Interval training refers to workouts designed to improve your cycling performance. It involves alternating periods of high intensity with low intensity during one ride. The theory behind interval training for cyclists is that it will allow your body to learn how to ride faster (or, technically, with more wattage output) while giving time to recover in between. Eventually, your body teaches itself how to do each interval at a faster speed (higher watts) or for a longer time.
- Interval training improves cycling performance by alternating high and low intensity
- Interval training can be high or low-intensity, and each session has a specific purpose
- Interval training produces significant results, including improved cardiovascular fitness, increased power and speed, fat loss, and time efficiency
- Interval training can be done indoors or outdoors, and there are many online resources available
- Interval training requires a solid base, and it’s not for everyone
Interval training differs from “flat-out” efforts in that interval training tends to be more structured and designed to see specific improvements in performance. With that being said, interval training can be high intensity (known as ‘HIIT’ – high-intensity interval training) or lower intensity strength building – in a cycling context, this might mean intervals of riding a high gear and low cadence, for example. Each session should have a reason for it, from improving your biking weaknesses to building your general cycling base fitness.
What is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a type of exercise that involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. The idea is to push your body to its limit for short periods of time, then allow it to recover before repeating the cycle.
Typically, a HIIT workout involves a warm-up period, followed by several rounds of high-intensity exercise (such as sprinting or jumping jacks) for a set amount of time, followed by a rest period or low-intensity exercise (such as jogging or walking) for a set amount of time. The rounds are usually repeated for a total workout of 20-30 minutes.
One of the benefits of HIIT is that it can be a time-efficient way to get a full-body workout. Additionally, studies have shown that HIIT can help increase cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and improve insulin sensitivity. However, it is important to note that HIIT can be very intense and may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with certain medical conditions or new to exercise. It is always important to consult with a medical professional before starting any new exercise routine.
The Science behind interval training
Does interval training work for cyclists? We took a look at the science, and the findings were overwhelming.
Analysis of this in-depth Sports Medicine study findings demonstrates that relatively brief but intense sprint training enhances both the glycolytic and oxidative enzyme activity, short-term Wpeak, VO2max, lactate threshold, and 40km cycling TT performance .
This study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal  found that mixing one to two HIIT sessions into the weekly training program will stimulate additional physiologic adaptations, provide training variety, and add fun to the workout.
And plenty of other well-respected peer-reviewed journal articles talk about the benefits of interval training for cyclists, and zero (that I could find) that conclude the opposite. But is it that simple? Are there ‘real world’ negatives the academics may have missed? Well, it turns out it is that simple. Interval training works. It’s hard work but like most things in life: hard work pays off.
How Interval Training Works
Interval training works by alternating periods of high-intensity exercise with rest or low-intensity exercise periods. The high-intensity periods are designed to push your body to its limit and improve your cardiovascular fitness, while the rest periods allow your body to recover and prepare for the next round of high-intensity exercise.
During high-intensity periods, your body relies on anaerobic metabolism to generate energy, which means it uses energy sources stored within the muscles rather than oxygen from the bloodstream. This type of energy production can only be sustained for short periods of time, which is why the high-intensity periods are typically kept relatively brief.
During the rest or low-intensity periods, your body switches back to aerobic metabolism, which means it uses oxygen from the bloodstream to generate energy. This allows your body to recover and replenish its energy stores in preparation for the next round of high-intensity exercise.
Over time, interval training can help improve your cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and insulin sensitivity. Additionally, because the workouts are typically short and intense, they can be a time-efficient way to get a full-body workout.
Indoors or outdoors?
Interval training can be done both outdoors or with an indoor trainer. If performing intervals during an outdoor session, a consistent terrain is preferred – flat roads or a long gradual climb are most common.
Doing the session indoors is best to do it in conjunction with an online training platform like Zwift, TrainerRoad, etc.
What are the Benefits and Cons of Interval Training?
Interval training has numerous benefits, which is why it has become such a popular form of exercise in recent years. One of the biggest benefits of interval training is that it is a time-efficient way to get a full-body workout. Because the workouts are typically short and intense, you can get the same benefits in 20-30 minutes that you might get from a longer, more moderate workout. This makes it easier to fit exercise into a busy schedule.
