How To Build Better Cycling Intervals
Whoever said “slow and steady wins the race” obviously never raced a bike. So what’s the best way to achieve this? Interval training. Training with cycling intervals is simply alternating bursts of intense activity with intervals of lighter activity. In its simplest form, your training needs to focus on those two factors in order to prepare for success.
Anyone who has either raced or participated in a mass starting event knows that it requires a high level of fitness and the ability to vary efforts as demanded by the competition or the terrain. Interval training is simply alternating bursts of intense activity with intervals of lighter activity. In its simplest form, your training needs to focus on those two factors in order to prepare for success. It is probably part of most riders’ training routine (whether structured or unstructured), but it’s easier said than done.
During this time of year, your intervals probably are beginning to progress from aerobic (tempo, sweet spot, and FTP) to anaerobic (FTP and above), and it’s important to take time now to evaluate your approach to anaerobic interval training. Here are a few tips to maximize your efforts.
You can only train as hard as you can recover
Intensity rises as you progress into anaerobic intervals, and so does fatigue. A lot of riders simply blend this type of interval into their current training duration and intensity habits instead of adjusting their habits.
For example, let’s say Jane Rider trains twelve hours a week, with three or four days a week of extensive tempo and sweet spot workouts and the rest moderate, steady-state endurance. As Jane begins to add higher-intensity intervals to her regime, she maintains the same hours and pattern of riding all other time at moderate intensity and/or occasional tempo or sweet spot. This is a mistake.
As you add anaerobic intervals, you need to lighten the load a little in other places to allow your body to properly recover and adapt.
Another mistake I often see is when an athlete reduces the duration and intensity of the overall training but schedules anaerobic intervals too frequently to make up for the loss. This will again typically leave an athlete too fatigued to properly adapt to the strain created by the interval training.
Tips for interval scheduling and training
● Don’t schedule interval training more than two or three times a week. Start with twice, then possibly move on to three, but focus on three great interval workouts instead of adding more.
● Reduce either the duration or intensity of your endurance training during this phase. I suggest following an 80/20 approach in this phase of your training, reducing the intensity of your endurance training targets slightly instead of duration.
● If the idea of 80/20 doesn’t fit your approach, reduce the duration of your endurance (and overall) training slightly.
● Schedule your most important interval session after rest days.
Let go of training levels
In my observation, 90%+ of self-coached (and a lot of coached) athletes complete intervals by targeting training zones. While this isn’t a bad approach in the base training phase when prescribing aerobic intervals, it’s not the best way to target intervals at or above FTP.
So what should you use instead? History. You need to track your interval performance closely (more on this later) so you can use that tracking to plan future intervals.
The idea is simple: target your interval intensity as a percentage of your recent mean maximal power, not a general training zone based off of FTP. Take a look at the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Interval Targeting Chart below. This chart shows an athlete’s Power Duration Curve (PDC), Mean Max Power (MMP), and a target for repeating in intervals. I find that an athlete can typically repeat intervals in the 92-95% range of their recent maximal performance (modeled or actual).
For example, let’s say Joe Rider is building some one-minute intervals focused on improving his functional reserve capacity (FRC). His recent PDC/MMP numbers are between 410-417 watts, and if he can target 92% as the low and 95% as the high, this gives a target effort of 377-390 watts. This means his intervals are based on his recent performance, and he now has an individual and specific target, not a general training zone.
Tips for interval targeting
● Don’t base your higher-intensity intervals on general zones; base them on recent history and performance.
● Target repeat performance at 92% of max or above to get best results.
Power or capacity: pick one!
Another area in which many athletes can improve is having a clear goal for their intervals. Let’s assume you’re targeting a specific physiological response; you also need to determine if you want to build power or capacity.
Let’s return to the Joe Rider example above. He’s looking to build his FRC (modeled anaerobic work capacity) but needs to decide if he wants to focus on building his power (highest power output for a select time driven by a specific energy system) or capacity (ability to increase fatigue resistance and repeatability of such time and specific energy system). This decision affects both intensity and recovery time.
If Joe Rider want to build his one-minute power, he needs to focus on intensity and rest between intervals. Intensity is simple. If you’re building power, the intensity becomes maximal without creating workout failure, and the rest between intervals becomes long (at least 7-8 minutes but up to 12 minutes). Why? If you’re building power, a full recovery is important so you can repeat maximal.
Most road cyclists struggle with the patience to rest this long between intervals, by the way; they tend to think they are recovered once their heart rate returns to lower endurance levels.
But what if Joe was trying to build capacity? He should use the prescribed intensity to ensure he can repeat the efforts but reduce his rest time between to a ratio of on and off time. I typically suggest this ratio should be between .5 to 1 and 1 to 2. This means that Joe should target his one-minute efforts at 377-390 watts with a rest time duration between thirty seconds and two minutes, based on his fitness and training goal. His power will be reduced due to the lack of recovery, but the strain on his system is more diverse and will help him build capacity.
Tips for interval targeting
● Focus on building either power or capacity, not both at the same time.
● Tweak the power and rest duration to accomplish this specificity.
● Be patient when building power; recovery takes time.
This tip is a little different from what you might expect. I highly recommend taking notes on every interval workout. Record two key pieces of information: average power and how you feel. I encourage all my athletes to note the average power of each interval and then average those numbers, then record it in the notes.
Lets say Joe Rider completes six intervals from the above example. The average power of each was 385, 389, 383, 382, 384, and 379. If we add all those together and divide by six, the average of all the intervals is 384 watts. He’ll record this average in the workout notes to help him track his progress. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an exact apples-to-apples process, but try it for a month or two; it will give you some insight.
For the second piece of information, record how you felt generating the power in the intervals. Be specific. Did your legs feel great? Were you breathing too heavy? Did you fade late in each interval? This kind of information will help you (or your coach) track how the efforts felt and give insight into performance.
Tips for interval recording
● Find the average for all interval sessions and track it.
● Record how you felt during each session.
● Review previous sessions when planning new ones.
These tips won’t make interval training any easier, but they should help you maximize your results.
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is a USAC coach with over 10 years experience working with both road and mountain bike professionals around the world. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] [email protected] To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.