Building Your Engine


Posted by Coach Chris Palmquist

It is the season to put the final touches on your racing speed and endurance. What are the major fitness components of a fast endurance athlete? How do you tune these components up into peak form?

When trying to understand the fitness components that go into great races, I love the well-used analogy of “building an engine.”  Here is how it works and some workouts that you can use to “build your engine.”


Fuel Economy (MPG) = Aerobic Economy

When you buy a vehicle, you consider the vehicle’s fuel economy or how much gas is required to drive a certain distance.  An athlete’s aerobic economy is defined by the amount of oxygen an athlete requires to swim, bike and run.  The less oxygen required, the more economy.  Aerobic economy is earned by doing many hours at an effort below the athlete’s aerobic threshold or that pace that feels “conversational, yet focused.”  Perceived effort feels like a “3 or 4” on an RPE scale of 1-10.  These base building workouts allow an athlete to adapt physiologically to be more efficient at everything that goes into maintaining forward motion for a long time. 

  • Swim: 6 x 500 steady with minimal rests.
  • Bike:  2-5 hours at 56-75% of FTP
  • Run:  1-2 hours at heart rate of approximately 20-30 beats below LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate). 


Engine Speed = Threshold (lactate/anaerobic) Speed/Pace/Watts

The biggest predictor of speed in endurance athletics is an athlete’s ability to go fast at their anaerobic/lactate threshold.  The faster you are at this critical intensity landmark, the faster you will be at all of your training and racing zones.  Therefore, it is crucial to work on this fitness component.  You can increase your “engine speed” with training efforts done just below the anaerobic threshold (subthreshold) and efforts done right at the threshold (tolerance intervals).  Here are some examples:

  • Subthreshold Swim:  2 x 500, 2 x 400, 2 x 300 done at CSS (or T-Pace) plus 3-6 seconds per 100.
  • Tolerance Swim:  10 x 100 at CSS or T-pace with 10 seconds rest.
  • Subthreshold Bike:  3 x 10km at 90% of FTP
  • Tolerance Bike:  5 x 5km at FTP
  • Subthreshold Run:  3 x 2km at half marathon pace
  • Tolerance Run:  8 x 400m at 10km race pace


Big Engine = VO2max

To be a great endurance athlete, you need to be able to take in and use a tremendous amount of oxygen.  VO2max is your ability to transport oxygen through the circulatory system and use it in the muscular system.  Improving your VO2max is analogous to building a bigger engine.  However, VO2max is also dependent on your body size/weight and genetics and your number is a poor predictor of your actual success in your next race. Still, if you’ve done all of the other work, a few well-timed VO2max workouts can make you a better athlete.

VO2max workouts are done only when an athlete has built all of the other components of their engine.  I think of these workouts as “the icing on the cake.”  They are very challenging and exhausting, so use them sparingly. 

  • Swim:  3-5 x 200-300 yards at max effort with 150 easy kick recoveries.
  • Bike:  3-5 X 3:00-5:00 at 106-120% of FTP with equal rest intervals consisting of easy spins.
  • Run:  3-5 x 800m at one-mile race pace with 400 easy walk/jog after each.


Building your engine to be economical, faster and bigger will help you to reach your athletic potential when combined with good nutrition, good recovery habits, mental skills and strength training.


~ Coach Chris Palmquist

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