By CTS Senior Coach Maddison Russell
Cycling interval training can be a powerful tool to increase speed, power, and endurance on the bike. Unfortunately, many cyclists view interval training as a complicated and downright scary concept, and so they steer clear of including interval workouts in their training plan entirely.
Often, cyclists assume that interval training and HIIT workouts are just for professional cyclists or committed racer types. However, including targeted interval workouts can be a highly effective way for amateur cyclists to gain fitness with less training time and improve performances on solo adventures, group rides, gran fondos, and century rides.
Let’s dive into the basics of where you should start and how you can successfully implement interval workouts into a cycling training plan.
The Three W’s Of Cycling Interval Training
When talking about interval training, it is important to first focus on the “Ws.” That’s the what, why, and when.
What Is Interval Training?
The basic definition revolves around riding particular durations or distances, alternating between hard and easy efforts. This structure can be manipulated in terms of volume, frequency, duration, and intensity in order to target the areas that you want to improve.
Why Should You Include Interval Training In Your Cycling Training Plan?
Every cyclist, no matter your goal, can benefit from interval training. Most of us are not professional cyclists and must deal with limited training time. Whether it be work, travel, or family commitments, there are things that get in the way of riding more hours. Interval training can be an excellent way to maximize the training time that you do have and produce big gains in your fitness.
Typically, with lower training volume, higher intensity efforts are needed in order to create the workload necessary to generate meaningful physiological adaptations. If you have struggled to see improvement with 60-120 minute moderate-intensity rides a few times a week, concentrating workload into more structured, higher intensity interval sessions with recovery days in between can be an extremely effective way to generate the improvement you are looking for.
Adaptability is another reason interval work can be a good way to raise performance. You can mold interval workouts and training programs in any number of ways to target the demands of a specific event or goal.
If you only include endurance and unstructured training rides, you’re taking a non-specific approach that usually wastes valuable training time and lacks sufficient workload in the right areas to produce a positive training response. We refer to these types of rides as “junk miles.”
Interval workouts coupled with intermittent power testing helps you keep track of your progress and gives you more detailed feedback in terms of what you need to work on ahead of a goal event.
When you individualize interval training to meet the demands of your goal event, you are effectively focusing on training the different energy systems. This is a big strength of interval training. To keep things simple in this article we won’t be diving into the different energy systems, but just understand that there are well-established training zones that correlate to the different energy systems that are utilized while exercising at different intensity levels. However, just because you’re targeting one energy system via a specific kind of interval, that doesn’t mean your workout won’t have an impact on other areas as well. CTS Premier coach Jason Koop said it best:
“Your body does not know systems! Therefore, exercise at any intensity has an impact across the board, it’s just that certain parts of your physiology get tuned more or less depending on the intensity. So, when we refer to a VO2 max interval, this means that the interval will mainly, but not exclusively, improve your performance and physiology around VO2 max. Other areas of your physiology will improve too, but the improvements revolve around the targeted intensity.”
Below are the different CTS training zones. Each of these zones has a number of different workout prescriptions within them that will work to improve your capabilities at different intensities and prepare you for specific event demands.
(Chart includes sample data for each of the CTS zones based on a percentage of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate and Functional Threshold Power. Use the CTS Field Test to calculate your training zones.)
For example, if your goal is to improve maximum sustainable pace, the most effective way to accomplish this would be to build Steady-State or Sweet Spot intervals from the workout prescriptions below into your training plan, because they fall within the “Threshold” training zone from above.
As another example, if your goal is to adapt to repeated maximal efforts, such as accelerations in criteriums or bridging gaps in group rides, the most effective approach would be to build Power Intervals into your plan, since they fall within the VO2max training zone.
Each of these training ranges corresponds to the improvement of a specific area of rider development via interval prescriptions. For all of these interval prescriptions, there is a proper recovery ratio you would want to adhere to in order to maximize your session. Check out this link to learn more about how much recovery you should take between different types of intervals: https://trainright.com/recovery-timing-for-perfect-intervals/
(Chart includes sample data for each of the CTS workout prescriptions based on a percentage of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate and Functional Threshold Power. Use the CTS Field Test to calculate your training range for these workout prescriptions.)
When Should You Include Interval Training?
