Many new athletes believe that getting in shape, gaining endurance, getting stronger and going faster are all the same thing. Most put in 4 - 20 hours a week of running, biking, and swimming. They find early success with their racing but struggle when they want to improve their race results and race time. The common reaction at this point is to train longer or train harder and if you survive the high risk of injury and fatigue, you will find a small amount of strength and speed improvements.
General workouts result in general fitness improvements, a.k.a. getting in shape. A one hour tempo run, a two hour bike spin or doing laps in a pool are a great way to get in shape, but going fast is a skill that requires specific training.
So if you are interested in getting faster, here are the steps to take:
Technique (2 months) is the first and most important step. Consider a gymnast learning the balance beam for the first time. Running on the beam will certainly not be the first goal. For your sport, learn and master the body mechanics of the activity. Whether it is running, biking, swimming or kayaking, the perfect form is a must to start getting faster. Getting your eyes and brain to synchronize with your muscles is the challenge at this stage. And if you don’t know what the perfect technique is, study it or seek out a specialist to help you. Body position and foot strike are critical to running. Bicycle fitting, saddle position, and knee alignment are important to your biking success. And, head and body position in the water along with arm and kick technique are the keys to success in the pool.
Strength (2 months) is the next step in your speed development. Once you have mastered technique, you will need to add the necessary strength work to further stabilize your muscle. Strong muscles will support your joints during activities, increase exercise capacity, and prevent injuries. Commonly, the perfect technique begins to fall apart when muscle fatigue is encountered.
Training with speed (2 months) is the final and most challenging step. Simply put, you have to go fast to get faster. And with the first two steps complete, your muscles, joints, and cardiovascular system are ready to go fast. Now, the focus is teach your brain how to manage large muscle groups into moving quickly. This is not easy and will be confusing at first. Muscles moving slowly are much easier to control by the brain. But at high speed, the coordination demands are extreme and the brain has to adjust. Imagine race car drivers traveling at 200+ mph. Seems crazy to us, but these drivers have adjusted to that speed.
The recipe is simple, learn - get stronger - go faster. And it takes about 6 months to achieve your goals. The biggest risk is injury which usually results from less than perfect technique and a short strength phase. Always focus on improving your technique and make sure that your workouts are specific to going faster. Track workouts and interval training are some examples of speed training. For example, during a two hour bicycle ride, you will include 3 x 5 minute periods of race pace efforts. The next workout may be 3 x 7 minutes and so on. Slowly, you are teaching your brain and muscles how to manage going fast while giving them time to recover.. Eventually, these periods may be 30 minutes long and you will be ready to go fast in your races.
Remember, you have to train fast to go fast.