Maximum Speed

In intensity, Maximum Speed is second only to Maximum Strength. Because the intensity is so high, the work efforts have to be very short. (If they were longer, the intensity couldn't be as high.)

Because the efforts are so short, common measures of internal load don't have time to register. Peak readings of lactate or heart rate will lag the effort. So the external load of Maximum Speed, and its impact, are often underestimated.

The What

A well-executed Maximum Speed workout will include:

  1. A thorough warm up;
  2. A low total volume of work;
  3. Very short work intervals;
  4. Sub-maximal efforts;
  5. Long, passive rests; and
  6. An effective cool down.


  1. As always, warm up.
    1. A thorough warm up is easy, gradual, and at least 15 minutes (but more likely 20.) Near the end, throw in a few, 3-second, fun-fast bursts.
  2. Work intervals should be 12 seconds or less.
    1. Durations are shorter when starting the progression (below) and gradually lengthen over several sessions. To bridge between Maximum Speed and Anaerobic Capacity training, the Speed Endurance intervals (below) will be used.
  3. Each rep should feel about 95%, not 100.
    1. The physical benefits come from the effort, but the technical benefits come from your form. 95% is close enough in effort without sacrificing technique. When in doubt, be a do-well, not a try-hard.
  4. Every rep should be followed by a 2-to-3-minute passive rest.
    1. To maximize their effect, a full recovery is required between reps. So don't just do something; sit there. Read, write, meditate. (Just don't waste it thumbing social media.)
  5. Follow the workout with a super easy cool down.
    1. After a Maximum Speed session, the bloodstream will be flooded with lactate. An easy cool down is a great aerobic capacity exercise because it forces the aerobic system to reabsorb the lactate while active.

Per sport

  • Mountain runners should use hill sprints instead of flat sprints to minimize the chance of injury. Flat-track speed isn't required, so it's not worth the injury risk to train it.
  • For runners and skimo racers:
    • For "moderate" reps, use a hill that is 10-15% (between 6 and 9 degrees);
    • For "steep" reps, use a hill that is 15-20% (between 9 and 11 degrees).
  • For mountaineers:
    • Steeper inclines could be used because speed during a goal event—compared to runners and skimo racers—is much slower and strength demands are higher (due to carrying heavier laods.)
  • For sports that require a few strides or strokes to get up to speed—cycling, skimo, nordic skiing—adding a couple of seconds to each interval will be helpful;
  • Cyclists will need to experiment with gear selection. Avoid shifting mid-interval. And "steep" vs "moderate" can be ignored.


If an athlete is adapting to each training session, then workouts should progress and not repeat. (But greed to move on is not a valid reason.) Repeating workouts makes sense if the athlete is not progressing or has had an unplanned break from training.

For maximum speed

Frequency will depend on what other training priorities are in development and the anaerobic capacity of the athlete. If speed is not the only focus, or if anaerobic capacity is low, the following weekly progression[1] can be used:

Week Reps & Work Incline
1 6x 8s steep
2 8x 8s steep
3 10x 8s steep
4 4x 8s moderate
5 8x 10s steep
6 5x 10s moderate
7 10x 10s steep
8 2x 8s, 2x 10s, 2x 12s moderate
Using Training Peaks? Check out the Maximum Speed weekly progression. (Subscriber? Email me for a discount code.)

For speed endurance

After the base work of Maximum speed, the following workouts can be used to transition into anaerobic capacity work.

Week Reps & Work Incline
9 8x 10s steep, 1x 20s moderate mixed
10 4x 8s, 1x 20s moderate
11 8x 10s steep, 2x 24s moderate mixed
11 2x 8s, 2x 10s, 1x 12s, 1x 20s, 1x 24s moderate
12 4x 12s, 1x 20s, 1x 24s moderate
Using Training Peaks? Check out the Speed Endurance weekly progression. (Subscriber? Email me for a discount code.)

For maintenance

The following can be used bi-weekly for maintenance:

Option Reps & Work Notes
A 3-5x 8s steep, 2x 20s moderate More speed focused, good for tapers
B 2x 8s steep, 1x 12s steep, 1x 20s moderate, 1x 24s moderate More speed endurance focused


When to work on Maximum Speed depends on the timing and priority within the current macrocycle.

For speed and anaerobic capacity

To develop speed and increase anaerobic capacity, Maximum Speed would happen at the beginning of a macrocycle and then go into maintenance mode.

For maintenance

In maintenance mode, Maximum Speed can be the "spice" at the beginning of an aerobic capacity session[2] (better execution, better neuromuscular response, etc)

For performance

In the Performance phase, Maximum Speed is best done at the end of a training session to practice good form when fatigued, maintaining higher control entropy.

For peaking

During a pre-event taper, a handful of Maximum Speed intervals can help ready the athlete for their event. In this context though, rests should be active.

The Warning

The bane of the training world is the "strong like bull, smart like tractor" approach. It's a well-oiled revenue machine for the health and fatness industry, but it's not very effective for realizing true performance potential.

