The Overlooked Element of Endurance Training – A Deep Dive into Overspeed Training for Triathletes

The Overlooked Element of Endurance Training – A Deep Dive into Overspeed Training for Triathletes

Endurance training is not only focused on making our bodies durable. There are many different components to the workout mix that get blended together in a training recipe that, hopefully, result in a five-star, gourmet result. One of these components, which is often not included, is ‘overspeed training’.

Overspeed training is as it sounds, training at a speed much higher than we would achieve in racing. Often it is training at a speed which is artificially boosted. So, speeds that we cannot attain simply through our own effort and power. Why is this necessary you ask? The brain learns technique and the most efficient mechanics of movement through a process called proprioception. This is basically our bodies sense of its own position. Travelling at excessive speed through the air or water will cause the body to discover its most efficient position and method of movement, which then improves our efficiency at our normal speeds.

Swimming – Of the three disciplines that make up the triathlon, swimming has to overcome the most drag, as water is obviously far denser than air. Even the slightest imperfection in hand entry or body position will slow us down considerably. This effect on the water’s resistance to us gliding through it increases, the faster we go. Sprint distance swimmers will tether themselves to a bungee cord and then swim, not against the tension but in the other direction, allowing the bungee to pull them towards the wall much faster than they would under their own steam. That is not very relevant to triathletes who are training for swims upwards of twenty minutes though. We will benefit most from swimming with fins.

Many triathletes will use fins for kick sets or recovery sets or sessions, but very few of us do hard efforts with fins. There is a misconception that this is ‘cheating’ and that we will somehow become dependent on the fins and the speed that they help to generate. This is not true. Adding in sets of fast repetitions with a pair of small swim fins will allow our brains to learn what it feels like to swim at that speed. We will make adaptations based on the feel of the water and it will highlight areas where things are not as efficient or streamlined. We should still be swimming hard. We are not coasting along at our normal speeds but at an easier effort, aided by the propulsion generated by the fins. Perceived effort should be at normal levels and the speed should be faster for this type of work to really be effective.

Cycling – The most effective overspeed training on the bike is motor-pacing. This is a type of training that professional cyclists have been using for more than a hundred years. There is no scientific research to back up why sitting on the wheel of motorbike causes us to raise our efforts to impossible levels that we cannot attain on our own but there is countless anecdotal evidence to support it. For the same reason that our normalised power and average heart rate is so much higher in a bunch race at much lower overall perceived effort levels than we would achieve in a training ride at the same levels, if we are even able to achieve those levels in training. For some reason, it is just more effective at producing higher efforts.

Motor-pacing is risky though. Not only because of the high speeds and risk of crashing but also for the strain that it will place on the relationship between pilot and cyclist. There are few things more infuriating than riding at your absolute maximum sustainable effort and the motorbike starts gradually pulling away without the pilot realising. Much screaming and swearing is normally the result. So make sure that whoever you get to do this for you will not be overly sensitive to a bit of abuse, and impress upon them beforehand that it is not personal.

Motorpacing is best done on quiet roads without intersections and too many corners and ups and downs where changes of pace will be necessary. A motorbike or scooter (never a car because it provides too much of a draft) accelerates much faster than a push bike and it is a skill for the pilot to ensure that the cyclist is not gapped when accelerating. A period of motor-paced riding should always be preceded by a good warm up so that the body is ready to fire on all cylinders when the time comes.

As a side note – I have found that riding with the faster ‘robo-pacers’ on Zwift to be quite a similar feeling to motor-pacing. For the less experienced cyclists and those that don’t have access to a scooter and the roads on which to do it, this is a good alternative. The only thing that you don’t get is the perception of speed out on the open road.

Running – There are a number of overspeed options for running sessions. The easiest to control is probably running on a treadmill. Here we would want to build up to short bursts at speeds which are much higher than we can sustain outdoors. We do obviously need to be cautious that we don’t get too carried away and get spat out the back. A good way to ensure we get right to our limits is, once we cannot hold the speed anymore, to grab hold of the side rails of the treadmill and simply lift our feet of the track before standing astride the moving track and then allowing the treadmill to slow down.

Safer from the risk of an embarrassing dismount but possibly a bit more risky from an injury point of view are downhill intervals. The opposite of hill reps, these we would do down a gentle slope, preferably grass and definitely nothing overly steep. We want to make sure that we are not ‘braking’. We want to lean into the downhill and keep driving ourselves forwards, down the slope throughout the interval. This actually ensures, somewhat counterintuitively, that our contact with the ground is fairly gentle and not jarring on our joints. We want to gradually come to a stop at the end of our interval and ideally, we would want a slope that gradually flattens out at the bottom to help us achieve that without jolting to a halt. A walk / jog back up to the start will be our recovery. Just as we do in hill repetitions.

Overspeed training is the final icing on our training cake. It is adding that little bit of extra speed as we approach our A race. We want to be in top shape before adding in this kind of work so that our bodies are ready and able to withstand and absorb the work. The benefits will be worth it.

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