The following is an exerpt from my book, “From Broken Neck to Broken Records, a Masters Cyclist’s Guide to Winning.” Interval training is a must for anyone participating in any aerobic-based sport such as cycling, running or swimming.
Interval Training For Cyclists
When I was a high school distance runner in the 50’s, the sport of track and field was not only seasonal, but the training, unlike today, was also seasonal for the runners. Training would often commence just a couple of weeks prior to the season, and hence without much of a base from which to sharpen. How could one go from no training to running a competitive mile in just a few weeks? It was through intense interval training. Interval training is the quickest and most effective route to successful racing performance, and is ideally commenced after a substantial build up of base mileage.
In those days, Wes Santee was the premier American miler, and the coach would put us through what he called “The Wes Santee Workout.” It was excruciating and often caused shin splints and other miscellaneous aches and pains. For those of you who are curious as to what comprised the workout, it was as follows:
A Two (2) mile warm-up followed by stretching
Seven (7) 440 yard dashes at a pace dictated by the coach
Seven (7) 220 yard dashes at a pace dictated by the coach
A one (1) mile time trial
A two (2) mile warm down
The rest intervals were quite short and it was often rather difficult to hold down any food that might be on one’s stomach. I sometimes found myself kneeling and retching in the showers after the workout. If one survived, it worked great! I was personally able to run a PR of 4:36 for the mile running only briefly before and during the track season. In later years, I coached runners and interval training was a very important part of their training whether they were preparing for a mile track race or a marathon.
To achieve your full potential as a cyclist (or runner), proper interval training is a must addition to your training regimen. I incorporate regular interval training into my peaking routine, which I do for the last 6-8 weeks leading up to a very important competition. I will write about peaking in my next article.
Most athletes appreciate that interval training enhances one’s VO2max (the ability to consume and utilize oxygen) and lactate threshold (the exercise intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood stream); however, many athletes are not aware of the importance of training one’s nervous system for racing. Racing a time trial to one’s maximum potential can be quite a shock to the nervous system, and if you are not used to training intensely (interval training), the body will balk when you ask it to perform to maximal efforts in a race.
In summary, interval training improves your ability to consume oxygen, allows you to race at a more intense level before the body is negatively affected by lactic acid, and prepares your nervous system for the rigors of high level racing.
I’m going to share with you my favorite cycling interval training routine – it is simple, but incredibly effective. The workout has enabled me to break the 5K, 10K, and 20K Florida state time trial records in my age group. As an aside, a recent study showed short intervals to be not only an effective training regimen for short time trial racing (5K & 10K), but was also shown to be very effective for longer time trial races such as the 40 kilometer distance.
The workout is as follows:
- A one (1) hour warm-up
- Six (6), one-half (½ mile intervals
- One (1) hour warm down.
The “warm-up” is the same one that I use when I am going to race a time trial:
The warm-up takes approximately one hour. Spin at an easy to moderate pace for the first 30 minutes. During the second 30 minutes, commence brief pick-ups (increases in speed and intensity of riding) at planned race pace starting with 30 second pickups, followed by easy spinning for a few minutes, and work up to 1 minute pick-ups at race pace. Finally, I do a couple of 15 second sprints at a few mph above proposed race pace. You want to feel some lactic acid build-up in your legs, which you will dissipate between pick-up efforts.
An interesting demonstration as to how important the lactic acid generating pickups are is as follows: The next time you are warming up for a fast club ride, do a couple of pick-ups that generate some lactic acid build-up in your legs. You will probably note that on about the third one, you will no longer feel any lactic acid for the same effort. If you race or do a fast club ride without doing this in advance, you will undoubtedly experience discomfort early on due to lactic acid build-up, which would be alleviated by dissipating the lactic acid through the pick-ups during the warm-up.
The intervals are accomplished at a speed of 5-10% faster than proposed race pace. If for example you are training to do a time trial averaging a pace of 25 mph, do your intervals at 26.25 to 27.5 mph.
