If you want to improve your cycling, interval training is a must. While a beginner can ‘just ride’ and see improvements, there will inevitably be a plateau. You could try riding more but who has time for that?
You could also start riding harder each ride, but you will run out of energy, risk overtraining and might start hating riding because you are suffering the whole time. To progress your fitness, you need only mix some steady endurance rides with a couple of interval sessions each week.
Get started with interval training by following these five rules:
1. SUFFER FOR SHORT PERIODS, NOT ENTIRE RIDES
While you may be aiming to race hard in a century or crit, that doesn’t mean each workout should be exactly like the race. Training this way is very hard on your body and difficult to get adaptations from because it’s so taxing, it’s difficult to replicate and long-intensity generally does not hit the critical durations and intensities required to boost your fitness. Intervals, on the other hand, can target a specific element of your fitness.
You will hear about concepts like anaerobic, Vo2 max and threshold, but for simplicity, think about 2–5 minute hill efforts and 10–20-minute threshold efforts as your key interval sessions.
2. WHEN IN DOUBT DO LESS AND FOCUS MORE
Too often we think more is better and make interval sessions a full hour of effort with very little rest. It is very hard for most cyclists to put high levels of exertion into a long duration and high number of reps. For hill efforts keep it to less than 5 reps and under 5 minutes. For threshold aim for 30–40 minutes of work total. Start with 3 x 10 and progress toward a 2 x 20 over many weeks. For all intervals do less in the first week and slowly progress by adding a little time, or an extra rep or more wattage to each session. If you’re tired, do less or skip the session and do a recovery ride.
Take at least the same time as the work interval to recover from hill reps and a quarter to a half the interval time to recover from threshold efforts. That comes to 3–6 minutes between 3-minute hill-efforts and 3–5 minutes between 10-minute threshold intervals.
Between interval days, make sure you take a recovery day. I like to have athletes do a hard day, then a long, steady endurance day then an off day to keep workout quality high. Watch that your endurance days are lower intensity without sprinting or hard hills that will affect recovery.
4. TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AND KEEP IT FUN
Just because you want to include interval training doesn’t mean you should give up fun or that you need to take a formal education in sports training. To motivate interval training, keep track of your average power or how long it takes you to climb your interval hill. Seeing your time or power improve and your ability to do more repetitions is hugely motivating.
To maintain a social element, enlist friends to join you for hill repeats or even just to warm up or cool down. I often meet friends who want to ride at a conversational, endurance pace, after interval sessions, to ride for a few more hours. Sometimes they will just do a loop while I do intervals and then we join up at a certain time, allowing each of us to achieve our goals for the day.
5. CONSIDER SPECIFICITY
Intervals are often done on the road, but it’s worth doing at least one of your weekly sessions in your goal discipline to ensure you are practicing the same position, tactics, skills, speeds and cadences you will see on race day.
Mountain bike and cyclocross riders who ride on the road are often subject to crashes and cramping due to the change in surface. If you race on the flats or get dropped on the hills, these are great indicators of where you should spend these highly focused interval days.