Making a Maximum Speed workout feel harder than intended will be less beneficial, not more. This will be especially tempting for slow-twitch-dominant athletes that don't have the power to hit really high speeds.[3] Fast-twitch-dominant athletes will be less tempted because they often have the power to make a hill sprint workout quite tiring.>)

Things to avoid

  1. Don't skip or shorten the warm up.
    1. With a lower core temperature, you won't be able to generate the necessary power;
  2. Don't extend the work intervals. (There's no such thing as a 30-second sprint.)
    1. You won't be able to maintain the right level of power for the entire work interval; and/or
  3. Don't go as hard as possible with each effort.
    1. The first couple of reps will be too fast, the third might be about right, and then the rest will be too slow;
  4. Don't add reps until you feel exhausted.
    1. By really digging deep, your ego will thank you, but your recovery will not. Subsequent workouts will be slower and harder than they should be;
  5. Don't shorten the rest.
    1. Without a full recovery, you won't be able to repeat the right intensity enough times (even if it feels like you can);
  6. Don't use active rests.
    1. This will reduce the amount of circulating lactate, undermining the stimulus and sacrificing the aerobic capacity stimulus in the cool down;
  7. Don't use a flat track (if you're a mountain runner.)
    1. Unnecessarily increase your chance of injury, perhaps pull a hamstring, interrupt the training process while you recover, and backtrack in your general fitness levels;
  8. Don't skip the cool down (or make it demanding.)
    1. By going too hard, you may end up increasing the lactate levels in your bloodstream rather than reduce them, wasting the opportunity to train the lactate shuttle.

If you can choose between feeling like The Incredible Hulk or thinking like Bruce Banner, choose Banner. Unless it's race day. Then it's The Hulk's turn.

The Why

How can mountain athletes—with events that are measured in hours rather than minutes—benefit from work intervals that only last a few seconds? Similar to Maximum Strength training, Maximum Speed training has several benefits:

  1. Learn to move fast while relaxed.
    1. Relaxed movement is more efficient and faster than when tense and straining;
  2. Increase muscle fiber recruitment.
    1. Very high loads "wake up" fast twitch muscle fiber that may not participate otherwise. As I understand the theory, once a fiber is recruited, it's available for future work, increasing the available fiber pool;
    2. An increased fiber pool allows for paces to be maintained longer. When slow twitch fiber becomes exhausted or depleted and checks out, the other fibers in the pool can join in maintaining the same pace;
    3. Having higher-power fast-twitch fiber available can also offer a finishing "kick" at the end of an event (like at the finish of a skimo race.)
  3. Improve mechanics.
    1. For runners especially, using hill sprints for a Maximum Speed workout will force a fore- or mid-foot foot strike and proper hip extension while also minimizing the chance of injury;
    2. For skimo racers, sprints will force better coordination of pole pushes and leg thrusts;
  4. Increase leg stiffness (in runners).
    1. A big part of running performance is determined by "elastic energy return." A stiffer leg better resists impact and returns more of that energy to forward motion.[4]
  5. Increase leg strength.
    1. With increased leg strength, stride length may also be increased for a given exertion level. If distance increases per stride, then the speed is also increased for that same level of output.
  6. Increase cardiac stroke volume.
    1. The sudden increase in heart rate—potentially 100 bpm between the starting line and 30 seconds into the rest period—"is the most effective stimulus to develop the heart's stroke volume, increase the amount of oxygen conveyed to the muscles, and ultimately increase maximum oxygen uptake."[5]
  7. Stress the central nervous system above normal training levels.
    1. Most endurance training is—or should be—well below anything that would be described as "stressful." Stressing the nervous system to such an extreme can help with the perception of fatigue.[6]
    2. The long, passive rests within the workout allow the CNS to fully recover and be ready for the next rep;
  8. Lay the groundwork for anaerobic capacity (AnC) training.
    1. Some say that the passive rests prevent lactate from accumulating, but I don't think that they've measured it. In my experience, passive rests allow for higher residual lactate values. I suspect this happens because the aerobic system is less active and not reabsorbing excess lactate.
    2. Once work intervals get longer than Maximum Speed durations, there's a powerful effect on anaerobic capacity. Maximum Speed workouts are a good introduction to that training, if it's required. "Another way to stress the anaerobic metabolism is to lengthen the rest periods(the rest must be passive) and to shorten the intervals ([12 to 36 seconds] maximum)"[7]
  9. Challenge the aerobic system with high levels of lactate (via the cool down).
    1. After a Maximum Speed session, the blood stream will be flooded with high levels of lactate. A big part of aerobic capacity is the ability to process excess lactate and use it for fuel. A long, easy cool down following a Maximum Speed workout can train the body to process the excess lactate and improve the "lactate shuttle," a key component of endurance.[8]

The Well

The Arrowhead Endurance protocol for Maximum Speed was adapted primarily from Steve Magness' sprint protocol in The Science of Running. The differences are:

  • All efforts are specified by duration rather than distance;
  • Terrain is steeper for more sport specificity;
  • A warning against using a track or flat terrain.

When relevant, additional information was adapted from the usual suspects.


  1. Prescriptions have been adapted from Steve Magness' sprint training in The Science of Running, modified for mountain athletes (for inclines and durations), and influenced by the other coaches mentioned herein. ↩︎
  2. Jan Olbrecht, The Science of Winning ↩︎
  3. Scott Johnston, et al, Training for the New Alpinism ↩︎
  4. Steve Magness, The Science of Running ↩︎
  5. Renato Canova, Marathon Training: A Scientific Approach ↩︎
  6. Steve Magness, The Science of Running ↩︎
  7. Jan Olbrecht, The Science of Winning ↩︎
  8. Jan Olbrecht, The Science of Winning ↩︎