Another important consideration of interval training is your “rest interval.” In your first couple of interval sessions, I suggest that you allow yourself to feel “reasonably recovered” prior to commencing your next interval. I utilize a heart rate monitor, and I feel fully recovered when my heart rate reaches 120 or lower. As you continue the peaking process, it is important to shorten the recovery interval to more replicate a race situation.
I do intervals on a roadway that runs North and South and typically the wind is either from the North or South. As the weeks of intervals accumulate, my typical rest interval becomes just the time it takes me to slow my bike, make a U-turn and get back to the starting point (the ending point for the previous interval) for the next interval. That is often under 30 seconds between intervals. The key concept is that you don’t want to feel recovered when you start your next interval which leads to a better training effect.
Some trainees are tempted to do their intervals only downwind because they feel so much better. Don’t fall into that trap. It is important to do intervals into the wind – some of my most important time trial events have been on very windy days where the first half of the race was into the wind. Train for the wind!
Many trainees have a tendency to start slowing as they approach the finish point of the interval. It will be often be quite painful, especially in your last couple of intervals, to hold your planned speed as you approach the end, but at that point you must fight to hold your pace until you are completely through the finish point.
In an earlier article I mentioned that we are each an experiment of one. As you get closer to your maximum peak, you might want to experiment with doing a second set of intervals in the last couple of weeks of your peaking process. If you decide to try a second set, spin easily for approximately 15 minutes after completing the first set, and then start the second set of 6 intervals. If you find that you cannot complete any of the intervals with good form, or hold your target speed to the end of the interval, stop the workout and do your warm down. Train for success – not failure. Two sets of intervals makes for a very challenging workout. It does however toughen you both physically and mentally – both vital for successful time trialing!
Finally, do a warm down ride of ideally an hour of easy spinning.
Remember that interval training is training for racing. Be aware of your form during the intervals. It is very easy to break form during the latter stages of a painful interval. During the interval, check your position on the bike. Your grip should be relaxed, your knees should be close to the top tube, your face should be relaxed (the pain notwithstanding), your pedal stroke should be smooth and symmetrical (not mashing down on the pedals), and you should be breathing properly. A good technique utilized by some top riders to achieve their optimal aerodynamic position is to imagine trying to touch the top tube of the bicycle with your belly. Do not get in the habit of looking down as you tire during the interval – even the pros fall victim to that bad habit. If you do, you will be sticking the point of a large aero helmet into the airstream – not a good idea!
Finally, you might try a technique given to me by an ex cycling Olympian. Pick an object down the road such as a sign and imagine that it is a large magnet pulling you towards it.
I would like to comment briefly on proper breathing. I’m sure most of you are aware of the fact that the most efficient breathing method is belly breathing – not chest breathing. With belly breathing, your belly rather than your chest is what rises. It is the most efficient means of taking in maximum oxygen utilizing the fewest muscles. The more muscles you use, the more oxygen you needlessly consume, and the harder your heart has to work.
When I commence my interval training in my peaking process, I do one session per week, and as I get closer to the event for which I am peaking, I do two sessions per week. Remember that improvement is made during your rest (recovery) days when the body compensates for the stress to which you have subjected it – not your work days. If you don’t rest, you simply do not improve. It is vital, especially for the Masters athlete, that an interval session be followed by either a complete day off the bike or my favorite approach of active rest – an easy spin day. My rest-day is typically two and one-half hours of easy spinning. I find that my body actually feels better the day after an active rest day rather than a full day off the bike. Discover what works best for you.
In summary, interval training is one of the most effective ways to train for racing. Do them during the peaking process the few weeks prior to the time you want to reach maximum form. Do them once or twice a week with adequate warm up and warm down. Do them with proper form, and finally, have an adequate rest day the day after your interval session.
Finally, when you have a planned interval training day, as the Nike slogan says, “Just Do It!” It is very easy to talk one’s self out of a session of difficult intervals. If you allow yourself to miss a planned interval workout, it will be easier to talk yourself into slowing down during a time trial competition.