How to Add Speed to Your Swim and Bike Workouts

When you head to the pool do you swim countless laps at the same pace? Does the length of your ride dictate how fast you go? One speed for your midweek one hour ride and a slightly reduced speed for your long weekend ride? Mix it up! Adding some new tricks to your training plan can boost your probability for improved performance.

Many triathletes come from a running background. They are comfortable with speed work such as tempo runs, fartleks and strides.

If you are unfamiliar with those terms, a tempo run includes a warm-up, a sub-threshold portion and a cool down. Sub-threshold pace is usually around 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5k pace. Fartlek literally means "speed play" in Swedish, and it consists of alternating intervals of fast running (10k pace or faster) and easy running or walking. Strides involve relaxed sprints for short periods of time sprinkled throughout a training run.

This speed work provides higher aerobic fitness and improved running efficiency. Most of us know this. Yet, we swim lap after lap at the same pace and pedal mile after mile in the upper-middle area of our aerobic zone. We're all comfortable there in the dreaded grey zone. When we're done, we feel like we put in a good workout, but didn't really suffer.

Add Speed to Your Swims

Here are a couple of ways to include some speed in your swimming: Following your basic endurance sets (100s, 200s, 500s), include some 25s or 50s at maximum speed with 20 to 40 second recoveries. It's like lifting weights in the pool.

You can also replace your basic endurance sets with fartlek sets. Either alternate fast and slow laps, or slowly build your speed over some laps and then back down your pace.

Swim Fast to Get Fast

Add Speed to Your Cycling Workouts

Adding speed to cycling is even more fun, especially in a group setting. Rather than spinning along in your group, institute some telephone pole sprints.  As in, "race you to the third telephone pole." Drop the hammer on your buddies. Recover for a couple of minutes and do it all over again. You can also do this on your own, but it's definitely more fun when you are pushed by others.

When you are on your own, you can add some speed with a tempo ride. Start with a warm-up with around 15 minutes of easy spinning. Be sure to include some short bursts of higher effort (around 30 seconds). Increase your effort to near-race pace (sprint or Olympic distance). Hold this effort for 20 minutes or break it into 2 x 10 minute blocks with 2-4 minutes of recovery in between. Finish up with 15 minutes of spinning.

By including some speed work in your swimming and cycling, you will improve your race performance. Plus, the variety can make your training sessions more fun.

Rich Van Sickle is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. He is the owner of Tri For It! Coaching in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit or email to learn more about the personalized training offered by TFI.


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

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