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Riding fast to get fast

Tour De France 2013, stage 16. Just a nice picture until I can find one of someone throwing up after an interval.

Riding fast to get fast 04/02 2014 by Pieter Van Pietersen

If you want to get faster and win races, then you need to be spending 20% of your training time riding HARD INTERVALS. These High Intensity Intervals are the intervals that the pros use to increase heart volume and stroke, boost mitochondria, burn fat and turn you into a winning machine.

Properly executed, the intervals here will transform your ability. Be prepared to enter the red zone and snap the needle off the dial. It'll all be worth it as you'll be taking home the flowers.

Find out how.

In this article I talked about riding slow to go fast. Riding in zones 1 and 2 should make up about 80% of your weekly training time. (To figure out your zones, such as endurance, threshold, VO2 and maximum, look here at my article about finding your zone.)

However, the other 20% of your time should be spent doing 'balls out' intervals. If you want to ride fast then you have to do some FAST riding.

You should avoid riding in the 'middle zone' which is the zone between zone 2 (easy pace) and your threshold (FTP or 40km time trial pace). That middle zone is not hard enough to illicit a training response but is hard enough to wear you out.

Training 80/20 like this is referred to as polarized training, in that you are either riding easy (80%) or hard (20%).

If you have been doing too much moderate/middle zone training, then you will tend to feel too tired to ride flat out on interval days. When you're too tired you'll end up doing more moderate training. You need to be fresh for the intervals so you can ride to your absolute maximum, as that will bring you the gains.

What you'll need for the job
A powermeter is very useful for these intervals. Threshold and VO2 intervals are difficult to ride by feel alone. You can ride the HIIT intervals at simply 100%, but it is encouraging to see your progress.

If you've just got a powermeter, or are thinking about getting one, then this is the best book about how to use it: Training and Racing with a Power Meter via Amazon.

A turbo is useful for threshold and VO2 intervals, mainly as it will prevent interruptions from traffic, hills and corners. For example, near a city it is rare to find a stretch of road where you can ride for 20 minutes without a traffic light or junction.

What intervals should I do?
You need to be riding at or above your threshold power (FTP) to bring about the desired training adaptions.

There are three main types of hard intervals: Threshold, VO2 and HIIT. These are described below.

1) Threshold intervals
The typical threshold interval is the '2 x 20' or '4 x 12'.
As stated above, these intervals are good to do on the turbo as there won't be any interruptions.

First warm up for 20-30 minutes with some steady riding. As you begin to sweat and get into the zone, increase the wattage for a minute here and there to get used to the required effort level.

Then ride 20 minutes at your threshold power, FTP. Your heart rate will probably rise quickly in the first minute or two, then will steadily climb over the next 15 minutes before plateauing at your threshold.

Take a 5 minute break, drink, pedal softly, wipe away your sweat, then do a second 20 minutes. Quite often the second 20 minutes feels easier than the first. Your HR will rise quickly to your threshold as you are already warmed up. The last 5 minutes of that effort usually requires quite a bit of concentration i.e. it will hurt!

Concentrate on exhaling fully, keep breathing controlled, keep looking at the watch. Music usually helps for these sorts of efforts. You will become an expert in calculating how much time remains.

Cool down by pedaling easily for 10 minutes and drink water.

The threshold workout should help you to maintain a high cruising speed and will help to gradually raise your threshold. You will need to do some VO2 intervals too, however, as this workout alone won't let you reach your potential.

The session usually feels hard, but not excruciating. It is fairly enjoyable as far as training goes. Your legs will feel weak walking up stairs afterwards.

It isn't as demanding as the other two workouts listed below, so you can still do it the day before a non-important race and your legs will still work fine.

If you only do VO2 and HIIT intervals, I find that threshold power seems to drop. Doing this workout once a week keeps threshold maintained.

It is suggested by Hunter Allen to build up to 3 x 20. I personally find this too much and think 2 x 20 is enough.

2) VO2 intervals
These intervals are very hard, so you need to be adequately rested before doing them. Don't do them less than 2 days before a race, as they take a bit of the fizz out of your legs.

Again, the turbo is the ideal place as you can control your wattage accurately and won't be interrupted mid-interval.

Start with a solid warm up of 30 minutes. You need at least 30 minutes and you need to be sweating, as you are about to smash yourself. Once you've done these intervals once, you'll probably start getting nervous during your warm up as you'll know what pain is to come.

The VO2 Intervals
Three sets of: 5 minutes, 3 mins, 2mins, 3mins.
Intensity: Zone 5 - VO2 - 105-120% Threshold power (See here for zones)
Rest between intervals: 1 min.
Rest between sets: 5 mins.
Number of sets: 3

You'll be doing well to complete 2 sets at first. Perhaps you can build to 3 sets after a month.

