The Guide To Effective Cycling Interval Training
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. As a result, they steer clear of 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 highly effective for amateur cyclists. Intervals are a great way for all athletes gain fitness in less training time. In the end, these training efforts improve performances on solo adventures, group rides, gran fondos, gravel races, and century rides.
Let’s dive into the basics of where to start and how to implement interval workouts into a cycling training plan.
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 by changing volume, frequency, duration, and intensity to target areas you want to improve.
Why 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 are excellent for maximizing the training time you have and producing big fitness gains.
Intervals adapt training to your goals and availability
Typically, with lower training volume, you need higher intensity efforts to create the workload necessary to generate meaningful physiological adaptations. Many riders struggle to see improvement with just 60-120 minute moderate-intensity rides a few times a week. Instead, they benefit from concentrating workload into more structured, higher intensity interval sessions. Scheduled with appropriate recovery between workouts, interval training promotes 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 many ways to target specific event demands or goal.
If you only include endurance and unstructured training rides, you’re taking a non-specific approach that usually wastes valuable training time. That approach also 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 track progress. Additionally, testing provides more detailed feedback regarding things to work on ahead of a goal event.
Intervals enable individualization
When you individualize interval training to meet the demands of your goal event, you are effectively focusing training stress on a particular aspect of your physiology. This is a big strength of interval training. To keep things simple we won’t dive into the different ways we supply energy to working muscles. However, well-established training zones correlate with metabolic changes that occur while exercising at different intensity levels. Keep in mind, although you’re targeting one aspect of performance with a specific kind of interval, all aspects of your fitness are affected to some extent. 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.”
(Jason Koop, https://trainright.com/decoding-interval-workouts-for-ultramarathon-training/)
CTS Training Zones
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, let’s say your goal is to improve maximum sustainable pace. An effective way would be building SteadyState or SweetSpot intervals from the workout prescriptions below into your training plan. These workouts fall within “Threshold” training zone from above.
Or, let’s say your goal is to adapt to repeated maximal efforts, like accelerations in criteriums or bridging gaps. An effective approach would be building PowerInterval workouts into your plan. They fall within the VO2max training zone.
(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.)
Timing recovery between intervals
Each of these training ranges corresponds to the improvement of a specific area of rider development via interval prescriptions. For all interval prescriptions, adhering to the proper recovery ratio will maximize the effectiveness of your session. Learn more about how much recovery you should take between different types of intervals
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, your goals, the demands of goal events, and how long you have to prepare. Use the following framework and examples to decide when you should include intervals and what type:
Long-range interval training
- Beginners to interval training and athletes with several months to prepare for goal events should start with broad objectives. Complete sessions with less focus on specific event demands, and instead focus on weaknesses.
For instance, a beginner preparing for a gran fondo could structure “Sweet Spot Tempo Intervals” into their training. 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. Spending targeted time-at-intensity near FTP can raise your maximum sustainable pace.
How does this trickle down to a faster gran fondo time? If your starting FTP is 250watts, you might average 70-80% of that for the duration of a gran fondo. That would put you around a 200watt average.
SteadyState interval training could raise your FTP to 275watts. At that same 70-80% of FTP pace, your average power would increase to roughly 220 watts.
A roughly 20watt increase in sustainable power is substantial. Over the course of a gran fondo, it could significantly increase your speed and lower your overall time.
Short-range interval training
- 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 race would narrow training focus to address specific race demands. If the race featured 30-second climbs, you would include workouts that targeted anaerobic power. VO2 max intervals would be appropriate to prepare for 5-minute climbs. 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. These prepare you for steady pushes above lactate threshold on longer climbs, and for hard accelerations on short power climbs.
If you’re competing in this type of event, you’ve likely spent time building your FTP to handle more time at higher intensity. As the event nears, you want to focus on your accelerations and power at VO2 max.
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. These increase your maximum power and repeatability at durations of 30 seconds to 3 minutes. As a result, you’ll have more power for attacking over shorter, punchier climbs.
Perhaps you are a rider who is stronger on longer, more steady climbs. Workouts like climbing repeats and hill accelerations could prepare you to set a devastatingly high pace on the 5- to 8-minute climbs.
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 or 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.
Additional considerations for interval progression
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. 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.
Planning Effective Interval Workouts
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:
Consider siting down on a weekly or monthly basis to examine your daily schedule to carve out time for interval training. 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 accept that workouts are going to be uncomfortable and challenging. There is a sweet spot between attainability and difficulty that takes some time to figure out. Along the way, be prepared for hard sessions in the early days of an interval-based training plan.
Mental training strategies
Difficulty 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.
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Great article! Well written. The CTS “intervals” work! Having Tracey as a CTS coach for 18 months, has been the BEST INVESTMENT, in becoming a better rider. Testing yourself @CTS Camps, is an additional way of seeing if you are improving.
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I have an early edition of the Time Crunched Cyclist. The intensity ranges listed there for Steady State, Tempo, CR, etc. are different, lower, than the ones in this blog article. Are the ones here the current thinking and should be used in establishing workouts, or am I missing some way in which they are really pointing to the same ranges, using a different HR/FTP from the Field Test?
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Can you address rest between interval duration
I seldom see a discussion of training specifically for long distance events. On one 10 hour event which I’ve done for years, I never sustain an effort of over 85% of FTP for more than a few seconds, though I can sustain 80%-85% efforts (plural) for over an hour. I put a cap on long efforts, though I will go much harder for short periods with a clear benefit. What sort of interval training might best benefit these long efforts on rides like this?
I know how to do intervals and have done many different ones over the years, but am still uncertain as to what best benefits my goal events and rides. Experimenting on oneself is a slow process.
You are trying to put an entire book into this one article.
IMO HIIT really works, but have a plan, periodize, and keep a log. It even works for really old men. :<)
Perfect timing. I’m doing a HIIT workshop for my cycling instructors at the Bham YMCA. I’ll be referencing your article and giving you kudos.
Now I know why my CTS coach puts me through all this stress 🙂
On mental toughness and while indoors, load fast paced music and the mantra, I can and I will has helped me. If that doesn’t work screaming ‘come-on” loud enough for the neighbors to hear can reset yourself.
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