Interval training has also been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and improve insulin sensitivity. This is because the high-intensity intervals challenge your body and force it to adapt and improve. Additionally, interval training can be fun and engaging, as you can mix up the exercises and vary the intensity to keep things interesting.
However, there are also some potential drawbacks to interval training. Because it is a high-intensity form of exercise, it may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with certain medical conditions or new to exercise. Additionally, interval training can be very demanding on your body, and it is important to allow for adequate rest and recovery time between workouts.
Finally, because interval training can be so intense, it may be difficult to maintain a consistent workout routine over the long term, particularly if you are prone to injury or burnout.
How to Incorporate Intervals Training in Cycling to Improve Your Performance
Interval training is a great way to improve your cycling performance. Start by warming up for 10-15 minutes, then alternate between high-intensity efforts of 1-3 minutes and lower-intensity recovery periods of equal or longer duration.
Repeat this cycle for several sets, gradually increasing the number of sets and/or the duration of the high-intensity efforts as you become fitter. It’s important to listen to your body and adjust the intensity and duration of your intervals based on your fitness level and training goals. Incorporating interval training into your cycling routine can help you build endurance, increase your speed, and improve your overall performance on the bike.
What does interval training look like for cyclists?
A single interval training session is almost unlimited in how it could be designed. Let’s take a look at some common examples.
Sprint interval training
Short intervals are great for sprints. Anything up to 30 seconds per effort focuses on short bursts to increase top-end speed.
Strength Endurance (SE) efforts
Every cyclist wants to become stronger, and SE intervals are designed for that. Classically each SE effort will have the biker pedaling at a relatively slow cadence – around 50-70rpm – but in a high gear. The benefits of SE are big: From helping with muscle activation (switching your muscles on and sharpening up before a big event) to boosting threshold and leg power.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) workouts
Put as simply as possible, the FTP is how fast a biker can bike for 60 continuous minutes. For many bikers, raising their FTP is the holy grail – the purpose of interval training (indeed of all training!). A good FTP will improve nearly all aspects of biking, including sprinting, climbing, and time-trialing.
Interval workouts designed specifically to improve a biker’s FTP have become popular accordingly, and with good reason – if you want to become a faster biker, FTP intervals work.
Best Examples of HIIT Workouts for Cyclists
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way for cyclists to improve their performance by pushing their bodies to their limits in short bursts. Here are some examples of HIIT workouts for cyclists:
- Tabata intervals: Alternate 20 seconds of all-out effort with 10 seconds of rest for eight rounds.
- Hill repeats: Find a hill with a steady gradient and ride up it at a high intensity for 1-3 minutes, then recover on the descent. Repeat for several sets.
- Sprints: Choose a flat stretch of road and do several 10-20 second all-out sprints with recovery periods in between.
- Pyramid intervals: Start with a short, high-intensity effort, then gradually increase the duration of each effort until you reach a peak, then work your way back down to the shorter efforts.
- Fartlek training: involves alternating between high and low-intensity efforts with no set structure, such as sprinting to a landmark, then recovering until the next landmark. This type of training can be fun and adaptable to your surroundings.
It’s important to remember to warm up properly before starting any HIIT workout and gradually increase your efforts’ intensity and duration as you become fitter. Also, take sufficient rest and recovery periods between intervals to avoid overtraining and injury.
How often should cyclists do interval training sessions?
Interval training is not to be done every day; it quickly creates fatigue and, if done consistently without breaks, will wear you down, making you a slower, more tired biker. For this reason, interval sessions are best done at least once per week but no more than three times per week. This allows you time to enjoy your weekend endurance rides with your biker buddies and allows your body to improve in the process.
Two example HIIT workouts for cyclists
So you’re ready to dive right in and give interval training a go? Great. Let’s look at two examples of HIIT sessions you can do right now.