The tried and true coach answer to this question is “it depends.” It depends on your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your goals, the demands of goal events, and how long you have before the goal event is taking place. Use the following framework and examples to decide when you should include intervals and what type:
- Beginners to interval training should start broad objectives, completing sessions with less focus on specific event demands, and instead focusing on their weaknesses farther away from the event
For example, a beginner cyclist looking to prepare for a gran fondo could structure “Sweet Spot Tempo Intervals” into their training plan. A good place to start would be a workout like 4x10min Sweet Spot. These intervals target the intensity range just below your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Functional Threshold Power is the highest average power that you can sustain for 45-60 minutes depending on your level of fitness. By spending targeted amounts of time at an intensity near FTP, you would be raising your maximum sustainable pace over time.
How does this trickle down to a faster gran fondo time? Well, if your starting FTP is 250watts, the power you could average for a gran fondo would most likely be in the 70-80% range of that 250watts. That would put you around a 200watt average.
If you were able to raise your FTP through the application of steady-state interval training to 275watts, suddenly the power you may be able to average for the entire gran fondo increases to roughly 220watts.
You can see from this example that regardless of course conditions a roughly 20watt increase in average power over the course of a gran fondo could yield you a significant increase in speed, and lower your overall time.
- As you get closer to a goal event, you should progressively narrow the focus of your interval sessions. At this point, you should shift to incorporate more intervals that focus on intensities and durations that closely mirror efforts you would need to do during a goal event.
For example, a road racer working towards a hilly road race would want to narrow the focus of their training to specifically replicate the demands that race will require of them. So, if the road race features a variety of climbs in the 30-second to 5-minute range, you would want to spend a good deal of time targeting workouts on climbs within that time duration. If you don’t have climbs that match your event, you can still match the duration and intensity.
These could be workouts like speed intervals, power intervals, hill accelerations, or climbing repeats. These workouts all feature intensities at or above FTP, and in many cases near VO2max. They can help prepare you for steady pushes above your lactate threshold on longer climbs, as well as your ability to accelerate hard on short power climbs.
If you’re a rider competing in this type of event, you’ve most likely spent a good deal of time building your FTP in order to handle more time at higher intensity, and so as the event nears, you want to focus on your accelerations and VO2max.
When looking at the race profile and evaluating your strengths as a rider, you may decide to narrow your focus even further. If you are more of a “power climber” you could spend your time doing speed intervals and power intervals in order to maximize your max power and repeatability at durations of 30 seconds to 3 minutes so you can maximize your attack power over shorter, punchier climbs.
If you are a rider who is stronger on longer, more steady climbs, workouts like climbing repeats and hill accelerations could prepare you to lay down a devastatingly high pace on climbs in the 5- to 8-minute range.
How To Progress Interval Training Over Time
As you get stronger and improve your fitness, your workouts have to deliver a greater workload in order to keep your progress going. You can do this by making intervals longer, performing more of them in a workout, increasing the intensity, or increasing the frequency of interval workouts in your training plan. As you try to plan for progress, you will want to take into account a number of factors, but a good rule of thumb is to start with even easier and more conservative sessions than you think you need to.
For example, if you are a category 5 road racer training for your first racing season, it may be tempting to start your training program with 3x20min Steady-State sessions 2-3 times per week. After all, that is probably a week that you have heard of professional or elite amateur cyclists doing. However, it is important to be realistic with yourself and your experience with interval sessions.
A better place to start would be a workout like 4×12 min Steady-State or 3×15 min Steady-State, sticking to just two workouts a week spaced out with 1-2 days of recovery and/or endurance rides in between. If you are looking to progress those interval sessions, easy ways to do that would be to manipulate either the interval duration or the total number of intervals of the same duration. It is wise to choose just one of those approaches as opposed to doing both at the same time.
So, if you were doing 4x12min Steady-State workouts, you could progress those to 4x15min Steady-State by adding 3 minutes to each interval length. If you were doing 3x15min Steady-State workouts, one way to progress that session would be to add another interval to do 4x15min Steady-State workouts.
An example of how you wouldn’t typically want to progress interval workouts is by going from a 4x12min Steady-State to a 5x15min Steady-State workout since you are progressing both the interval length and the number of intervals.
Your time-at-intensity or interval work should comprise roughly 20% of your total weekly volume, but if you are new to interval work, something closer to 10-15% could be a better place to start.
