Running Intervals to improve your 5k Times – 12 Week Plan

suzalcatrazrunMany triathletes coming from single sport or team sport backgrounds are used to integrating variety of practices and intensities to improve.   Mile repeats (track) , Auburn sprints (swimming), 3-on-3 scrimmage (soccer or basketball), “around-the-horn” (baseball) are all well known practices in their respective sports.

A challenge for the triathlete is how to continue to use interval training while drastically reducing the frequency of workouts in one sport.   This triathlete expresses the concern well. I’ve removed his actual 5k speed, because the answer that follows is somewhat irrelevant.



I’m new to triathlon but I have been running for a few years now. It’s recently dawned on me after many years of half marathons and that a workout without a purpose is a wasted workout. It’s often not the time you spend on it that makes the quality.

My running is not what I would like it to be over 5k and 10k. Can anyone recommend a decent set of running intervals to do to start me improving my times?  My idea is to do two running sessions a week; 1 long run and 1 on interval / speed work.

A common response to this type of question is to simply run more…4-5 runs a week with most of them being easy miles.  That’s definately an option, but reality for many triatheltes is that they can’t fit in more than two sessions a week of one sport, because perhaps they are limited to 6 sessions a week or maybe they are already swimming 5 days a week and cycling 4 days.

From a coach’s perspective I look for ways to help the athlete get the most out of their training time.  Sometimes it may require that they find time to train more often.  But I’m not the controller of their schedule and in the end, there will be plenty of folks who can only run twice a week.    So what’s the best way for them to use their time?

In the case of this triathlete, it sounds like she is an experienced runner.  Doing interval training once per week and an easy run once per week will probably result in some speed gains or at least prevent speed losses.

Here is an example of a 9-12 week progression, that can easily be extended to a 4-6 month routine if a runner is limited to only two runs per week.   I’d recommend starting with a 5k test or race (keep it fun!) and repeat that at 4-6 week intervals.


12 week plan for 5k/10k interval work

Weeks 1-4

3-4 weeks of 1 weekly fartlek session…google fartlek if you don’t know what it is

Weeks 5-8

3-4 weeks of 1 weekly hill repeat session progressing duration of hills from 5-6 repeats of 30seconds week1, to 45 seconds week2 to 1 minute week 3 and 90 sec week four. Downhill walk/jog recovery. next time through the progression, start at 1 miin, then 1:30, then 2 min, then 3 minute hills.

Weeks 9-12

3-4 weeks of 5k paced 400 repeats. Take your 5k pace, calculate your equivalent pace for a 400 & subtract 2-4 seconds from that. week 1 do 4-6 repeats, week 2 do 6-8 and week 3 do 8-10. Week 4 8-12. The goal is to nail the pace, not beat the pace.


Strong Before Long  – Why this works

This progression is moderate, meaning there is a low likelihood of injury.   It allows you to build playful speed first, then leg strength, the 5k specific speed. This is a concept that is sometimes referred to as “strong before long” by run coach Bobby McGee. Building leg strength functionally with hill intervals, then take that leg strength into 400 (1/4 mile) repeats at your current 5k pace or slightly faster to work on leg speed.  The combination is powerful for building speed at 5 & 10k distances.

If you’re just coming off of marathon training, half marathon training (or half-iron & iron distance) training, the endurance you’ll carry over will also stick around for a little while.  This plan would then help you also run a pretty speedy half-marathon even when cutting your run frequency back significantly.

Even if you can running 3-4 times per week, I’d suggest the above as your weekly “speed” work and let me know how it works!

Steel City Endurance Athletes in the News

Our athletes occasionally make the news due to their accomplishments, fund-raising efforts or interesting local involvement.   Here is an annotated collection of such stories in no particular order.

Sass Memphis in May 2015

Sass, Isabella win MIM Triathlon

Kirsten Sass wins the 2015 Memphis in May Olympic Distance Womens race in a timed 2:02:18:54.  She also won the Sprint race the day before in 1:00.49, for an overall combined winning time in the Amateur Challenge (best time for both races)

Your Burning Triathlon Training Questions – Wednesday Weekly

Triathlon  / Freestyle Swimming - Total ImmersionWe have athletes of all experience levels training with our coaches, and sometimes we take for granted how much knowledge triathletes have. There’s no such thing as a question too simple, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that a question that seems basic was once a question we didn’t ahve answers to.

It’s only through familiarity, repetition and surrounding ourselves with training resources daily that common sense triathlon answers become common sense! (more…)

How Swimming Helps Your Balance

How Swimming Helps Your Balance

Yesterday this interesting article in the Washington post discussed a study linking a decreased risk of falling to the activity of swimming. Men over 70 who had fewer falls also swam more than their counterparts. While the study does not identify a causal link, I have a few ideas that I think are worth sharing.

