Despite the current frenzy around Zone 2 training, coaches and athletes have long known they need to train the full range of intensities to improve performance. Even proponents of large volumes of easy aerobic training incorporate high intensity intervals into their training programs when it’s time for athletes to get ready for racing. We’ve been fans of high-intensity intervals (HIIT workouts) for a long time. The “Time-Crunched Cyclist” is based on the premise that hard intervals play an important role for cyclists who cannot put in long hours. The most effective training combines long Zone 2 riding with appropriate intensity from intervals. Unfortunately, high-intensity intervals are easy to mess up, so make sure you’re not making the mistakes in this article.
Too Little Warm Up Before HIIT Intervals
Let’s say you have a few sets of ten 20-second max efforts separated by 40 seconds of recovery. What we often see is that some or all of the first set ends up being more of a warm-up exercise than a true high-intensity interval set. The total time-at-intensity during these workouts is pretty low, maybe 12-16 minutes, and losing 20-30% of that potential time-at-intensity is a big deal. If the data from your first set of short, high-intensity intervals is a mess compared to the rest, try spending more time warming up, even if it means cutting your cool down a little shorter.
High Intensity Intervals That Aren’t Hard Enough
The next mistake we see from cyclists is not committing to full efforts. The effectiveness of high-intensity intervals is based on hitting those high power outputs and pushing your cardiovascular system hard. A one-minute effort that’s “almost” really hard isn’t going to do it. Worse yet, you’re doing a lot of work, but it’s not productive.
To clarify, many high-intensity intervals are prescribed as “all out” or “max effort”. This can be confusing because the power output associate with your maximum effort for repeated 20-second efforts separated by 40-second recoveries will be different than your output for a maximum effort lasting one minute or two minutes. Then, there’s varying purposes behind certain interval durations. Repeated 45-second all-out sprints can be an effective workout for increasing anaerobic capacity, but only when these intervals are separated by 4-5 minutes of recovery. That’s a very different “max effort” than Speed Intervals, in which an 8-minute set consists of repeated 30-second efforts with 30 seconds recovery between them.
As a reader noted, you could also consider that the anaerobic capacity intervals (45 second sprints) could be thought of as “maximum” at the repetition/interval level, and Speed Intervals could be thought of as maximum at the set level (i.e., full recovery between sets). Philosophically, all intervals are done at the maximum intensity you can maintain for the duration. Functional Threshold Intervals are 10-20 minutes long because that’s how long you should be able to sustain the power if it is prescribed appropriately. In other words, the intensity defines the duration and the physiological target, not the other way around.
Lack of focus
What the previous point comes down to is primarily lack of focus. You can just go out for a ride and think through that work or relationship problem you’re having. In fact, those long rides can be really helpful for that! High intensity intervals require focus. It’s not time for problem solving. You can’t take a call in the middle of it. Be present, deliberate, and disciplined.
► Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz
Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.
Doing High Intensity Intervals Too Frequently
If you’re doing HIIT workout correctly, you won’t be physically able to do them well 5-6-7 days a week. Please don’t try. Any idiot can crush themselves; you need to be smarter. Give yourself the recovery time necessary to adapt to the training stress and alleviate the fatigue so your next HIIT workout builds on your prior work instead of burning it to the ground. Two HIIT workouts in a week is plenty for new cyclists. Three per week is a sweet spot for most time-crunched cyclists. And four in a week (not every week) is manageable – sometimes – for advanced athletes.
HIIT Workouts That Are Too long
Time-at-intensity is a big deal for the effectiveness of a workout. When you do long threshold or tempo intervals you might be trying to accumulate 30-45 minutes of time at a specific intensity. With high-intensity intervals workouts, the time-at-intensity could be 10-20 minutes total. Adding more intervals to an HIIT workout doesn’t necessarily increase its effectiveness. More often, the anticipation of the longer workout leads athletes to hold back in the beginning and then still get tired before the end. Stop trying to be the last person standing (or pedaling); there’s no award for most exhausted.
Acute and Chronic Dehydration
HIIT workouts are often executed indoors because they are time-efficient and more engaging than indoor endurance rides. The result is often a swimming pool of sweat on the floor. (Side note: Take the time to clean or prevent sweat from coating your bike and eating through bolts, aluminum handlebars, etc.) During indoor cycling, you can sweat out 1.5 liters of fluid, perhaps more if the room is warm.
To maintain workout quality you have to go into it well hydrated, otherwise, core temperature rises too much and power output drops off. The problem is worse than with moderate-intensity indoor workouts because many athletes don’t have the desire to drink when working very hard. And after losing all that fluid, you have to focus on replenishing it – over a period of hours, not just one big bottle all at once) so you can recover and get ready for the rest of the day and your next training session.
High-intensity intervals can be the salvation for Time-Crunched Cyclists who want to make the most of limited training time, but only if you pay attention to what you’re doing on and off the bike, as well as before and after your workout.
► FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time
Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.