Over time, your ability to handle more time-at-intensity will improve, and you can justify bumping things up. It should always be a progression, so don’t skip ahead and give your body the time it needs to adapt to an interval-based training program. Here’s a good resource to check out to help you decide when you should skip an interval workout or call it quits early (https://trainright.com/weekend-reading-knowing-when-enough-is-enough/).
If You Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail
In order to successfully execute an interval workout, you need a plan. When it comes to planning for an interval session there are a few main concepts to focus on:
An effective strategy for many athletes to fit intervals into their day is to sit down on a weekly or monthly basis run through a timetable of each day to plan when they will do their intervals. Make the time in your schedule so you make training a priority and that time doesn’t get siphoned away for other activities.
Hydration and Nutrition:
When it comes to hydration and nutrition, it’s not enough to fuel before and after, you need to implement carbohydrate and sodium intake during an interval workout that lasts an hour or longer. You can accomplish this via carbohydrate and sodium-rich hydration products, gels, chews, and bars. Read more about what to eat and drink for rides of any length here.
Pick a location where there is less of a chance to be interrupted by stoplights, stop signs, or traffic. Next, think of the W’s again. Think about what type of intervals are being done and why.
Should the intervals be on climbs, rollers, flats? Interval workouts should be done on terrain that most similarly matches the terrain of goal events or key sections of goal events. Indoor cycling is another great option for interval workouts due to limiting variables such as stop signs, traffic, and bike control. This way, you’re able to focus solely on your interval duration and effort.
A proper warm-up can oftentimes be more of an “art” than a “science.” There’s no one perfect way, you’ll need to experiment over time to find the most effective approach.
One good starting point is that the longer and lower the intensity of the workout, the shorter and less intense the warm-up, and the shorter and more intense the workout, the longer and more intense the warm-up should be.
I also recommend that you read our article on some of the biggest mistakes athletes make with High-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Drawing On Mental Strength For Interval Training
Cyclists, particularly professional cyclists have a reputation for being mentally tough. How does an amateur cyclist tap into that other-worldly mental strength that professional cyclists have and apply it to their own interval sessions?
The first answer is easy – it’s just practice. That’s right, in order to get better at something, you have to practice it. This is especially true when it comes to mental strength and pain tolerance.
If you aren’t consistent or realistic with how you approach interval training then you’ll have a tendency to give up early in the session.
When you begin interval training, you must be willing to accept that the workouts are going to be uncomfortable and challenging. There is a sweet spot between attainability and difficulty that takes some time to figure out, but you should be prepared to have a lot of hard sessions in the early days of an interval-based training plan.
This is a good thing, though. Adaptability and mental toughness, or grit, result from prolonged exposure to discomfort and hard efforts. When pain tolerance isn’t adequate on its own, there are a number of mental strategies that tend to be effective when trying to tackle interval workouts.
- Visualization – the oldest trick in the sport psychology handbook, visualizing the successful completion of the session or crossing the finish line at your event can be a powerful motivator.
- Use Mantras – a mantra, or repeated words or phrases can be an effective strategy to focus on something other than the pain or the seconds ticking down. Phrases like “up, down” when it comes to pedal stroke or “in, out” when it comes to breathing are a couple of examples.
- Positive self-talk – there’s a saying “whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.” Take this to heart, build up confidence via positive speak, and leave the negative thoughts at home.
It’s important to note, part of an effective mental game is dealing with failure and hardship. Don’t revel in “failed” sessions. Learn from mistakes and move forward. Practice appropriate perception and give yourself a break from time to time. Being realistic with performances is an important step to maximizing long-term success.
Bringing It All Together
Executing interval sessions can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Like anything else, getting better at cycling interval workouts takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if the first few sessions don’t go well.
Focus on the “why” and the “when” when structuring interval training and always have a plan. Practice positive self-talk and visualize goals. Keep a log of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to interval sessions, understand the trends, and apply your experience to future sessions. Be sure to include subjective feedback, because it provides valuable context to your training data.
Above all, be realistic and have fun. Cycling interval training can be challenging, and when done correctly can yield huge gains in training and be extremely rewarding.
If you want help building interval training into your training program, I encourage you to explore working with one of our coaches or our TrainRight Membership which provides science-based training plans and advice from coaches.