Swimming may help improve Balance.

Swimming may help improve balance and neuromuscular response, for additional reasons that are not discussed in this article.

The horizontal orientation of swimming challenges the cerebellum & vestibular system in a different orientation than on land…without the risk of injury. Much like a baby learning to walk by falling, catching itself, trying again and again until it “learns” how to balance, a human body in the water is always falling towards gravity…without the impact.

Every time the body rotates or changes its orientation there is an up/down shifting of the body in the water due to gravity…much like the body is “falling”. But as soon as buoyancy equilibrium is found, the body returns to neutral buoyancy.

During these “falling” episodes, humans respond by kicking or flailing or sculling or lifting the head…they are in built reflexes. Overcoming those reflexes forces the vestibular system to deal with a new normal…an new sense of orientation.

Whether a swimmer realizes it or not, swim time is “play time” for the brain and new pathways are be established. Like a baby learning to walk.

A sense of “falling forward” when swimmers get to the positions that are better swimming positions, horizontally balanced head, shoulders & hips, is due to the vestibular system & cerebellum being used to a much more vertical orientation.

If this sounds like you, try this curious experiment. Lay flat on a bed and let your chin be off the edge so you are looking at the floor…do you experience any vertigo? And if you do so then look right and look left a bit…how does that feel? This is the position you should be in ideally in the water…body horizontal, head looking down & aligned cervical spine.

Could be interesting to play with!!

So You Want to be a Triathlon Coach? Here’s your Reading List…

Triathlon Coaching - Steel City Endurance The most common question I get from folks wanting to increase their knowledge is, “What triathlon coaching books should I read?”

While it’s certainly hard to whittle down the list, these were the first handful of books & scientific papers to come to mind.  As they say, always go with your initial instincts!

Caveat…I have an entire bookshelf of coaching books plus many I haven’t read yet, but these are the books & articles I would START with.  They will help the aspiring triathlon coach or self-coached athlete form a solid foundation upon which they can begin filling in with no end of online-self-coaching articles.

There may be some notable absences from this list…it’s not necessarily intentional, but if you would like to add a book to the list, please leave a comment!

Scientific Training for Triathletes, Phil Skiba, MD, $20

The Triathletes Guide to Training with Power, Phil Skiba, MD, $20

Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 2nd Ed, Hunter Allen & Andy Coggan, 2010  $24.95

Triathlon Swimming Made Easy, Terry Laughlin (Discount 10%  “coachsuzanne” at checkout) $9.95 E-book, In Paperback $33 new.

Daniels’ Running Formula-3rd Edition, Jack Daniels, 2013, $21.95

Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training, 2009.  Free Download

Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions, Michael Joyner & Edward Coyle, 2008, Free Download


So for about $100 you can have 7 excellent coaching & self-coaching references that cover essentials of endurance physiology, high intensity training, run training, bike training, swim training & fitness from some of the most notable and knowledable authors.

One of the fantastic aspects of triathlon is that all of these authors are alive & well and accessible by email, webinar or by corning them at a conference on endurance sports.

What are some of your favorites?



Threshold Testing with Power –  File and Performance Analysis

Threshold Testing with Power – File and Performance Analysis



I tend to be very analytical with my athletes training files, which is part of my job as a coach. I provide supplemental training and guidance on analyzing files to my associate coaches as well.  If you train with Steel City Endurance, you can expect to get feedback like this on a routine basis, but especially around testing periods.

This specific example is a power profile analysis that I annotated and sent to my athlete. The workout was a 5 minute & 20 minute time trial both performed in the same setting, similar to what is recommended by Allen & Coggen in Training and Racing with a power meter.

I’m sharing it  here in full with the exception of the final link at the end as that contains personal information.   Hopefully you can see how the email is somewhat conversational, and I reflect on what I as a coach can do better on as well.   The tone overall is or should be positive and encouraging…after all this was hard work!   I want my athlete to know where he currently stands and how well the testing was performed in order for him to make improvements as we go.

I know I”ve done my job as a coach well when my athletes become their won best self-coaches!  (It must be working well because two current or former Steel City Endurance athletes are now coaching with us as associates! )  Enjoy, and I appreciate any comments or feedback.


Threshold Testing Power Summary Analysis – Coach to Athlete

Overall really nice effort.  Noting the laps with your bike computer is helpful for me and saves me some time.  I’ve noted some features I look at on the graph.  The warmup is nice and easy and follows the protocol I wrote well. In looking at the effort, I’d like to see the HR climb just a little higher, close to your threshold at the end of 15 or so minutes. This lets us know your muscles are “primed” for a good effort, and that you’re not still warming up into a hard effort when you start the first interval.

