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  Last updated: 9/29/2013


High Intensity Training

Interval training involves repeated periods of intense physical activity (the exercise interval) alternating with periods of recovery (the relaxation interval). The relaxation interval avoids significant lactic acid build up and, as a result, allows longer training time at peak performance levels. One study (in runners) pointed out that continuous, maximal performance could be sustained for only 0.8 miles (to exhaustion) while a similar level of exertion could be maintained for a total of over 4 miles when the training session consisted of intervals. But the down side is that training program drop out rates double when intervals are used. (see also High Intensity Training)

Intervals are most effective when they are :

added to your training program only after you have a solid aerobic base of 500 miles of steady pedaling (if not, you increase the risk of musculoskeletal injury from pushing too hard,too quickly.)

Intensity, not the frequency or duration of interval training is the secret behind success with interval training. A study of a 10 week interval training program found the following in a group of cyclists (all groups started off the study with a with a base of 40 minutes of intervals

a week):

The VO2max of the first two groups held constant, while that of the third decreased. The conclusion: intensity is more important than either the duration of the intervals or the frequency per week in maximizing the performance benefit of an interval program.

However, there are also ramifications of decreasing total exercise volumes (that is the total number of hours on the bike per week) which can result in a decrease in endurance (defined as time to exhaustion riding at 75% VO2max). Thus it is the combination of intensity of exercise (best achieved with intervals) and total time on the bike (or volume) of exercise (from the long slow distance rides) that determines a cyclist's overall performance in an event or on a longer ride.

What if you are feeling fatigued on your interval day - or just don't have the time for the complete set of intervals planned for the day? We know from weight-training studies that the first set or two provides the stimulus for most of the improvement gained during multi-set workouts. If you do five sets of bench presses, for instance, much of the benefit occurs during the first set. The second set stimulates most of the remaining improvement possible from the session. The final three sets do relatively little. It is likely that the same applies to interval training. Thus the first interval or two provide most of the benefit and the remaining intervals are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Thus with just two repeats you will most likely gain a large percentage of the possible benefits. So if you are feeling tired on your interval day, take a break and come back fresh, ready to give 100% the interval day. IF you avoid listening to your body, you will increase the odds of either burnout and the inevitable decrease in energy that comes with overtraining.


The conventional wisdom is cycling pain results when you go anaerobic and lactic acid builds up in your muscle tissue. But studies in subjects who, because of a genetic defect, do not produce lactic acid demonstrated a similar pain response to anaerobic exercise as normal riders. Rather than lactic acid, culprits may be nervous system input from muscle fiber nerves, a chemical mediator other than lactic acid, or some other cellular change in the muscle fibers.

When you train to your maximum (pushing the muscle pain limit), changes occur which will allow you to push even farther into your anaerobic zone the next time out.

Fartlek training is a modification of interval training, using alternate periods of slow and fast riding to improve aerobic capacity. It is not as precise as interval training and is based on the perception of how the rider feels at the time. Its advantages are:

High Intensity Training (HIT) is an interval program for athletes already at a high level of training. In many ways it is the "icing on the cake" which gives the elite athlete that final edge for their event.


Short exercise intervals are generally 15 to 90 seconds and almost always anaerobic in intensity, while longer intervals may be up to 3 to 5 minutes duration. Once you decide on the duration for your interval training programs, pace your effort to exercise at your maximum throughout that period (if you can't make it through the entire interval, you need to cut back your effort a bit and not the length of the interval). The goal should be a total of 10 to 20 minutes of hard pedaling during the intervals themselves (don't count warm up, recovery, or cool down). If you are just beginning an interval program, start with 5 minutes of peak effort per riding session (total interval time) and work up from there.

To get the maximum benefit from interval training, it is important to allow adequate recovery time between intervals. Subsequent intervals should start before your heart rate and oxygen uptake have returned entirely to normal. If you are using a heart rate monitor, wait for your heart rate to drop to 60 or 65% of your maximum heart rate. If you are using perceived exertion (i.e. how you feel) to decide, wait until your breathing has returned to it's normal depth and rate.

The relaxation or recovery phase for each interval should be active rest (easy spinning) and can range from a ratio of 3:1 (recovery time to pedaling time) for sprint intervals of 20 seconds or less (ie 30 seconds of spinning for a 10 second interval at sprint intensity) down to 1:1 for 60 to 90 second intervals (which will probably be ridden at a slightly lower intensity). In reality, the rest time is really dependent on the intensity, not the duration, of the interval:

Thus a 3 minute interval done at near sprint levels of exertion should be paired with a longer rest time than a 3 minute interval ridden at just a bit more than your standard pace.

Consider using one day a week for short, sprint intervals (ie five 60 second and five 90 second intervals), and a second for your longer intervals (two - 3 minute and two - 5 minute intervals). Allow adequate time for recovery between intervals (up to 3 to 5 minutes) and don't forget a 20 to 30 minute warm up and a 15 minute cool down at the beginning and end of your session. It has been shown that as few as a half dozen 5 minute intervals during a 300 km training week will improve both time trial and peak performance.

