What's Cool In Road Cycling

Intervals Part 1: Release the Hounds!

Let’s talk about getting faster! If there was a nutritional supplement out there (there’s not) guaranteed to make you a faster cyclist, you’d take it right? Heck, if I thought writing “I will be a faster bike racer” on the blackboard a bazzillion times was all it took, I’d be all over it. What I’d like to present to you here, today, is a way that will transform you into a supa’ fast cyclist!

– With contribution by Stephen Cheung, Ph.D.-

Intervals are the ticket. Race season is here or about to be here (wishful thinking here in Halifax – Toolbox Ed.). Work hard on a consistent basis and intervals will be the cheapest most effective way for you to get the results you want. Forget the gizmazoo wheels, supplements, doo-hick this new-fangled that. Get out there, find your favourite hill and go up and down it as hard as you can and suffer! Don’t just do it once, work at it on a consistent basis, every week. Custom tailor the types of intervals you perform based on the events you race and want to do well in.

Tailor Fit Intervals
You need to regulate the intensity of your interval sessions based on your training status. There are several fundamental ways to tailor intervals to your limiters and the demands of your race:

• Frequency. The number of intervals. As you get stronger, you should be able to tack on more intervals at a given workload.

• Intensity. Obviously the simplest way to make a workout harder is to ride harder during the intervals, but it’s not as simple as that. The exact intensity of each interval is determined by the goals. If you’re training for crits, you’ll be focusing on very high intensity, sprint-like efforts. If you’re training for time trials, you’re focusing more on threshold level intervals. Again, as you progress in fitness, your power output for each interval should be increasing.

• Duration. Again, the duration of the intervals and recovery periods depend on the goals. A crit interval workout would emphasize frequent, high-intensity intervals with relatively long recovery:effort ratios. A time trial interval workout would emphasize long sustained intervals with minimal recovery.

• Recovery. The less recovery you give yourself, the harder the overall effort. However, I would generally err on the side of too much recovery rather than too little.

An Even Closer Shave
As discussed above, the basic ingredients to an interval workout are very simple. But like any good chef, the permutations are endless and need to be spicy enough to keep you from going stale. Therefore, to take those simple ideas and adapt it to your own situation is the essence of top-notch smart training. Here are other considerations:

Heart Rate vs. Power. Heart rate is good, but power wins hands-down as an accurate and reliable indicator of effort. Heart rate is like the tachometer in your car, telling you only how much your engine is revving. Power is knowing the actual horsepower you are revving. Heart rate is too variable based on hydration, caffeine, stress, motivation, etc.

Cadence. The exact same power output level can be achieved by varying the gears and cadence, with the result placing completely different stresses on the cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems. As Stephen outlined in his article on interval physiology, higher cadences stress the cardio system, while high-gear, low rpm intervals stress the muscular system and are great at replicating hillclimbs and building strength.

Terrain. You ideally want to train on terrain similar to your key events. What to do if you’re aiming for the Alps but live in Kansas? Break down the requirements of climbing into its basic constituents and aim to replicate these components. For example, do big-gear low-rpm intervals (into a headwind!) to build the raw strength. At the same time, maintain your ability to spin small gears and accelerate by targeting low-gear, high-rpm and relatively low intensity intervals.

In upcoming Toolbox articles, we’ll delve more closely into defining specific interval intensities based on heart rate and power levels by experts such as Andy Coggan and Alejandro Lucia. Email us with your questions about intervals!

Frank Overton
Frank is a USA cycling certified coach and category 1 road racer. Frank has raced the Gila three times and in 2001 finished sixth in the Stage 2 Moggollon mountain top stage! He can be reached at his website

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