You noted that the you felt like you were saving something during the 5 minute for the 20 minute effort.  You can see that here in the stepped appearance of the power line.   This 5 min & 20 min test serves several purposes. one of them is to “blow out” your anaerobic energy stores so that the 20 minute effort is more reflective of your true aerobic effort.  I don’t expect that you could go as hard for the 20 minute after  an all out 5 as you could in a standalone 20 minute effort.

The other thing this test does is simultaneously give us a 5 minute best power, reflective of your maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max).

So this is a good start and we’ll adjust your zones based on it, and retest in a few weeks with the notes I made taken into account:
Let the warm up effort climb to just below threshold effort, before the 5 min easy spin
Go all out on the 5 minute aiming for an even power application
The 20 minute looks great here, again, go for best even effort for duration.

Here are your averages for the 5 & 20 minute sections

5 minute all out effort: 

Heart Rate Power Cadence Power:weight(kg)
Average 153 282 82 3.65
Max 165 323 107 NA

20 minute all out effort: 

Heart Rate Power Cadence Power:Weight(kg)
Average 162 255 78 3.14
Max 173 307 83 NA

5 min Heart Rate
I follow the HR trend as an indicator of how close you are to your potential in performing this test.

Your 5 minute avg HR should be at or near your max Heart Rate. Since your max HR for the 20min was 173, your avg HR for the 5 minute, when done well, should be pretty close to that.  If you were significantly dehydrated by the end of the 20 min that could account for a few heart beats.

Next time around, or whenever you are doing long VO2 max type sessions, see if you can target a HR of 170 as an indicator you are going “hard enough”.  Power may continue to climb higher even if HR is maxed out due to anaerobic energy. That is, the heart doesn’t need to beat faster to deliver more oxygen because there are non-oxygen based energy sources.  Over time I really want to see what you can produce for a 5 minute max in terms of Wattage!  My guess is that a sustained 300W is in you now, possibly much higher since max was 323 and HR was still 5-10 beats below your max.

5 minute Power
Avg power of 282 is most likely below what you’re capable of just judging by the stepped appearance of the graph. We don’t need to worry about the values for now, but just something to keep an eye on for your next test is to really try to get your HR up a bit before the 5 minute effort, then nail a steady hard effort for 5 minutes with HR btwn 160 & 170 as a signal you’ve got it going hard enough. Then let the power be what it is! (can you hit 290-300 steady watts or higher?)

20 minute HR & Power
Your graph shows a general trend higher for each of these and not an abrupt jump at the end which is good.  Overall this looks like a good effort and once you get back into training I think these numbers will “nudge” higher bit by bit.

To calculate your power training zones, I’ll use 95% of this 20 minute average as the basis for your “threshold power”.  Over time the main goal is to improve your threshold power with training.  If this number isn’t getting higher then we need to look at reasons why…it may be OK because you may be getting faster for longer durations even though this value doesn’t move…or you may be getting more efficient by executing this effort at a lower HR value.

A good metric to follow is your “power to weight” ratio.

You can see that your 20 min power to weight ratio  of 3.14 & your 5 min ration of 3.65 puts you right at a “cat 4” cycling level, which is fine, and again over time we want to try and nudge this upwards. As a long course athlete, the 20 minute (& longer duration) power numbers are more important.

At this point I mostly want to make sure that you have a general idea of what the numbers mean and what I’m looking at…that will help you execute your workouts better and know what’s important and what’s less important.

Finally I created a chart with printable zones for your training zones based on this test that you can see here:

The Perfect Ironman Taper ? Following the little blue line

Performance Mangement Chart for a 1 year build to Ironman Arizona occuring 5 days out from the end of the "blue line".   ~10 % reduction from the peak with a positive stress balance is an "idealized" shape of the curve for physical preparedness and an ideal taper.

Performance Mangement Chart for a 1 year build to Ironman Arizona occuring 5 days out from the end of the “blue line”. ~10 % reduction from the peak with a positive stress balance is an “idealized” shape of the curve for physical preparedness and an ideal taper.

Ironman Arizona is a late season race. By the time athletes have arrived in Arizona the months upon months of training have often taken an emotional toll, even if the physical preparation is perfect.

Finding that blend of building fitness, maintaining motivation, postitive mindset and visualization, just enough rest without getting stale…that’s the art of tapering.

The performance management chart is one way of viewing the physical stresses of training and looking at how well an athlete is recovering.

