For performance-oriented cyclists, five-minute power is an important metric because staying with the group – or leaving them behind – often depends on these shorter efforts. Improving your 5-minute requires strenuous training, but the rewards are absolutely worth the work. Here’s what you need to know about training for 5-minute power.
Components of 5-minute power
To improve your 5-minute power, it’s important to understand the physiological demands and limitations for maximizing performance for that duration.
Although the body has three main ways of providing energy to working muscles (ATP/CP, anaerobic glycolysis, and aerobic glycolysis), all three are used at all times. The rate of energy demand determines the relative contributions. When you are at rest or exercising at low intensity, the aerobic system contributes almost all energy required. As intensity increases and you must supply energy more quickly, anaerobic glycolysis ramps up. At extremely high intensities the vast majority of energy comes from anaerobic glycolysis.
Five minutes is a tricky timeframe for cycling performance. It is too long to be a sprint, which relies most heavily on anaerobic capacity, or the amount of work you can do at power outputs above your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). It’s not long enough to be primarily aerobic, either. To maximize performance and speed for a 5-minute effort, you need a bit of everything. That means a high VO2 max, an FTP that’s a high percentage of your power at VO2 max, and a big anaerobic capacity. That’s a tall order, but not out of reach.
Training the components of 5-Minute Power
The good news is that most endurance-oriented cyclists already train two of the three components of 5-minute power. If you are following a typical endurance cycling training plan in preparation for centuries, gran fondos, bike tours, road races and criteriums, gravel races, and or cross-country and marathon MTB, your training has almost certainly included moderate-intensity aerobic endurance (Zone 2) training, prolonged aerobic intervals (Tempo and Sweetspot Tempo), and FTP intervals (15-20 minute efforts).
The training described above results in the ability to ride all day, but mainly at one steady speed. To develop the power for short, punchy, selection-making, race-winning efforts, you need to ramp up your VO2 max and maximize the size of your anaerobic engine with shorter efforts.
VO2 max Intervals
VO2 max is your maximum aerobic capacity, or the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in, process, and deliver to working muscles. The difficulty of increasing VO2 max and of increasing power output at VO2 max is accumulating sufficient time-at-intensity to stimulate adaptation.
We have covered “How to increase VO2 max” in more depth in other articles and podcasts, so we’ll be brief here. VO2 max intervals must be short (2-5 minutes) because the intensity needs to be at or above 90% of your current VO2 max power. If your FTP is set correctly, this typically means 105%-120% of FTP.
A common interval structure for VO2 max intervals would be 4 x 4-minute efforts at 105%-120% of FTP (RPE of 10/10) with 4 minutes of easy spinning recover between intervals. More advanced athletes can add intervals, up to about 6, or add a second set of intervals. The most important thing is to hit the power output. Remember that 105%-120% of FTP is enough if you’re working on extensive intervals (extending time at VO2 max) as opposed to intensive intervals to increase max power at VO2 max.
As Coach Adam Pulford pointed out in the podcast linked to above, you don’t always need to do intervals at the top of the target range. In this case, the range could span 40 watts! For extensive intervals, time matters, so aim for the lower end of the range. For intensive intervals, max power matters, so aim for the top of the range.
How VO2 max affects 5-minute power
Increasing your VO2 max increases the amount of oxygen you can deliver to working muscles during a maximal 5-minute effort. These intervals also generate a ton of lactate because of the high contribution from anaerobic glycolysis. This drives the development of greater lactate clearance, which is the process that reintegrates lactate into normal aerobic metabolism so it can be broken down for usable energy.
Lactate clearance is crucial for high-power efforts lasting several minutes, as well as for repeatability. The faster you can clear lactate after a hard effort, the sooner you can attack again, and again. It also means you can execute a maximum effort, then reduce power output slightly and recover while still riding hard.
Training to increase anaerobic capacity
Your anaerobic capacity is the amount of work you can perform at an intensity above lactate threshold power output. The amount of work you can do stays the same, whether you perform a higher power but shorter effort, or a slightly longer effort at a lower power output. In other words, a cyclist with a lactate threshold of 300 watts and an anaerobic capacity of 20 Kilojoules (the work they can produce), could us their anaerobic capacity for a 1000-watt sprint that lasts just under 30 seconds or a 500-watt effort that lasts 1:45. To produce 1200 watts for that 30-second sprint, or to maintain that 500 watt effort for 2 minutes, you must increase anaerobic capacity.
As with VO2 max, we have covered training for anaerobic capacity in depth in other articles and podcasts, so we’ll cover it briefly here. The intervals required for improving anaerobic capacity must be very short (30-60 seconds). Brevity is necessary so the intensity can be high enough to stimulate adaptation. Each effort should be 120%-150% of FTP.
One thing that separates anaerobic capacity intervals from VO2 max or SpeedIntervals is the prolonged recovery. Instead of a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio, you want to take 5 minutes or so between anaerobic capacity intervals. This is so the fast-acting/fast-depleting ATP-CP energy can fully replenish before your next effort.
A typical workout might be 6 x :45-second efforts at 120%-150% of FTP (RPE 10/10). Separate the intervals with 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery.
Strength Training for 5-minute power
There are a number of good reasons for cyclists to engage in strength training. Coaches and athletes still debate the sport specificity of strength training for long endurance cycling events. However, the applicability of strength training for shorter, high-force, high-torque efforts is hard to doubt.
In particular, strength training may improve 5-minute power by increasing fast-twitch fiber recruitment, and by increasing the percentage of motor units activated. Focusing on hip and core stability is also important so you can create a solid platform for power transfer to the pedals. Riders who are weaker through the hips and core may tend to sway on the saddle during high power efforts.
When and how much 5-minute power training should you do?
Much like sprint training, if you start out with a good base of aerobic fitness and a strong FTP, it doesn’t take a lot of intervals or a long time to see results from your 5-minute power training. VO2 max and Anaerobic Capacity interval workouts are difficult. As a result, most athletes should only schedule them twice per week. Interval days should be separated by at least one full day (rest day, recovery ride, or endurance ride).
One common way to target 5-minute power is to incorporate a VO2 max training block for 2-4 weeks. Then, take a recovery week. Finally, focus on anaerobic capacity for about 2-3 weeks.
Training to improve 5-minute power typically occurs during the Preparation or Competition phase of the season. They are not as commonly done in the Transition or Foundation (Base) phase. This is because the adaptation decays relatively quickly if you’re not actively using your 5-minute power. However, because the training also improves VO2 max and FTP as a percentage of power at VO2 max, 5-minute power training can be incorporated differently depending on the periodization plan you’re using (traditional, reverse, time-crunched cyclist, etc.).