How to Train Intervals Like a U.S. Olympic Speed Skater

Maame Biney
Courtesy of Under Armour

Let’s not pretend: If you were going to attempt to do the kinds of interval training the U.S. Speed Skating pros do, you’d fail.

Olympians might do a 20-minute skate warmup, followed by going all-out for a minute, recovering for a minute, then repeating several more times. Then doing the same thing, with a slightly shorter all-out effort.

While their six repeats isn’t necessarily brutal, the overall sprint-pace effort is grueling. Most normal human beings can’t go all-out for more than 30-45 seconds. But for the 1,500-meter race, for instance, in which the world record is 1:41.02, being able to go hard for a longer interval is key.

How interval training works

“The good news: All intervals work,” says Thomas Lafera, C.P.T., who helped us adapt the U.S. speed skating team’s workout for regular weekend warriors. “From a cellular perspective, you’re trying to increase lactic uptake. If you’ve got explosive power but your form falls apart, we might do longer intervals at lactic threshold, and if you’re great at sustained efforts but you have no explosive snap, like the ability to accelerate when you get passed on a bike or when you’re trail running up a hill, we’d want all your intervals to be short and explosive.”

The gut check for both kinds of intervals? If you cannot achieve the same pace toward the latter intervals, quit. Your body is done, and there’s zero benefit to be gained by “pushing” through. Doing so can easily lead to injury, which is the same reason why muscling out a last rep when you can barely push the weight is counter-productive, and leads to soreness, that, in turn, can lead to the need for even more recovery time.

In fact, what you’d see in HRV and omega wave tests after a failed interval is an erosion of your central nervous system response. In gross terms, says Lafera, “You’re cooked.”  But the upside to speed/explosive work like this is that you will, in fact, get faster. Maybe not Olympics fast—but really, how good do you look in a skin suit, anyway?

The Olympic-style interval workout

Nonskaters can do this interval plan by running on a track, pedaling a stationary bike, or riding outdoors on the road. The interval work is ideal as a build-up for event training, but note that the speed-skating events are either sprint distances or just a little longer than that.

For longer interval training, Lafera suggests cycling or running at a mellow cadence for 10-20 minutes to warm up. You want to be lightly sweating, muscles loose, so warmup cycles vary depending upon the individual.

Then repeat three sets of four-minute efforts at lactic threshold. (Aim for a 6-7 out of 10 on the effort scale, during which talking more than a few words in a row is difficult). The rest phase should be three minutes at half the effort, so considerably slower, but not walking (if you’re running) or coasting if you’re on a bike.

For explosive work, the same warmup pertains. But the hard phase is a dead sprint of 30 seconds, or if you have a long enough staircase nearby, a stair run instead with no more than 60 seconds of recovery at about half the all-out effort—for a total of six hard/easy cycles.

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