check" for your posture, arm motion, foot strike and stride rate.
Watch the Junk Miles
When it comes to weekly mileage, there is a tendency to "check the box." Volume is a component of three things: training frequency, intensity and duration. Mileage does not address all aspects of training volume. Although building a mileage base is very important, especially for newer runners, mileage alone does not create a fast runner. Of the three sports in triathlon, running causes the most muscular breakdown due to the eccentric loading and impact, and consequently requires the most recovery balance.
Performing a succession of mediocre workouts on tired legs is not the best process. There should be an equal emphasis on the quality of the workout. If you find that the quality is suffering, do not continue to attempt your mileage goals. The mileage may be simply too much for your individual recovery physiology. Often subtracting a small amount of non-essential training can lead to the next breakthrough once sufficient recovery is in place.
Remember—the most fit athlete does not necessarily make the fastest athlete. A great many things must come together including economy, plan design, and a level of recovery sufficient enough to facilitate quality training. If you find you are at a plateau, it may be time to add new processes and a fresh perspective to your training.
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This article originally was published in USA Triathlon Life magazine. USA Triathlon is proud to serve as the national governing body for triathlon--the fastest growing sport in the world - as well as duathlon, aquathlon and winter triathlon in the United States. Visit usatriathlon.org.