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Speed v. Endurance: How to Maximize Your Athletes’ Strengths

BY Tom Epton

Is your athlete speed or endurance dominant? Learn how to determine your athlete's maximal sprinting speed and tailor training that plays to their strengths.

A dynamic interplay between speed and endurance exists in events lasting one to 10 minutes. Typically, athletes participating in such events approach them with either a focus on speed or endurance, depending on preference and performance profile. Understanding where your athletes fall in the speed-endurance continuum can help you personalize training in a way that plays to your athlete’s strengths.

The Need for Speed

Despite the reputation for endurance sports being “steady state” efforts, speed (or the ability to produce surges) is very important. 

In races like draft-legal sprints and standard-distance triathlons, the ability to execute surges and repeated sprints is needed to be successful. This is often seen in long-course professional triathlons, where a legal draft distance of 12m can provide significant energy savings.

In almost all cycling disciplines, this is also the case; athletes must surge to remain with the peloton or in a bunch sprint finish. In other endurance sports, like track events ranging from the 1500m to the 10k, sprinting at the end and following surges is a huge part of the sport. 

Many endurance sports require a significant speed component for an athlete to be successful – especially on the world stage, where the ability to produce high speed can make a huge difference at the end of a race.

The Challenge of Speed Training

Training for surging and sprints presents a unique challenge as it requires a balance of endurance and speed. For example, there’s no point in being a fast sprinter in a bike race if you’re dropped before the sprint. But at the same time, you need to be able to generate enough force to open up a gap or win a bunch sprint.

This balance tips depending on the specific demands of the sport. Coaches must acknowledge that exclusively prioritizing one aspect leaves untapped potential in crucial race-deciding situations, like sprint finishes and following attacks.

In sports that require repeated sprints, studies have shown that the percentage of anaerobic speed reserve (ASR) is the limiting factor in performance. For athletes racing cyclocross, criteriums, road races on the bike, and draft-legal triathlons, this means that training anaerobic speed reserve is valuable and makes an athlete more robust to a wider variety of race scenarios.

Determining Maximal Sprinting Speed

To optimize your athlete’s training plan for events that demand both speed and endurance, sports physiologist Gareth Sandford suggests a simple testing protocol that allows you to see where an athlete sits on the speed-endurance continuum. 

The initial metric involves finding an athlete’s maximal sprinting speed (MSS), or peak power. This assessment entails a 50-meter sprint for running or a 10-second all-out sprint on the bike, with the highest three-second average serving as the measure of maximal peak power. 

The second parameter measures maximal aerobic speed or power, often abbreviated as MAS or MAP. To gauge MAP, Sandford suggests a six-minute running or cycling effort. This approach demonstrates a strong correlation, with a coefficient of around 0.96 or 0.97, closely mirroring the velocity of VO2 max recorded in laboratory settings. The advantage of testing this way (rather than more complex tests in the lab) is that these tests can be carried out almost anywhere. 

The plot below shows what the anaerobic speed and maximal aerobic speed profiles of three different athletes might look like. One is speed-dominant, one is endurance-dominant, and the other is a mix between the two.

Of course, this is something many coaches observe informally within training groups, but doing these tests and seeing where your athletes sit in relation to one another (and the gradient of the line connecting the results of the two tests) can inform coaches as to whether an athlete is speed or endurance dominant. 

Line graph showing the difference between hybrid, speed, and endurance-type athletes.

In terms of actual values, this depends entirely on the level of the athlete. For example, a very high-level “speed athlete” who competes professionally might also have higher maximal aerobic speed than an endurance-dominant masters club runner. As with any test results, the context is extremely important.

Tailoring Training 

Following the initial selection of a general training model, coaches are confronted with numerous day-to-day training decisions such as intensity, duration, frequency, and load. To guide these decisions, two key factors must be taken into account: the demands of the event and the profile of the athlete. Here are some ways you might consider tailoring training for athletes who are either speed-dominant or endurance-dominant. 

Adjusting for Athletes With a High-Speed Profile

Athletes with speed-oriented profiles competing in sports with a large aerobic demand may initially find traditional training methods (long, continuous training sessions) unfamiliar or discomforting at first. Even during low-intensity workouts, athletes with speed profiles might rely heavily on fast-twitch motor units. Under a continuous, low-intensity exercise stimulus, this reliance can make achieving a steady-state exercise state challenging. Such athletes might be better served by breaking their endurance sessions into shorter intervals with some rest.

Keep in mind that this heightened reliance on anaerobic metabolism to meet energy demands can lead to seemingly disproportionate fatigue (relative to endurance-dominant types). Utilizing short intervals and repeated sprint training is likely a more suitable approach for high-intensity training sessions. For example, a cyclist with this profile might respond better to bouts of 30s on, 30s off, rather than 2-4 minute blocks targeting maximal aerobic power. 

Adjusting for Athletes With an Endurance Profile

The opposite is true for an athlete with an endurance profile. For example, if a coach is trackside giving threshold intervals to a group and one athlete is particularly endurance dominant, they may increase the rep length. This is where we might see the “speed types” doing 800m reps at threshold, a hybrid athlete doing 1200m, and an endurance-type athlete doing one mile or even two-kilometer reps. 

In this scenario, the athletes might do the same or similar amounts of work and thus achieve the same or similar training stimulus. If all the athletes in the group were to do the endurance approach of long reps, it might be too much for the fast-twitch athlete as they would likely not be achieving the steady state that is required for threshold efforts. On the other hand, the opposite is true if all athletes were to do short reps – an endurance-based athlete would find this session too easy. 

Play to Your Athlete’s Strengths

Some might perceive this way of training as simply ignoring an athlete’s weaknesses by always adjusting workouts. However, this is a misunderstanding of the approach that the research advises coaches to take. The idea is instead to utilize an athlete’s strengths to work on broader aspects of their performance profile more effectively. For example, if an athlete needs to improve their lactate threshold, you would address that weakness with a different interval prescription for athletes with different profiles.

Determining your athlete’s maximal sprinting speed can help you determine whether they sit on the speed-endurance continuum, allowing you to prescribe personalized training that makes the most sense for that athlete. Utilizing workouts that play to an athlete’s strengths does more than just improve performance and fitness – it might also make the workouts much more enjoyable for the athlete as well. 

This blog was written with extensive use of the linked research as well as from Gareth Sandford’s appearance on That Triathlon Show. If coaches wish to find out more about profiling athletes and training them accordingly, they should visit the research published by Sandford


Sandford, G., Laursen, P., & Buchheit, M. (2021, August). Anaerobic Speed/Power Reserve and Sport Performance: Scientific Basis, Current Applications and Future Directions. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353933705_Anaerobic_SpeedPower_Reserve_and_Sport_Performance_Scientific_Basis_Current_Applications_and_Future_Directions  

Nicholls, A. Performance profiling: an essential tool for aspiring athletes. Retrieved from https://www.sportsperformancebulletin.com/psychology/psychological-aides/performance-profiling-an-essential-tool-for-aspiring-athletes

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About Tom Epton

Tom Epton is a writer and data scientist based in the South East of England. He is a founding member and principal data scientist at PyTri Ltd, a consultancy specializing in applying data science techniques to performance sports and healthcare. Tom has a first-class BSc in Physics and has worked at several well-known brands on big data and machine learning projects. Away from work, he is an elite triathlete racing a mixture of draft-legal short courses on the British Super Series to middle-distance non-drafting triathlons. Tom also offers coaching, physiological testing and endurance sport consultancy services. Email him for more information.

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