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Youth Running – Focus on Speed

If you're 12, an ideal triathlon running program includes work with a track group.

Once you’re 12 or older, an ideal triathlon running program includes work with a track group. It’s important to get running guidance from a coach who can pay attention to the details required for top-notch running training. It’s important to develop good technique and endurance to be a successful triathlete, but first and foremost, at this stage in your development, you need to get fast!

Too many young triathletes quickly get drawn to running longer events. I see so many younger athletes competing in 5km races on a regular basis, rather than taking part in a track event that would be a much better way to develop their triathlon potential.

Need proof? While I could just recite Alistair Brownlee’s 29:08 10 km winning run at the ITU World Championship a few years ago, I’ll stick with a Canadian example.

At the very first Olympic men’s triathlon event, held in Sydney, Australia in 2000, Canada’s Simon Whitfield and Germany’s Stefan Vukovic were running side by side with one kilometer to go in the race. Their competition was well behind them, so they knew that the race would come down to a sprint for the line.

Afraid that he wouldn’t be able to beat Whitfield, who had been a track and field runner in high school, Vukovic tried to pull away. Whitfield was able to stay with the German, and as the finish line came in sight, sprinted away to the Olympic gold medal. How sure was Vukovic that he couldn’t keep up? He slowed to almost a walk, and started celebrating with the crowd. He knew that he didn’t have the kind of speed he needed to win, so he decided to enjoy the silver medal he was assured of.

If your dream is to someday be competitive with the best in the world, remember that you need to be fast. It doesn’t matter how far you can goas a 12-year-old – you need to simply be comfortable covering your race distance. Even if you’re not the fastest sprinter or middle-distance runner at your school, it’s important that you work on some shorter events – I like to see 12- to 16-year-olds compete in as many 400, 800 and 1,500 m events as possible.

I know it is fun to win, and sometimes you might feel like you could be winning the local 5km road race rather than coming third or fourth in an 800 m race on the track. Remember, though, that the track race is likely to help you compete better as a triathlete, and might help you win a major triathlon event some day.

What to look for in a coach or track program

While you want to find a coach or program that will help you develop your running speed and technique, if your goal is to compete as a triathlete, you need to find a coach and a program that won’t be so demanding of your time and energy that you won’t be able to pursue swimming and biking.

Ideally you should find a group that meets two or three times a week for workouts, and that has a flexible race schedule that will allow you to compete in as many races as you’d like, but not so many that you won’t have time for any other events through the year.

Fartlek Training

Even if you’re not part of a track club, one form of training that is a great addition to your training program is fartlek training. Fartlek is a Swedish word that means, literally, speed play. Fartlek training involves run workouts that incorporate a wide variety of speeds and efforts. It is a fun way to add intervals to your training program.

Fartlek workouts can be totally unstructured, where the distance and time interval are randomly picked, or can be completely structured, where each interval has a set distance or time, and a set recovery period.

Some workouts:

With a group:

Free Fartlek

Take turns deciding the next interval. The leader for each interval controls the pace, and the distance of that interval. Rotate around the group so each runner has a chance to do lead a couple of workouts.

Blind Fartlek:

Everyone in the group is given a number, but everyone keeps their number secret. The runners go in order, trying to surprise the rest of the group as they start each interval and forcing the group to react to them.

Workouts alone or with a group:

Telephone Pole/ Light Pole fartlek:

One pole hard/ one pole easy; two hard/ two easy; three hard/ three easy; then repeat the cycle in reverse. You can repeat this set as many times as you can in, say, 20 minutes. To make the set even harder, shorten the recovery to one telephone pole.

Timed fartleks:

Run hard for a given time, recover for a specific time. For example, go hard for two minutes and then recover for two minutes. To make this set even harder, do the recovery pace at a steady training pace, ensuring that you never feel completely recovered as you start the next set. You can vary the times for this set depending on what part of the season you’re in. Early season you might want to do longer intervals of two to three minutes, during the season you might want to shorten the interval (even down to 30 seconds) and lengthen the recovery (1:30 to 2 minutes) to work on your speed.

Distance fartlek:

On a specific course, designate different parts as hard, and others as easy. You can make this as short as a loop around the park, or as long as anthree to five km run.

Five-minute drill:

This is a great fartlek workout you can do on a track. Elite runners try to finish a mile during this set. Start with 30 seconds of hard running, followed by 30 seconds of steady running. That’s followed by 15 seconds hard, with 15 seconds recovery. That cycle is repeated twice, then there’s one more 30 second hard interval with a 30 second recovery, followed by one last hard interval for one minute.

If you don’t have a coach to come up with the workout, use your own imagination to develop some fun fartlek sessions. Remember, it’s all about play, with some speed mixed into the translation, too.

Excerpted from “Triathlon For Youth: A Healthy Guide to Competition” by Kevin Mackinnon. (Meyer and Meyer, 2006.)

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