Getting faster the fastest way possible

I am taking a quote out of context but was once told by a couple of notable cycling coaches that “speed is a byproduct of power and that searching for faster speeds was irrelevant” and that “I should be trying to figure out how to build more power”.

Please remember that I am taking a quote out of context here to set up the article

I have often told athletes I coach, that the quickest physical adaptation I can help them reach is improving cadence. NOTE: Anecdotally I have found this holds true in running as well as cycling. I can often improve/increase a cyclists or runners cadence in as short as 4 weeks. This, of course, assumes a few things such as some existing cycling and running experience. I have several articles and even a training plan dedicated to increasing leg speed for cyclists.

Very recently I have had a few athletes including myself that have had some unexpected downtime due to things such as illness, schoolwork, business travel, race travel and vacations or some combination get in the way of training progress. I have several prescriptions/recipes for helping athletes get back on plan. However this time I found myself asking some different questions.

If I can get athletes legs to turn over faster in as short as 4 weeks how fast can I improve Aerobic and Anaerobic power in my athletes?

One of the first things that those who are training to a plan as endurance athletes will learn is that any training that you do above Zone 2 Power or Heart Rate will contribute to the athlete’s Aerobic Capacity.

About 4 years ago I did a simple test one summer on an athlete and myself. We both followed a T-Max testing and training protocol created by Paul B Laursen, which was also described in Bicycle Magazine here, and saw a roughly 11% increase in Functional Threshold Power (FTP) in approx. 6-8 weeks time. In that same summer, I also utilized the Tabata protocol created by Izumi Tabata for 2-3x a week for 6 weeks and saw a similar increase in Functional Threshold Power. In recent years I have also prescribed progressive longer intervals at VO2 Max and have seen some decent gains in FTP over 6-8 week period. In both trials the intervals were only done on bikes and utilized power tap hubs for power measurement for testing and interval sessions. Heart rate was observed primarily for recovery purposes but in both scenarios, the focus was on power.

So most of us who have been riding and running know that to get faster we are going to have to train utilizing intervals but which ones are right and at what training zones!?! Sorry to say there is no one simple answer but it is possible to utilize both of the above protocols and make gains. These types of High-Intensity Intervals Sessions are dreaded or ignored by many athletes because they are more than uncomfortable. They hurt, they can be dangerous if you are not ready and if you aren’t on the verge of throwing up at the end of these sessions, I am sorry you aren’t working hard enough! NOTE: I found the T-max intervals are bit less painful than Tabata intervals and of course take longer to complete.

So how do we get faster, coach?

With some recent gaps in my training, I started asking myself can I make up the loss quicker and without having to revert to the 2 aforementioned protocols. I found the answer was yes and no. My race specializations are 20K Individual Time Trials, Sprint Duathlons, and 5K runs. For those that race shorter duration races know how much we depend on higher wattage’s and strong VO2 Max numbers to be competitive. So I looked into some research on HIT training to see if I could maximize my time and gain some increases in anaerobic and functional threshold power. I know from my own prior experience that HIT training will increase anaerobic power without a doubt and I could see some modest gains in FTP.

Why only modest gains in FTP?

When it comes to preparing for any race, specificity is paramount when understanding how to make the appropriate adaptations. So when only doing short interval HIT sessions those that are looking to improve on FTP will likely see quick but modest gains.

So are modest power gains a bad thing?

Not at all, any gain at any level of the power curve is a good thing as long as it is applicable to your sport/discipline. So I started to look for studies that showed a correlation to HIT sessions and increase in FTP or even Time Trial Performance and found that a group of sports scientists discovered that with >6 HIT sessions in highly trained athletes that the athletes gained 3-5% increase in speed in a 40K Individual Time Trial. While the gains on TT performance sound really modest they really are not. In one of my well-trained athletes, this gain meant again at 0.75 MPH -1.45MPH over a 40K course. Even if these gains were for a 20K course this could mean the difference between a podium and a top 5 placement in most regional and even some national level events.