Matt Rowe’s HIIT pyramid
Matt Rowe’s HIIT pyramid is a high-intensity interval training workout designed for indoor cycling. It involves a series of intervals that progressively increase in duration and intensity, then scaling back in the opposite direction – if graphed on a screen, the series of intervals would look like a pyramid. The intensity levels for the base and pyramid phases should be challenging but not so intense that you cannot complete the intervals. Here’s how to do the workout:
- Warm-up: Begin with a 5-10 minute low to moderate intensity warm-up.
- Base phase: Increase the intensity to a challenging level that you can maintain for a sustained period, and cycle for 1 minute.
- Recovery: Reduce the intensity to an easy pace for 30 seconds.
- Intervals: Repeat the base phase and recovery phase, gradually increasing the duration of the base phase by 1 minute each time until you reach 5 minutes. Then, decrease the duration by 1 minute until you return to 1 minute.
- Recovery: After completing the intervals, take a 2-3 minute active recovery period by spinning at a low intensity.
- Pyramid phase: Repeat the intervals, increasing the intensity by one level (for example, from level 6 to level 7) for each base phase. The recovery phase remains at 30 seconds.
- Cool down: Finish with a 5 to 10-minute cooldown, spinning your legs down from the session.
Dr. David Nichols’ 5×5
Dr. David Nichols’ 5×5 is a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout designed to be completed in around an hour. It involves five sets of intervals for five minutes each, with five minutes in between. The goal is to increase your VO2 max, thereby improving your body’s aerobic engine. Here’s how to do the workout:
- Warm-up: Begin with a 5-10 minute low to moderate intensity warm-up.
- Interval: 5 minutes at VO2 max power (110–120% of FTP).
- Recovery: 5 minutes of easy spinning.
- Repeat: five times.
- Cool down: Finish with a 5 to 10-minute cooldown, spinning your legs down from the session.
The Results HIIT can Produce for Cyclists
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can produce significant results for cyclists in terms of performance and overall health. They include:
Improved cardiovascular fitness: HIIT can help to increase VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a person can consume during exercise). A cyclist’s VO2 max fuels their aerobic engine, allowing them to ride faster and longer.
Increased power and speed: Improving muscle strength and endurance help to increase a cyclist’s power and speed.
Fat loss: HIIT can also be an effective tool for fat loss. The high-intensity sessions can increase the body’s metabolic rate and stimulate the production of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps to burn fat and build lean muscle.
Time efficiency: Short on time? All cyclists know that feeling and HIIT workouts can be completed in a shorter time than traditional endurance training, making it a convenient option for cyclists who have commitments off the bike.
Should everyone do interval training?
No, interval training is not for everyone. It depends on where you are on your cycling journey. One of the crucial elements to successful interval training is having a solid base to build upon. Put frankly, base training means logging consistent miles and is a long-term commitment. The more years (and yes, I mean years) you’ve spent biking, the more solid your base is.
Without this base, you may fatigue too quickly, limiting any benefit gained from interval training, ultimately leading to burnout.
How can I find an interval training session for me?
Generally, cyclists who incorporate interval training into their rides fall into two categories: those who have a coach and follow their coach’s program and those who don’t.
The online platform may be known more for being a home spin class, but it has plenty of HIIT sessions built in. Most of these are around 30 minutes, so if Peloton is your jam, you have plenty of interval sessions ready to help get you started.
Designed as a game-play version of indoor training for cyclists, Zwift’s online platform has more than 1000 structured interval workouts for you to try. Easy to follow but challenging to do, Zwift workouts are a relatively fun way to begin interval training. That being said, there are plenty of criticisms of Zwift workout sessions – specifically that they mix and match too much in the pursuit of ‘fun’, rather than focusing on structured training. For that reason, Zwift suits a biker who likes to keep their training interesting and enjoys the gamification of riding indoors.
That said, Zwift also allows you to import or create your own interval sessions to combine the best of both worlds – structured intervals on the Zwift platform.
TrainerRoad is an online cycling training system designed to make you faster with science-based, goal-driven training. Appealing to bikers who take their cycling seriously, TrainerRoad will create a training plan with plenty of interval sessions to help you become a better cyclist. But it’s not just that simple. TrainerRoad uses machine learning called Adaptive Training, which uses AI to complement science-based coaching principles with your training data set to give you the right workout.