Here's another suggestion from the webzine: Dial up some telephone pole sprints. When we're training alone, sprinting against imaginary opponents can be deadly dull. Next time you feel like some speed work, use telephone poles as sprint markers. After warming up, start by sprinting from one pole to the next and then spinning easily for 4 poles. Repeat 3-5 times. To vary the drill and increase the effective length of your sprint, go all out for 2 poles, spin easily for the next 4, and repeat 3 times. Of course, all telephone poles aren't the same distance apart. Use the varying spacing to simulate race conditions. After all, you never know how long you'll need to sprint. Go hard to the next pole, no matter how far it is, then spin for a minute or two to recover. Follow this with another sprint between poles. It's perfect for developing the ability to rev up in an instant and then hold your speed for the required distance.

HOW HARD and for HOW LONG? Some science to help structure intervals.

How hard? Generally the shorter the interval time, the more likely you will be riding above your VO2max and are at an anaerobic intensity For longer intervals you generally are at your VO2max. How long? As to duration, most recommendations I have come across are for intervals of 20 seconds to 5 minutes duration.

I did find this paper that provides some data and logic to help in structuring intervals. A number of parameters were measured including individual's peak power output and VO2max, as well as what most competitive cyclists are looking for, the results of both a 40 km Time Trial as well as a "time to exhaustion" test.

Three groups riding three types of intervals were studied (the structure of the intervals was based on prior work with runners is data from running intervals applicable to cyclists? As we are measuring cardiovascular performance, I think they most like are).

a) How hard? Two groups rode their intervals at their personal maximum power output at (not beyond) their VO2max so they were just at the edge of becoming anaerobic (this is where a power meter beats a heart rate monitor to keep you focused on your level of exertion while doing intervals - the HRM tends to lag as well as to vary from day to day for the same level of exertion), while the third group pushed themselves into an anaerobic state.

b) How long? Interval duration was determined (and thus appears to be best estimated in a training program) by the level of exertion. For the group going anaerobic, the intervals were limited by time (30 seconds) while those using their max aerobic power output as the measure of intensity set their interval duration at 65% of a previous "time to exhaustion" test.

And the results confirmed what others have found that the 3 groups' time trial performance improved 4 to 6 % and the average peak aerobic (not anaerobic) power output increased 3 to 6%.

So if you are looking for guidelines for twice a week intervals (and want them to based on hard physiologic data) I see two options:


If you have a heart rate monitor, you can key intervals to your maximum heart rate. Ride your intervals at 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate and spin easily until your heart rate drops to 60 to 65% of maximum.


Here is an excerpt from that suggests a way you might use rolling hills as an alternative to intervals. As these are not always found spaced appropriately, they might be considered as "fartleks".

Find a road where little hills come one after another. Attacking these humps can be a peak experience -- like riding a roller coaster. You fly up one side, blast down the other and use your momentum to conquer the next rise.

But if you use improper technique, you can get bogged down. Instead of grinning, you're grinding. You churn up, coast down to catch your breath, then bang against the next wall.

Rhythm is everything. Here's how to keep yours on successive climbs: --As you ride into a hill that takes just seconds to climb, shift one gear lower (next larger cog) than you might normally use. Stay seated and spin fast for about two thirds of the climb.

--If you're riding with others, they'll probably be standing, pedaling slower than you and maybe pulling a little ahead. Don't worry about getting dropped. Keep spinning. You're saving your legs.

-- In the final third of the hill, click to a bigger gear (next smaller cog), stand and apply the pressure. Your legs will still have snap, thanks to spinning to this point. When you hit it right, you'll know where the phrase "dancing up the hill" comes from.

You'll roll right by your laboring companions. Even better, your momentum will carry you over, down and well into the next rise. Then do it again.


These training techniques simulate what happens in road racing. They're great workouts and guaranteed monotony-busters as well. Warm up and settle into a single paceline moving at a moderate speed. Then try one of the following:


You can decrease your time on long endurance rides with a little interval training. You might try these two tricks on your next long ride.


When you are on a long ride -- for you -- a slow, meandering pace can make you feel sluggish or even bored. Before that happens, give your legs (and your bottom side) a little lift. Throw in a short "pickup" every few minutes. Pickups are like sprints but not as hard.

Watch for opportunities. Get out of the saddle and accelerate away from stop signs, over short hills, out of turns or past the lair of a troublesome mutt. Don't script these pickups. Instead, do them when the terrain or situation asks for it. To do a pickup, choose a cog 2-3 teeth smaller (higher gear) than you'd normally use for the situation. So, if you'd usually roll over a rise in a 53x21-tooth, use the 53x19. Don't sprint all-out. That's not the purpose. Instead, simply stand and wind up the gear for 10-12 seconds. Effort should be about 80% of a flat-out sprint. You shouldn't be panting after you sit down. A few deep breaths should get you back to the ride's baseline effort. You'll be amazed at how much better you feel on longer rides when you relieve saddle pressure and treat your legs to these brisk efforts.


The following question from a reader suggest that riding with weight is another alternative (just like riding into the wind) to add intensity to your training, simulating an increased load and thus generating a training response. I've had similar comments from other readers.

Q.I was wondering whether you know something about the following: I am riding about 150 pretty fast miles a week, usually with a 12-15 pound backpack (because it is my commute and I carry a laptop and clothes etc.). Sometimes I ride without the backpack and noticed that I am considerably faster. While this is of course not surprising I was wondering whether 'riding with weights' could actually be a useful training technique -- I couldn't find any information about this. - MS

A. Mike, as I mentioned above, added weight (speed remaining the same) is a way to add a stress to your muscles and CV system, which will adapt, and then you will be able to perform more effectively when unburdened. It is the same reason one would weight train as part of a program, or train on a clunker and then get out a titanium frame for that important ride. Dick

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