Interval training or speed work is critical for cyclists that have goals to reach this season. Those goals might be as concrete as winning a certain race or more nebulous, like getting faster on the local climb.
No matter how recreational a cyclist you are, there are still huge benefits to be had from doing some type of interval work. The trickle down effect of the intervals can even make you a better endurance athlete.
But if you’re starting from zero and you’re not sure what you should be doing based on your goals, it can be intimidating and this roadblock is enough to prevent many people from doing anything.
When to start?
The good news is that it’s much easier to jump into intervals on the bike than it is running. Running intervals carry a pretty hefty potential for injury if you’re not careful, but that is lowered drastically on the bike. The impact forces on the bones and soft tissue are much less for cyclists, so intervals can even be done when you don’t have a lot of miles under your belt.
There still is injury risk however, so one important thing to do before beginning intervals is to get a professional bike fit and make sure you are fit properly on your bike. Common areas of injury on the bike are often related to very simple adjustment like proper saddle height or proper handlebar reach. These are very simple things to correct but you want to beware of inexperienced bike fitters — saddle height, handlebar reach, and really every other measurement on the bike is very individual. What’s normal for one person may be completely out of range for another, and the skill comes in knowing what NOT to change and knowing when to leave someone outside of the “normal” range.
Where to start?
Many cyclists begin their season indoors on the trainer during the second half of teh cld winter months, and this is a great time to begin interval training because the trainer provides a very controlled environment to work hard in.
Most cyclists, especially those training seriously for an event, train at intensities that are opposite of what they should be doing. Their easy days are too hard and their hard days are too easy. Most stay in the dreaded “gray area” just below their anaerobic threshold entirely too much and end up fatigued and burnt out.
When I first sit down with an athlete I’ll be coaching, that’s the first thing we go over — I want their long easy days to be much easier than they’re used to, and I want their hard days much more intense.
So when you begin these workouts, an easy rule of thumb is that anything that’s not an interval can be treated as merely very easy long-distance pace.
We need to define the types of intervals that are useful to do, and for our purposes here I’m going to talk about three different types: Threshold, Muscle Endurance, and Supra-Maximal Intervals.
These are what you’re guessing — they at or just above you Anaerobic Threshold (AT). Why is it important to work at this level? Think anaerobic threshold as your fast steady state pace. It’s a pace you could maintain for around 40 minutes and so it has big implications in any endurance sport activity since we spend so much time near it in many events. Go over your AT and you’ll fatigue and slow down within a few minutes, but stay just a few watts under it and you can often ride at that pace for over an hour — pretty dramatic difference. So it’s no wonder that we want that AT to be as high as possible since it determines our steady state effort level.
There are a few ways to judge your effort on the bike — use of a power meter, a heart rate monitor, or perceived exertion. To learn about what’s required of each of these methods you can check out my brief article on this topic.
We’ll need to figure out what your anaerobic threshold level is to start. You could take a trip to your local human performance lab and get tested. Or you can go here to read about the simple field test I like to use.
Threshold intervals are anywhere from 8-45 minutes long and can be done on flat or hilly terrain. You should tailor the intervals you do to the goals you have in mind. If you’re going to do a 70.3 triathlon in Florida then spend most of your time on the flats. If you plan to tackle the Triple Bypass ride on Colorado, then hit the hills.
Intervals should only be done after a good 15-30 minute warm-up. Simply work up to your threshold power, or heart rate, or perceived exertion, and keep your effort steady and at that level for the duration of the interval. Threshold effort, as explained in my previous post is the effort where we are working hard but it’s sustainable for roughly 45 minutes total. It is also close to the effort where you can just barely NOT carry on a conversation.
Lower threshold interval with 50-60 rpm cadence (not lower than 50!). Shift into a big gear and stay seated most of the time. Concentrate on good form, spin ellipses; push/pull with both legs,Working specifically at a particular heart rate is not as important as having strong muscular contractions. These can be done indoors on the trainer, but they also work really well outdoors on a steady and mellow climb. Think of these as on-the-bike weight training; SHORTHAND: Intervals will often be written like this — “Bike 1:15 total with mm endurance intervals 3 X 12min, 7R” What this means is that you will do a good warmup of between 15 and 30 minutes then begin your main set of mm endurance intervals where you do a 12-min interval followed by 7min of rest (7R), then another 12min interval, then 7min rest, then a final 12min interval. After that last interval, the main set is over and you can spin at steady/long pace for the remainder of the ride duration as you cool down.
Most often you will use perceived exertion and power. In the first interval you put out the most effort that you think you can maintain for the whole prescribed workout. Try to hold that wattage the rest of the w/o. These workouts are short and intense, and lay the groundwork for all high intensity efforts to come. The body is “broken down” with 2 or 3 days of this and then able to super-compensate with 1-2 days of full rest. “SMSP 2 sets, 5 X 1min, 2R; 5R b/w sets” = 1minute intervals with 2 min rest between each; do this 5 times then take a 5 min rest and do another set of (5) 1-min intervals
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.