The above abstract does share the intervals used in the study but doesn’t mention actual power, time lost on the ITT, how long the protocol was used or any particular taper or test protocol. The protocol used to train for was riding several intervals for 4-5 minutes at 80-85% Wpeak. So based on my own experience I can assume that there was either a progression of intervals per workout, per week and that there were 2 workouts per week and 3-4 weeks of were likely used based on the > 6 Hit Sessions. Then I looked into what the Sports Scientists considered to be Wpeak. While there was no mention in the abstract of the testing protocol where the scientists derived Wpeak I can assume from my own experience that it was likely a ramp test to failure like the one outlined in the T-Max protocol.

So is there another way to get faster?

Yes, it is called Sprint Interval Training (SIT). Another group of sports scientists set up a protocol that had several athletes complete sprint intervals over 2 weeks time and discovered some amazing adaptations.

What was uncovered?

  • “Performing repeated bouts of high-intensity “sprint”-type exercise over several weeks or months induces profound changes in skeletal muscle.”
  • “After training, the individual improvements in cycle endurance capacity ranged from 81 to 169% compared with baseline.”
  • “The primary novel finding from the present study was that six bouts of sprint interval training performed over 14 days increased muscle oxidative potential and doubled endurance time to fatigue during cycling at 80% V̇o2 peak in recreationally active subjects.”
  • “The present data, therefore, demonstrate that short, repeated bouts of 30-s all-out cycling efforts, amounting to 15 min of total exercise over 2 weeks, dramatically increased cycle endurance capacity and favorably altered the resting metabolic profile of human skeletal muscle.”

What is a cyclist or runner to do with all of this information?

Here are your next 5 steps to getting faster.

  1. Ensure that you have already been cycling and running for a while. 12-18 weeks of base training for cyclists and 6-10 weeks of base running for runners will go a long way to not injuring yourself or over training yourself when you start HIT or SIT straining.
  2. Get some rest! Be prepared to not ride or run as much as you are used to. 3 days a week of SIT or HIT training means that you are going to have 2-3 days of active or passive recovery and one endurance day not going over Zone 2 HR or Power.
  3. Eat right drink right! This article is to short for me to include sports nutrition guidance but it is safe to say that when completing 15 minutes to 40 minutes long HIT and SIT training it will not require food during training. I would also strongly suggest that you DO NOT eat just before one of these workouts. Also, training in this short of a time will only require water however unless temperatures and humidity become extreme then electrolytes are a must if you must train in the extreme heat.
  4. Be safe! SIT and HIT workouts are short and VERY intense. This means that you may have a harder time concentrating or seeing well towards the end of your intervals. So select where you complete your intervals carefully. Runners and cyclists would be advised to complete these on an appropriate track. If an open road must be used make sure it is one not frequented by any form of traffic.
  5. Training must be specific to see real gains. Shorter interval based training while it will improve anaerobic and aerobic power they are certainly going to be appreciated more by those that compete in short races, sprinting and mass start races where pace changes frequently. The intervals that are 4 minutes and longer will be the cornerstone of training for athletes that require more steady state performances such as Time Trials and Multisport.

So how long will it take to get faster?

Based on the studies mentioned in this article and in the following links to the studies it would appear that you can make modest to significant gains in power, performance and speed in as little as 2-6 weeks. Please remember that many of the studies are done with “Well-Trained Athletes” and this could mean athletes much younger than you that either has elite or professional credentials. Even with that being said I have seen these types of gains with my own version of the above protocols but remember at that time I was a very consistent trainer and was following an annual structured training plan.

Still can’t get your head wrapped around all of the study data? No problem leave a comment here and I will try to help. Want to skip all of the explanations and want to start riding faster in as little as few weeks contact me and I will get a plan ready for you.

CoachRobUntil next time,

Train Smarter Not Harder,

Coach Rob


Training Techniques to Improve Endurance Exercise Performances

Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans

A short training programme for the rapid improvement of both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism

Effect of training on the anaerobic capacity