What's Cool In Road Cycling

Intervals Part 4: Race Specificity

Can I get a “Hell Yeah” For Spring and daylight savings time?! Even our very own Sports Science and Training Editor, Stephen, in Halifax, Nova Scotia is daring to finally ride outside. Take your indoor trainer (aka the torture device) and perform the Bjarne Riis shot put toss with it (remember the Tour’s final TT in 1997?). Now that we are outside we can get down to biz-nass with some high intensity work. It’s that time of year and I suspect nearly everybody out there has an event that they are training for.

For the past few weeks you’ve read about setting your zones with MAP, using the MAP model for intervals, and how the pros perform intervals (see, we’re not crazy after all). Smart training revolves around understanding precisely the demands of your sport and sub-discipline, and then working to simulate and improve those abilities in practice. So let’s put it all together and figure out what intervals are specific for your event!

Criteriums: Short, Sharp Intervals
If you race a road bike in the United States, chances are you might enter a criterium or two. Some of us even enjoy them. Accelerating out of corners, attacking, counter attacking, and of course sprinting for the “W” are all part of the dynamic power profile you’ll need to be successful. Therefore, criteriums can best be summed up as repeated short high powered efforts with minimal recovery. Intervals on the order of 5-20 s in length at high cadence and from a rolling start are specific to crits. Because of the short duration of the interval, really go for it with these intervals, all out full guns blazing!

If you are racing a 4 corner criterium for 1 hour and each lap takes 5 minutes, that’s 12 laps and 48 corners. You can replicate this effort by performing a workout with 24 x 10 s sprints. For example, this might be broken down to 4 sets of 6 x 10 s sprints from a rolling start, with 30 s off between reps and 5 min between sets. An industrial park during the evenings or weekends are perfect low-traffic sites for these workouts.

Further refinements to your training can be made based on the terrain. If the criterium course has a 45 second hill, incorporate 45-60 second intervals into your training. Training with a purpose is all about specificity!

Road Races: Dissect Your Course
The power requirements of a road race vary widely and as such your training should too. From threshold efforts, VO2max intervals, anaerobic 1minuters, to sprints, road racing can have it all in the same race. Optimize your intervals considering the course and terrain of your target race. Is there a rolling section where crosswinds promote echelons that shatter the field? Or is there a climb that lasts 10+ minutes or more?

Take for example Lance Armstrong. The mountains and TT’s are the critical deciders in the Tour. In the mountains, he knows he will have to average 6.0++ watts per kilogram of body weight or greater for 45 minutes or longer in order to win the Tour de France. So can anyone guess what he does for his training? Its no secret by now…

Again, by considering your target race you can identify the length of intervals you need to focus on. Courses with short hills lasting 2-5 minutes would be best trained for by doing a number of 2-5 minute interval workouts. These are typically way above your lactate threshold or MAP, so you need to replicate that intensity and recover appropriately between efforts. You could start off gradually with a couple of sets and reps of 2 minuters one week and increase the duration of the intervals by 1 minute each week all the way up to 5 minutes.

As discussed with MAP intervals, the same principles of increasing intensity and then duration apply. Assuming the critical effort in your race is 5 min, you want to take the speed that you can currently handle for 2 min and extend it to 5 min. Once you can do that, then increase the speed, drop the duration and then gradually work on being able to hold that increased speed back up to 5 min. When you can do that, take a well earned rest week!

For courses with climbs in excess of 6-7 minutes incorporate threshold intervals like MAP workouts into your training program. You’ll be glad to know that training for time trials and races with climbing is virtually the same. It all boils down to your maximum sustainable power output or MAP. By incorporating these “2 for 1” workouts you can train for both events in one workout!

Time Trials: Enter the Pain Cave
Time trials are so fundamentally simple: go as hard as you can for the entire distance. Due to the lengthy time frame you will gravitate to your maximal sustained power output. If you nailed down your threshold from your MAP test this is where you can use it. Be careful not to go out too hard or start off too slow. Pacing yourself by perceived exertion or “feel” also works well with experience but this is really where powermeters are invaluable!

I recommend starting your threshold training gradually (as with all phases of your training) with a couple of 10 minute efforts, 2 x 10 min On 5 min Off. After ample recovery and adaptation up the ante to 15 minute efforts at the same workload, 2 x 15 min On 5 min Off. Increase the power output of the intervals as your fitness progresses and you’ll be ready for the infamous 2 x 20’s: 2 x 20 min On 5 min Off. That’s perfect training for a 40K time trial!

Attacks, Counterattacks, and Breakaways: the fun, hard stuff
We all agree it’s more fun to race up front. What’s even more fun is throwing in a well timed attack or leaving your arch rival with a “no answer” counter attack. A successful attack involves going well above your threshold and deeply into your anaerobic zone for a period of time until you’ve established your gap, and then being able to go directly from that effort into prolonged riding at your lactate threshold.

For attacking, I suggest working on your anaerobic capacity: intervals 1 minute in length in a 1 to 1 work to rest ratio. Try starting off with 5 x 1 min On 1 min Off and working your way up to a more advanced workout like 3 sets of 6 x 1 min On 1 min Off with 5 minutes in between sets. What you’re trying to replicate here is the initial burst to establish a small gap from the pack.

Now that you’ve attacked or counterattacked, make your effort count! Ensure the success of the breakaway by committing 100% for 3-6 minutes. You’ll need to sustain a power output greater than your threshold near your VO2max. Intervals of 3-6 min at as high a power output as you can sustain for the entire interval will force the physiological adaptations to help you sustain and repeat such high powered efforts.

In summary, identify the specifics of your race and choose your intervals to mimic the course of your target races. Best of luck!

Toolbox Mailbag Special – Intervals

How the Pros handle intervals

MAP Intervals

Determining your Maximal Aerobic Power

Part 1 of our Interval series

Spin vs Push: Interval Physiology 101

The importance of lactate threshold

Frank Overton discusses the right versus wrong way to do intervals

Check out our previous article on crit racing.

Frank Overton

Frank is a USA cycling certified Expert coach and category 1road racer. On more than one occasion he has been known to bust out a few intervals in and around Boulder, CO. He can be reached at his website

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.