Weekend Reading: Use These Intervals to Unlock Your Speed!

Being a strong athlete and being a fast athlete are not necessarily the same thing. There are a lot of athletes who have great endurance and can maintain a hard and steady pace hour after hour. But a lot of times those strong athletes lack the punch for high-speed, high-intensity efforts. That’s why speed work is an important component of any endurance athlete’s training program.

Speed work typically focuses on short bursts of high-intensity with extremely limited recovery between efforts. I like intervals of 30 seconds “on” and 30 seconds “off” and sets that last 4-6 minutes. For elite athletes the sets get longer, up to 12-15 minutes. The idea is to “rev the engine” with a high-power and high-cadence effort for 30 seconds, and then bring your power/pace back to a normal endurance pace (not coasting or effortless spinning) for 30 seconds, and continue in that on/off cycle for the duration of the set.

How hard should you go? That depends on the length of the set, but you want each 30-second effort to reach approximately the same power output (as opposed to starting really hard and then declining effort after effort). If the set is short (2-4 minutes) you can make the 30-second efforts harder, even maximal. As the sets get longer (5-10+ minutes) it’s normal for the goal power output to be above lactate threshold power but below max VO2 power. An important thing to remember, though, is that the acceleration is key. You want to have a lot of snap at the beginning of each 30-second effort and get your feet moving fast.

How do these intervals improve performance? Part of it is neuromuscular training, in that you’re developing the ability to change cadence quickly and frequently, and alternate between very high- and moderate-power efforts quickly. The very high-power efforts also generate a lot of lactate, and you’re developing the ability to generate and process lactate (reintegrate it back into normal aerobic metabolism) while continuing to perform at a high level.


  • Women’s Cycling Camp, presented by Giro: Great rides, one-on-one instruction from our top female coaches, and great gear from Giro! October 9-12 in Santa Ynez, CA.
  • Brevard Climbing Camp: One of our most popular camps, this is a great opportunity to ride quiet and scenic roads in western North Carolina. As always, learn to climb faster and train with power (we’ll put a PowerTap on your bike), and learn to descend safely and confidently. Sept 17-20 in Brevard, NC.

In training we often talk about the principle of specificity, which says the training you do has to be specific to the demands of the activity you’re training for. Speed work is very specific to a wide range of cycling disciplines. It’s crucial for mountain bike, criterium, and cyclocross racing, all of which feature and endless series of short, extreme efforts with very limited opportunities for recovery. For instance, CTS Coach Adam Pulford has been prescribing Speed Intervals like the ones mentioned above for his athletes preparing for this weekend’s USA Cycling US Cup MTB races this weekend (more on that later).

Road racers and non-competitive athletes who do group rides and gran fondos also benefit from speed work. The ability to “rev the engine” and then recover quickly proves very useful when you’re in a pace line or you have to bridge a small gap. And versions of the interval set above are also used in swimming and running workouts to provide runners and triathletes with the same benefits.

Essentially, no matter what endurance sport you’re training for, you’ll be better off being both strong and fast. So do yourself a favor and add some speed work into your summer.

In other speed-related news, this weekend is the final event in the USA Cycling US Cup Series, which means the top pro mountain bike racers are here in Colorado Springs! In fact, the course at Pulpit Rock Park is just a few hundred yards from the CTS office, and it’s great to have many of our elite athletes in town for the event.

The US Cup has really brought a lot of great energy into elite mountain bike racing in the US, and CTS is proud to be a sponsor of the series. We also work closely with Scott Tedro, owner of Sho-Air and creator of the US Cup Series. Not only are Scott and his wife, Kimber, coached by CTS, but so are several of the Sho-Air/Cannondale team riders, including Alex Grant, Pua Mata, and Ryan Trebon. Scott Tedro deserves a lot of credit for all he’s done to support mountain biking in the US, not only by sponsoring a team, but also by creating a race series that draws all the top riders. The riders need that level of competition in order to excel on the international stage.

You can watch the US Cup XC race live on Saturday afternoon (pro women start at 12:00PM Mountain time, pro men start at 2:30pm) at http://www.usacycling.org/2014-us-cup-pro-series-live-stream.htm. Some of the other CTS Athletes to watch out for this weekend include:

  • Katerina Nash: Luna Pro Team, and series leader!
  • Georgia Gould: Luna Pro Team
  • Caroline Mani: Raleigh-Clement
  • Adriana Rojas: Costa Rican National Champion
  • Alex Grant: Sho-Air/Cannondale
  • Kalan Beisel: Giant-Tuff Shed
  • Kyle Bloesser: SDG Factory Team
  • Jason Siegle: SDG Factory Team (and CTS Coach)
  • Kerry Werner: BMC Project Dirt
  • Russell Finsterwald: SRAM-Troy Lee Designs

Have a Great Weekend,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

2 Responses to “Weekend Reading: Use These Intervals to Unlock Your Speed!”

  1. Brian Evans on

    thanks Chris. my couch at cadence clinic are very a wear and pushes this type of training over measured periods and it’s working for me.

    • Gary Kuchel on

      I think your spell checker got the best of you. Either that, or you have a very unusual couch. My couch certainly doesn’t push me, in fact, it beckons me to sit and watch TV. My recliner is even worse, and my refrigerator is my worst enemy. :-)


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