If you are a marathon runner you will say “Doh! of course it does”. If you are a novice you will probably say, “What??!!????”. If you’ve read around on forums a bit and read some books on endurance sports you’ll probably say, “Yeah ,that’s right. I think. Everyone says that who seems to know what they’re talking about.”
Or do they?
“Surely though strong muscles make you go faster” Well, yes and no. Think “Arnold Schwarzenegger” and you think “muscles” but you most certainly don’t think “marathon runner”. Then think Mo Farah, Chris Froome or Alistair Brownlee and you certainly don’t think ‘muscle man’. (Though perhaps you might with Michael Phelps).
So to be excellent at triathlon or 5k you certainly DO NOT need big muscles and by extending and reversing that argument, proper endurance training won’t make you a muscle bound hunk. (Ladies and also weight-loss seeking people remember that please and keep exercising!)
Going fast builds speed too!
So then you think that these guys are light and that their lightness is why they are fast. Well that’s not true either. Sure you have to be very light to ride a bike very fast up a hill but you also have to be powerful (power to weight ratio is very important in that cycling respect).
So it’s not muscle mass that makes us fast per se. So what is it?
Well here are some of the training zones and what benefits you get from them. It’s equally applicable to any endurance sport.
These Zones are Wattbike zones – I would normally refer to Friel Zones which are a bit different but broadly the same.
Zone Recovery: Does what it says. this will not make you go faster. But it will help you recover better in time to push yourself harder in your next session. If you have to do one session a week it wont be this one!
Zone 1: This is your base endurance. It helps you metabolise fat. IE you get better at eeking energy out of your fat stores so all the other energy stores you have last longer. Obviously good for long stuff like a marathon or IronMan. You can also do stuff here that improves your technical efficiency at run/bike/swim. For middle distance events like a standalone 5k you will need some of this.
Zone 2: Improves body efficiency notably how oxygen is used. So if you train in this zone then you get better at doing X essentially for ‘less heart beats’. That’s good!
Zone 3: Improves metabolism around getting energy from carbs. Improves the power you can maintain. That sounds good for 5k. Creates more slow twitch muscles
Zone 4: As with Zone 3 but also develops your lactate threshold (look for LTHR on this blog). Too much time here can introduce ‘staleness’
Zone 5: Develops VO2 max and anaerobic systems. Good for TT. Perhaps you wouldn’t have too many of these in your IronMan training schedule?
Zone 6+above: Basically sprinting.
So there you have it. Zones 2-4 are probably where you want to be most of the time. Those long slow runs in Zone 1 will NOT MAKE YOU FAST much in themselves. OK they might improve technical efficiency (which will make you faster) and in a sense any exercise will make you faster…but the best zones to make you fast are 2, 3 and 4.
So people who claim long slow runs make you faster are NOT strictly correct. First of all you probably aren’t talking about the same speed for the same distance event…their slow might be a tad faster than you think and they may well be referring to Zone 2 from above. And there I would agree with them. But you can’t just throw the ‘slow’ word around without clarifying it otherwise a lot of people will ‘waste’ a lot of training time (well under-utilise, anyway). Secondly long slow runs won’t make you slower but other zones might make you faster, quicker.
The other issue is that speed gains from slower speed training take longer to come by but, on the positive side, they stay for much longer (hence base building). So when you peak, say, 3 weeks before your race you will be doing fast stuff that has a quick payback but which you will lose relatively quickly. You can do that fast stuff because you have already done the base building work which gives your bod the capacity to do the fast stuff better.
Another issue is that the longer the event the more important the slower training zones become.
That’s it really. Train smart.