Hot tip: If you enjoy Zwift but equally enjoy the structure of TrainerRoad, you can use both simultaneously.
TrainerDay is a flexible and affordable way for performance cyclists to train indoors and outdoors. With more than 20,000 cycling workouts TrainerDay is the largest workout and training plan-sharing platform. Allow TrainerDay’s virtual Coach, Jack, to create the perfect training plan for you.
Likewise, TrainerRoad can also be used concurrently with other platforms, such as Zwift.
No, it’s not an online app. It’s just what it says it is: riding your bike outdoors. Using technology such as heart rate monitors and power meters, you can follow a structured interval program on the road using your bike computer as a reference.
For beginners, a stopwatch and an internal understanding of your perceived effort is a great way to start your first interval. More advanced bikers will look to keep an eye on their wattage output via their power meter, allowing them to analyze hard data in pursuit of their cycling improvements.
TrainingPeaks is a popular online software that helps analyze the data found in your training numbers and also allows you, or your coach, to create your own interval sessions.
Plethora of others
Aside from the above, plenty more options will do similar things: Bkool, FulGaz, Kinomap, Wahoo RGT, Rouvy, The Sufferfest, Tacx Training App, and Xert are some popular examples.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should everyone do interval training?
While interval training can offer many benefits, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Individuals with certain health conditions, such as heart disease, may need to avoid high-intensity exercise and should consult their doctor before starting any new exercise program. Similarly, beginners or individuals not accustomed to regular exercise may need to build up their fitness levels before incorporating interval training into their routine.
It’s also important to listen to your body and adjust the intensity and duration of your intervals based on your individual fitness level and goals. Overtraining can lead to injury or burnout, so balancing high-intensity training with adequate rest and recovery periods is important.
When Should You Include Interval Training?
Interval training can be valuable to any workout routine to improve cardiovascular endurance and overall fitness. It involves alternating between high-intensity exercises and periods of active recovery, which has been shown to enhance the body’s ability to use oxygen and improve athletic performance.
Interval training can also increase calorie burn, making it an effective way to lose weight or improve body composition. However, interval training can be challenging and should be incorporated gradually into a workout routine to avoid injury or overexertion. It’s essential to consult a healthcare provider before starting any new exercise regimen, including interval training.
Does cross-training help cyclists?
Yes, cross-training can benefit cyclists as it can help improve overall fitness and reduce the risk of injury. While cycling is an excellent cardiovascular workout that targets the lower body muscles, it can be a repetitive movement that may lead to overuse injuries or muscle imbalances.
Cross-training activities, such as strength training, yoga, swimming, or running, can help to target different muscle groups and improve overall endurance, flexibility, and balance.
Additionally, cross-training can help to prevent boredom and burnout that can come from solely cycling. By incorporating cross-training into their routine, cyclists can enhance their cycling performance, reduce the risk of injury, and maintain their fitness level during rest or injury recovery periods.
How long should intervals be in cycling?
The length of intervals in cycling can vary depending on the individual’s fitness level, goals, and specific training plan. However, a common interval duration for cycling is typically between 30 seconds to 5 minutes, followed by a period of active recovery, which can be anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes.
The intensity and frequency of the intervals can also vary, with some training programs incorporating longer intervals with lower intensity, while others may focus on shorter, high-intensity intervals. It’s essential to gradually increase the duration and intensity of intervals to avoid overexertion or injury.
It’s also recommended to consult a professional coach or trainer to create a personalized training plan considering individual fitness levels, goals, and schedules.
Do you have experience with cycling and intensive training? Have you noticed improved endurance, speed, or overall cycling performance? Or do you have any tips or advice for those looking to try this type of training for the first time?
Let us know in the comments! Your input can be invaluable to fellow cyclists looking to take their training to the next level.
- Sports Med 2005; 35 (4): 285-312 REVIEW ARTICLE 0112-1642/05/0004-0285/0
- Roy, Brad A. Ph.D., FACSM, FACHE. High-Intensity Interval Training: Efficient, Effective, and a Fun Way to Exercise. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 17(3):p 3, May/June 2013. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb21c