Short vs Long – Does training need to be different?

April 23rd 2019

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Short vs Long – Does training need to be different?

A frequent question about short vs long distance triathlon; “Does training need to be different if I move from short distance to long distance triathlon?

Short answer: No!

Physiological demands

The physiological demands of energy production and management are same! Whether you are a novice or a Pro, the body produces energy the same way (Pro’s are just a little bit more efficient and sometimes genetically gifted).

Super-sprint triathlon through to long distance (Ironman +) triathlon use the same energy pathway – the aerobic system. To put this into perspective, any events you do that last longer than 90-seconds are performed aerobically.

Therefore, does training need to be different? Physiologically, no. The key component of any triathletes training programme MUST be aerobic training.

The one speed syndrome

Ever heard people say: “I’ve only got one speed; I just can’t go faster

The reason is they spend too much time focusing on speed, lactate, anaerobic, VO2max, etc training. Always working hard and not recovering enough means they never reach their faster, full potential. They have one speed syndrome!

These training intensities are banded around as being essential to improving your race speed. Believe us though, this should NOT be your focus! Do you want one speed?

This in-depth analysis1 of 12 years of training data of the most successful female Cross Country skier shows just how important low intensity (aerobic) training is to success – and winning Gold medals – 90% of all training was performed at low intensity.

These training intensities can feature in your training programme, but for LIMITED periods and strategically placed. We prescribe just one session per week in the lactate range, and it’s a bike session.

Elite level endurance athletes (in any endurance sport) spend 80%, or more, of their time in their aerobic levels2, this is why they have success – they have big bases of fitness. They use high intensity training sparingly.

Aerobic and strength development

Our approach to coaching is to focus primarily on aerobic capacity and building strength to ensure movements can be sustained. This makes our athletes fit, strong and robust enough to race the distance they aim to race. The combination of aerobic and strength depends on the individual and their objectives.

NOTE – we develop strength AEROBICALLY. Strength is not anaerobic work. Swimming HARD with paddles over short distances with adequate rest is building aerobic strength.

The proof

To illustrate that the demands are very similar, here is a top level look at comparative swim, bike and run paces for elite triathletes in standard distance and long-distance races.

Standard distance vs Long distance


1500m in 18min =1:12/100m

3800m in 48min =1:16/100m




40km in 60min = 40kph

180km in 4hr 30min = 40kph




10k in 30min = 3min/k

42k in 2hr 45min = 3:55/k



Figures are representative of the fastest times at each distance and for elite / Pro triathletes. They show the demands needed to perform at this level – that place the same demands to achieve the same relative pace for us all.

You’ll see the swim and bike paces are very similar for both distances, although tactics and course layout of standard distance races different. The run pace has a larger difference, largely due to bike tactics in standard distance and from the cumulative fatigue effects making the long distance run pace slower, and harder.

The longer the race distance the stronger – physically and mentally – the athlete needs to be.

What does this show?

If the demands are the same, what does this mean for training (and coaching)?

It means that the training focus for any triathlete (or any athlete competing in an event lasting more than 90-seconds!) should aerobic. Adaptations are necessary to account for the individual needs and the overall distance / time being raced. An example of this is the training time “in the saddle” for the long-distance athlete – 180km is a long time to sit in your saddle!

Two very good examples of this are Nicola Spirig (standard distance Olympic Gold and Silver and IM winner) and Daniella Ryf (4 times IM and 4 times IM70.3 World Champion and Olympic competitor). Both have the same coach, same coaching, same training approach, but, their training is adapted to suit their race demands.


Keep training simple and effective. Anything over 90-seconds is an AEROBIC sport – all distance triathlons fall into this category!

The focus of your training should be on building your aerobic system, this means EASY, low intensity effort. Mix in AEROBIC strength work and a little middle range (lactate, anaerobic, VO2max) efforts to see improvements. Or expect to find you only have one speed!


  1. The Training Characteristics of the World’s Most Successful Female Cross-Country Skier. Guro S. Solli, Epsen Tønnessen and Øyvind Sandbakk
  2. Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training. Stephen Seiler and Espen Tønnessen