Best Cycling Intervals: A Roundup of Options to Try

interval training

What’s the best type of interval training for cycling? There’s unfortunately no one interval that does it all. It depends on what you’re training for. Instead of getting hung up on which interval is “the very best one” that is going to give you the absolute best results to make you the strongest cyclist, consider this: which type of interval training are you doing right now? If the answer is that you aren’t doing any at all, then almost any type of interval training that you start is going to give you an improvement in performance in general by making you fitter. So if you aren’t doing any intervals at all, getting started with any of these intervals below will improve your cycling performance. Just pick one that looks interesting and try it. Do intervals training twice a week, and have at least one rest day after your interval day, so that you can recover and improve. You will start to see results within a week or two. If you are doing intervals already, check out this list and consider whether or not one of these other types of intervals might help some specific aspect of cycling that you want to improve or might seem more appealing than what you are doing now, and try some of those. Let’s start with one that Bicycling Magazine calls The Ultimate Interval. The concept behind these intervals is that a relatively fit cyclist can ride at all out maximum effort for somewhere between 4 and 6 minutes. After doing a study, they determined that if you ride intervals at this maximum effort for 60 percent of the length of time that you can sustain a maximum effort, that is going to be your “ultimate interval” training length to increase your fitness. If you don’t want to mess around with figuring out the precise details with a power meter, you can pretty much do a 2 1/2 minute interval at maximum effort and assume that it’s going to be close. Rest 5 minutes between intervals, and do a set of 6 to 8 of these 2 2/1 minute maximum efforts twice a week.

Laursen found that cyclists improved the most doing intervals at 60 percent of their T-Max with double that amount of time for recovery between efforts. For instance, someone with a T-Max of four minutes would ride hard for 2:30, followed by five minutes of recovery. In a 2006 study performed at Ithaca College in central New York, members of the collegiate cycling team performed sets of eight intervals twice a week for six weeks; they improved their performance in a 5-kilometer time trial by 7 percent.

The cool thing about that interval training method is that they studied it with actual cyclists, and not just random people on an exercise bike. So it really helps in the real world. Next, consider pyramid intervals. With pyramid intervals, you’ll do a 1 minute interval, followed by 1 minute of rest. And then a 2 minute interval followed by 2 minutes of rest. And then a 3 minute interval followed by 3 minutes of rest. Start out with just one pyramid on a ride, and do it once per week. If you are starting to feel fitter, add in a second pyramid. Here’s why pyramid intervals are effective:

I asked Christian Vande Velde, the U.S. Postal Service cycling team rider who’s competed in the Tour de France, which one workout a part-time cyclist should do for fitness. He immediately answered with “the pyramid,” explaining, “They’re good for all around because three minutes is almost endurance and one minute is like a kilo … They’re a good trainer workout, too.” What Vande Velde means is that different intervals train different physiologic capacities. The one minute, or “kilo,” helps build short-term, explosive power. This type of fitness will help you close or bridge a gap, escape in the final miles of a race, or ride away over a particularly rocky section in a mountain-bike event. The “endurance”-type intervals works at a slightly lower intensity and builds longer-term muscular endurance for sustained climbs, windy road races or time trials. The advantage of doing pyramids is that you’ll train over a variety of zones during your workout.

Want some other good interval options to mix it up? Consider these intervals recommended by Chris Carmichael of Carmichael Training Systems, also covered in his terrific book, The Time Crunched Cyclist. Threshold Ladders are intervals designed to help you prepare for an attack off the front, where you can stay away from the field. These are long and painful 12 minute intervals. You start out for the first 2 minutes at a perceived effort of 10 out of 10. In other words, go all out. This represents the initial attack. Then, you dial it back to a perceived effort of 8 out of 10 for the next 4 minutes. Then ease it up just a little bit more for the last 6 minutes, and go at a perceived effort of 7 out of 10. Take a 6 minute spinning rest, and then do it again. Do just 2 sets of these for your workout unless you are extremely fit, in which case you can do 3 sets. Want to increase your sprinting performance? Try these ultra short 6 to 12 second intervals recommended by Joe Friel, author of the Cyclist’s Training Bible. With these intervals, you’ll go at an all out sprint for 6 to 12 seconds, followed by a rest period of 3 to 5 minutes. He recommends counting pedal strokes (just count one leg going around) for 8 to 16 pedal revolutions. You repeat them until your power during the sprint goes down by 5 percent, and then you quit doing them. Here’s the explanation of how it works.

Sprint power interval workouts are primarily used in non-steady state events in which the outcomes are determined by brief, maximal efforts. So this type of interval session falls primarily into the domain of road cyclists. Endurance runners and triathletes generally have no need for this training. One such workout is to do brief, all-out-effort sprints on varying terrain, straight-aways, and out of corners. Recovery lasts for several minutes after each sprint in order to allow subsequent intervals to be done at maximal intensity. Fatigue negates the benefits of this session. So when intensity drops by about 5% the session must end. Continuing will produce no greater benefits and may well lead to injury, deep fatigue, and burnout. WI duration: 6-12 seconds. I often have cyclists do these intervals by counting 8-16 pedal revolutions (counting one leg only). The final, maximal portion of a finish line sprint is seldom longer than about 12 pedal revolutions.

Want your intervals to be simple and easy to remember, but still brutally effective? Try these, recommended by David Henderson on his blog. “Ride absolutely as hard as you can for 1 minute, then soft pedal as easy as you can for 3 minutes, repeat 5-8 times or until you think you see Jesus.” Do you have a different favorite interval workout that you use instead? Have you gotten good results from one of these types of intervals? Leave a comment!

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