For each interval, start very hard, i.e. 130% of your threshold power for 30 seconds or more if you can handle it. After that, throttle back to around 120% of your threshold and hold it there. Between each interval, take only a 1 minute break. Between sets, take a 5 minute break.

After interval one, you'll be pretty cross-eyed and breathing air like a steam train. 1 minute doesn't take long to pass, then you're on to the next interval. You should be able to produce more power as it is only a 3 minute interval (10-20W more power is expected)

You should be able to produce even more power for the 2 minute interval (again, 10-20W more than the 3 min interval).

The seconds will tick by very slowly. Your breathing will be loud. You will want to give up. If you do, you might find that reason returns after 10 seconds, so try to get back on the interval. It is better than stopping the session altogether. Everyone has weak moments, so just try as hard as you can. your goal next time will be to continue pedaling through the entire interval.

With the final 3 minute interval it is just a case of trying to hang on, but you should be able to replicate the power of the previous 3 minute interval.

After 5 (to ten) minutes' rest, repeat the set. Don't feel bad if you can't complete the third set. When you are cooked you are cooked! Warm down and go home.

This workout gets results. I find it really helps for breakaway efforts, which do usually last less than 5 minutes. Once the break is established, you can recover, so only a few minutes is all that is needed.

This will raise you threshold power when used in combination with the 2 x 20 above. Work on one, then after a few weeks, work on the other. Alternate to keep your body challenged.

It is important not to do this workout more than once a week if racing, or twice a week if not racing. More than that will burn you out. After an initial increase in fitness lasting a month you'll hit empty tank, and it'll take a whole month of easy riding to recover.

This workout is great for bringing you to a peak, so in your off season you can do it fewer times, perhaps not at all, and with about 4-6 weeks before your 'A' race, you can do it more, perhaps twice a week.

This workout is a weapon, but use it wisely as it can easily invoke sickness.

3) HIIT High Intensity Interval Training
A lot has been written about HIIT intervals. They have been touted as the new way to get fit in only a few minutes per day.

The original founder was Izumi Tabata, who recommended 20 seconds flat out followed by 10 seconds rest for 4 minutes, 4 times per week. Note that in his study, the guys doing the long hours ended up with a higher VO2 than the HIIT group. Also note that the gains won't continue forever. You can't ignore the need to put in long hours of riding.

HIIT essentially consists of intervals of less than one minute ridden at 100% effort.
There are various regimes, and I will describe ones I have used below.

The 30-20-10 training session
These are very short intervals that need to be ridden at maximum power.

They are best done on the road, up a slight incline. You can attain a higher power output on the road, and you'll learn some bike handling too. Your bike's frame will be less stressed if it isn't attached to a turbo.

It is a great idea to train on your local race circuit, so you can visualize winning there and really learn all the lumps and bumps of the track. Concentrate on keeping the back wheel on the ground, staying low and aerodynamic over the bars, not bouncing, sprinting around corners, which gear to be in to start the sprint, changing gear mid sprint and lunging for the line. You won't learn any of that on the turbo.

Don't forget that training with someone else makes you push yourself harder, so you might want to sprint with a friend.

As always, start with a solid warm up of about 30 minutes. You'll be riding flat out here, with long recovery periods, so leg and arm warmers are a good idea unless it is really warm.

Shift into the big ring and then hit it for 30 seconds. The first 10 seconds should be out of the saddle, then you can sit down and might need to shift up. For the last 5 seconds, get out of the saddle and drive hard for the line. You should average something like 600-800W for the 30 seconds, peaking at over 1000W.

Pedal gently for 4 mins 30 seconds (5 minutes total for the interval). Let your breathing return to normal then repeat.

After 3 intervals of 30 seconds, do 3 at 20 seconds with 4mins 40s recovery, then 3 at 10 seconds with 4mins 50s recovery.

The 30-20-10 miracle intervals

3 x 30 seconds, 4.30 recovery
3 x 20 seconds, 4.40 recovery
3 x 10 seconds, 4.50 recovery
Warm down

Intensity: Zone 6 - Sprint - (See here for zones)

You can also mix up the intervals, e.g 30-20-10, 30-20-10, 30-20-10 etc. but I find that it is best to get the 30s intervals out of the way as soon as possible as they are tough.

At the end of the workout your legs will feel fairly weakened, but not destroyed. You could tack on an additional hour or two of endurance work if you have time, but it isn't necessary.

This workout only needs to be done once a week if you are racing, or twice a week if not. It can get a little bit dull, but training isn't really that fun. What's fun is riding flat out with a group and dropping them, but that'll come later.

Ask yourself when was the last time you trained maximal sprints like this? Efforts like these are what win races.