By correlating dips in the chronic training load (the “little blue line”) with the bounce in the balance of acute & chronic stress (the yellow zone or the “training stress balance” or TSB), we can prepare an athlete for an idealized race.

There is more to it for sure, but seeing these shapes emerging the week before Ironman Arizona is reassuring for me as a coach as well as for my athlete. No wondering how well the training prepared him. he is well prepared.

From here to Sunday, it’s all about positive visualization, staying limber, managing emotions and energy, and staying organized and out of the fray of race week.

What’s your interpretation of the “little blue line”?

Steel City Ironman Triathletes Cross the Kona Finish Line

Three Steel City Endurance athletes crossed the finish line at the Ironman World Championships on October 11, 2014.  Each of our three athletes has had their own journey to make it to the starting line, and each of them experienced their race day unfold over the blisteringly hot and windy 140.6 mile course.

We are very proud of…

  • Kirsten Sass, 35, McKenzie, TN
  • David Wirth, 25, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Gregory Christiansen, 48, Pittsburgh, PA

Kirsten Sass of McKenzie, TN qualified at IM Louisville this year.    Kirsten grew up watching her father train and enter innumerable running & triathlon races.   His dream of nearly 20 years to race in Kona became a reality this year when he won a legacy spot.   Kirsten immediately added IM Louisville to the 2 other IM races she’d already registered for in an attempt to qualify.  She ended up winning  her age group and taking 4th place female overall.


David Wirth of Pittsburgh, PA qualified at IM Arizona in 2013, taking 3rd in his age group after an all day battle among the top 5 men in the competitive 25-29 year old category.   He ended up 85th overall in that race and qualified as a 2013 Silver All-World athlete.  David’s build up to Kona for 2014 was planned to include racing at several shorter distances, earning him several podium spots along the way as well as a PR at the Boston marathon (again) in 2014.


Gregory Christiansen of Pittsburgh, PA won a lottery spot after competing in Syracuse 70.3 as well as Ironman Lake Placid for 2014, with a respectable first time Ironman finish in the upper 5th of his age group during a treacherous weather-filled day.   With about 8 weeks of recovery & build between Lake Placid and Kona, Greg maintained excellent fitness. Given the severe heat and winds of Kona as compared to Lake Placid, Greg’s finish was superb.


All three athletes are coached by Steel City Endurance head coach Suzanne Atkinson, MD.  If you are interest in seeing if you might have the potential to qualify for Kona in the next few years, please contact us for a consultation.

**Photos coming**

Kirsten Kona Bike

Kirsten Sass along the hot bike course at Ironman World Championships, Kona, Hawaii October 12, 2014




KIrsten Sass hydrates and refuels at the aid station on Palani hill between miles 10 & 11 as the run course climbs from Ali'i drive up to the Queen K

Kirsten Sass hydrates and refuels at the aid station on Palani hill between miles 10 & 11 as the run course climbs from Ali’i drive up to the Queen K


Greg Kona Bike


Greg Kona Run 2


Greg Run Alii


Greg Kona Finish 2


Greg Kona Finish


David Swim Finish - Kona






David Finish Kona funny

Life in Balance: Triathlon Training Volume and Race Performances – Part 1

Today I was chatting with one of my athletes getting his post-race recap of the Rev 3 Cedar Point Half distance triathlon.   He was thrilled with his performance, his ability to overcome many hardships and mishaps during the race (who hasn’t taken a wrong turn in the heat of a race? ) and was most pleased at how his training consistency has led to a 45 minute improvement in his Half distance since last year.

Yet his training volume is still less than that of his training partner (who remains uncoached).  His partner and he used to ride at the same pace and now my athlete (I’ll refer to him as Paul) is so much faster than his friend, that often he “pulls him along” on training rides.   His friend (I’ll call him Peter) has been a bit baffled by Paul’s reduced training volume until the results of yesterday’s race in which Paul took 2nd place in his age group.

PMC - Performance Management Chart

Why bring this up? It’s not for me to sit here and write that less training time is better for you. It may be , but without knowing what you are currently doing, your recent improvements (or declines or plateaus) and what your goals are, you could need more training, less training or just different training.

Contrast this with another athlete of mine who did the exact same race who is doing not quite twice as much training volume as Paul.

