Maximize Your Cardio Program: Speed and Efficiency
The fourth and final article of this series on aerobic conditioning concerns increasing how fast you move. This article is for high achievers. If you are concerned only with decreasing your risk of chronic diseases, apply the suggestions from Part 1 and 2. Add Part 3 and 4 if you are fit for high intensity training and want extra challenge. Fortunately, training to increase speed is “fast” relative to your fitness level but not necessarily “hard” like the training for aerobic capacity discussed in Part 3.
One technique commonly used to increase speed and efficiency is repetition speed work. Repetitions are a type of interval training involving short bursts of activity for the purpose of minimizing unnecessary movement and learning to work more in less time with less effort. The work bouts are relatively short (about 2 minutes) with “full” periods of active recovery (about 5 to 6 minutes) between repetitions. During the speed bouts, you concentrate on body alignment and moving faster while staying relaxed. Long active recovery periods minimize fatigue and allow you to perform each speed interval with maximum effectiveness. Speed work typically involves more anaerobic energy systems (>100% VO2max) than aerobic. Since anaerobic energy is available for only minutes at a time before muscles begin to fatigue, limit the speed work load to no more than 1 session per week and no more than 5% of the total volume for the week.
Plyometric drills, or stretch-shorting cycle training, are another training method used to increase speed and efficiency. Children’s games such as jump roping, hop scotch, and leap frog are great examples of plyometric training. Drills and games that involve jumping and leaping high or far against little or no resistance teach the body to explode quickly and move efficiently through space. Although we usually associate these drills with team sports such as football and soccer, endurance athletes, dancers and anyone who wants to learn to move quickly and lightly on their feet benefit from plyometric exercises. For example, one study showed that recreational 10K runners increased their power output in their legs through single leg jump work. These runners out-paced their non-plyometric trained competitors. The concept is simple: teach your body to do something difficult, like hop high and far on one leg forward and backward, so that running or cycling will feel less difficult.
Third, strength training may help improve speed and efficiency. Strong muscles, tendons and joints help carry your body faster over greater distances. Furthermore, strength training teaches the body to move against resistance without high joint impact movements like plyometric drills. Many endurance athletes perform no lower body strength training or limit resistance to about 15RM (1RM = your 1 repetition maximum). Some believe that since strength training works anaerobic systems more than aerobic systems, there is no benefit for endurance athletes. However, recent studies show that strength training improves speed and efficiency in endurance athletes. My personal experience taught me that this is true. I ran faster with less effort when I performed high intensity lower body strength training once a week.
“High intensity” does not mean over-training. It refers to intensity of about 8 to 12RM per set. This intensity recruits enough fast and slow twitch muscle fibers to increase muscle, tendon, and ligament tensile strength. Women tend to work at intensities too low to produce results while men tend to work at intensities too high for their level and compromise form during exercises. First, build a base level of local muscular endurance by working in the 15RM or higher range, but then increase intensity to 8 to12RM per set for about 3 to 4 week and see how you feel. If you are happy with your results, continue to follow a periodized program varying volume and intensity over several weeks. If you feel like you are overtraining, cut back your volume and intensity until you feel prepared for greater strength work.
1. For repetition work, work at a “fast” pace greater than 100% of your VO2max for short periods (up to 2 minutes) and follow with full active recovery periods of about 5 to 6 minutes. Concentrate on form, moving efficiently, and staying relaxed at a faster pace.
2. Limit repetition work to 1 session a week for about 5% of the total cardiovascular training volume for the week.
3. If outdoors, perform repetitions on flat, dry terrain on a clear day. Repetition training is great on treadmills and in spin classes since many machines allow you to program your workout and keep your speed and time consistent.
4. Other training options to increase speed include plyometric training and strength training. Plyometric training involves fun drills you probably enjoyed as a child like single leg hopping and frog leaps. Only about 15 minutes of plyometric training a week can improve speed and economy, add variety to training, and keep training fun. Strength training is a great option for people who want to increase muscular strength and power but limit high joint impact movements. First build a base of local muscular endurance and then progress to higher intensity maximum strength work.
Daniels, Jack. “Incorporating Sport-Specific Skills into Conditioning: Distance Running,” within High-Performance Sports Conditioning, Bill Foran ed., Human Kinetics, Inc. 2001.
Fleck, Steven J. and Kraemer, William J. Designing Resistance Training Programs. 3d ed. Human Kinetics, 2004, pg. 230-237.
Johnston, Ron, M.S. “Pump Iron: Run Easier.” Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, 1995, printed in AFPA resource library.