Let’s put some numbers and figures to all of this…

His 4 key Endurance races this year are

  • Pittsburgh Marathon 5/4/2014 – DONE
  • Eagleman 6/8/2014 – DONE
  • Rev 3 Cedar Point Half 9/8/14 – DONE
  • IM Arizona 11/16/14  – 8 Weeks to go

That’s a long season and a lot of long racing.  He’s got a family and it’s vital that he remain in good health and balanced thorughotu the year.  That means that when we can afford to trainig wise, we back way off, allow him to recovery, let fatigue go away and let him spend time with family & work related priorities.   Nearing these final 2 races (Rev 3 Cedar Point and IM Arizona) it is becoming more important to get in adequate volume for muscle endurance, while maximizing his speed potential for those distances.

The question is how much is enough? Where’s the threshold of too much training?

There are two (ok, maybe 3) key elements to look at and still keep the formula simple.

  1. What’s his prior training volume/ training stress been like? 
  2. How much time can he currently commit to training
  3. How is he feeling physically, emotionally & in relation to his other commitments? 

I’ll make this a 2 part writeup and continue the discussion in Part 2. There is a lot ot consider and digest here, and it’s important as a coach and an athlete to keep a holistic approach to training volume and not simply fill all available time with training.

Let me know in the comments what questions have come up so far in reading part 1.


Modular Running Sets – Fitting more quality into your run training

IKIrsten Sass- Best of US - Win just returned from an incredible week of coaching as the head coach of Triathlon Research’s inaugural weeklong triathlon training camp.  I had the honor of welcoming other world class coaches such as Jay Johnson, Bobby McGee (saturday special!), Terry Laughlin, Kim Schwabenbauer, Celeste St. Pierre, Shane Eversfield and 6 Time Ironman World Champion, Mark Allen.

In addition we had presentations at two world class training facilities, Retul Headquarters with lead instructor Ivan O’Gorman and Boulder Center for Sports Medicine with Robert Pickels and Adam St. Pierre (no relation to Celeste!)

Needless to say amongst us over the week a lot of information  was passed along.

Now that I am at home, I am reviewing new material that I picked up, especially from coach Jay Johnson, who focuses primarily on the running chassis as well as training stress for his runners.    I’ve already been incorporating Muscle Activation, Dynamic warmups and Biomechanical Drills that I learned from Bobby McGee.

In fact, during camp Jay and I both presented a 90 minute run session in which neither of us overlapped any information taht I can tell.  That adds up to 3 hours of ancillary run training presented at camp, without including running itself!

So I am contemplating now the idea of “Modular Run Training”.  it’s a simple way for me to compartmentalize all the knowledge withotu getting a) overwhelmed or b) paralysis by analysis.

It’s easy to just not know what to do when presented with so much information.  So here is how I structured my run wen I got back from altitude this past Monday.  I chose to do three “modules” prior to the actual run and allotted 5 minutes for each one.   This constituted my total warmup of 15 minutes.   (the 2nd module expanded to 10 minutes for a 20 minute warmup, but once conditioned, doing it in only 3 minutes is very doable).

This plannign allowed me to fit in the most vital elements to help improve my own running, provided a suitable and ample physical and mental warmup, and covered a few essential biomechanical drills and dynamic movements.  The quality of hte following run/walk was outstanding and the total session lasted 1:30 (one hour & thirty minutes) following which I used my TP Massage kit to roll out my calf muscles as well as doing some dynamic post run stretching.

Here was my modular plan:

  • 5 minutes “Muscle Activations” ala Bobby McGee
  • 5 minutes “Lunge Matrix” ala Jay Johnson
  • 5 minutes of 3 key running drills chose by myself (Karaokes/grapevines, hamstring kick-outs & knee to chest) 

The 5 minute Lunge Matrix I expanded to 10 minutes by walking briskly between each segment (for example, 5 lunges with each leg, then walk 30-50 yards).  I found this kept my mind nicely occupied and got me to the starting point of my run very quickly

The muscle activations are stressed by Bobby as being one of the most important things a triathlete/runner can do on a  regular basis and from personal experience, the more I do them, the more they help…so I wanted to retain those.  I felt that the muscle activations made the lunge matrix less abrupt of a transition.  In addition the lunge matrix resembles some of Bobby’s dynamic warmups as well so it was a good fit.

Finally the 3 Running drills I chose were based on the fact that each of them when done well, requires a connection through the core and incorporates the full body (chest, spine, shoulders, hips & legs).

Following my run/walk into dusk I returned home and stretched out my problem areas, specifically my hip flexors using dynamic stretching techcniques and finally my achilles/soleus complex with my TP Massage Kit that I aquired last week.

Next time you are faced with an overwhelming amount of new information to incorporate into your traithlon training, simple try a “modular” approach.   While the material is fresh in your mind, write down 3-5 “modules” of related drills or activations that you think would work, then go ahead and test them out one workout or training activity at a time.

What are some of your favorite things to incorporate into your pre-run rituals?