Effects of these intervals
What did these intervals do for me? Over a 2 month period I increased my power as follows:
Maximum power: 1000W > 1200W, 20% improvement
20 second power: 690W > 790W, 14% improvement
30 second power: 590W > 720W, 22% improvement
Threshold: No change
Race wins: 8
Podiums: 5
I had not won a race for over 5 years prior to that.

I found that I was much more able to respond to accelerations in the bunch and deal with the frantic last 3 minutes of a race.

After 2 months, my performance began to plateau, so I put more emphasis on threshold training. The gains won't carry on forever, so you need to change stress on the body to keep it challenged. But if you want to get 20% better in 2 months then this could be the answer.

Researchers are finding that HIIT intervals increase power at all levels - endurance, threshold, VO2 and sprint. The thinking is that these intervals stimulate an increase in size and number of mitochondria, which are the power plants of the cells.

The training is actually a potent aerobic exercise, even though it may appear to be a sprint workout.

The beauty of these intervals is that they won't leave you drained and exhausted in the way that a hard 1 hour group ride will do. Your legs will recover after 24-36 hours and you'll be ready to ride hard again.

I repeat: once a week is enough if racing. You would probably get better gains by doing two workouts per week, as you are more likely to reach your limits in the workouts than in a race where you may be riding tactically.

It is tempting to think that doing more will yield better results, but it is vital to factor in rest and recovery to allow inflammation and hormone levels to return to normal. If you do not, you will burn yourself out. Every endurance athlete has done it, and it is a skill to be patient and rest when your schedule says to do more.

Alternative HIIT protocols
It is worth taking a look at some alternative HIIT protocols. In a nutshell, they all seem to work.

You will keep improving until you reach your genetic potential. The only way to keep improving from there is to take drugs, which isn't advocated. For example, testosterone has been shown to increase mitochondria size and numbers, and the effect persists for many years after the T intake has stopped. Some are using this information to advocate 10 year bans for dopers.

One minute HIIT
A typical HIIT regime is 1 minute flat out with 3-5 minutes' rest. These intervals are really hard, and I find that I can only manage about 5-6 of them before power starts to drop off.

You can go very deep in a minute, and they seem to take quite a toll. I pick up a cold/ sore throat after about 4 weeks of doing these. I would recommend being careful with their usage. It appears that similar gains can be achieved with the 30-20-10 protocol, with less metabolic cost and pain.

The Vaughters Interval
This was advocated by Jonathan Vaughters as an effective pro training technique that will make you vomit. It appears to be a fairly standard HIIT type workout.

The Vaughters Chunder Interval

Start with a 30 minute warm up. Find an empty stretch of road where you can ride uninterrupted for 10 minutes. Then repeat 10 seconds flat out with 20 seconds rest. Do 20 reps, i.e. 10 minutes. The sprint sections should be at 600-1000W, and the rest periods should be at about 200W, i.e. keep pedaling ... somehow.

You will be breathing hard from the first interval. After 3 minutes you'll start thinking about giving up. Just ignore your body and keep sprinting. There's a good chance you won't be maintaining 200W between sprints, but try to at least keep your legs going around rather than freewheeling.

The workout does seem to mimic a tough crit race and no doubt elicits a similar response as all the other HIIT regimes described on this page.

The Ultimate Interval
Paul Laursen designed this interval which essentially involves riding flat out for about 3 minutes, then resting for 6 minutes.

The Ultimate Interval

1. Do a ramp test to find out your maximum power. You will need a turbo and a power meter. Start at 100W, then increase the power by 30W each minute until you pop. The Watts you produce just before popping is your Peak Power Output (PPO).

2. After a couple days' rest, warm up then ride at your PPO until you cannot do it any longer. Typically that's 4-6 minutes. That time is called your TMAX.

With your PPO and TMAX scores you can now do the following intervals:
1) Warm up, as with all other regimes.

2) Ride at your PPO for 0.6 times you TMAX score.
For example, 400W for 3 minutes.

3) Rest for two times your TMAX score.
For example, rest for 6 minutes. That will mean gentle pedaling.

4) Repeat 8 times, although 6 appears to be the maximum that most people can handle before passing out.
6 intervals will still take about an hour to complete, so if you include a warm up and cool down, it is a decent workout.

5) Cool down.

Other HIIT protocols for trained cyclists
Lindsay, Hawley, Myburgh Improved athletic performance in highly trained cyclists after interval training
Work duration 5 minutes, flat out
Rest 1 minute
Reps 6-8
Frequency once a week

Results: 20% increase in VO2 max, threshold up 8%

Westgarth-Taylor, Hawley, Rickard Metabolic and performance adaptations to interval training in endurance trained cyclists
Work duration 5 minutes, flat out
Rest 1 minute
Reps 6-9
Results: 12% increase in Threshold power
Frequency twice a week

Laursen, Shing, Peake, Coombes, JenkinsInterval training Optimization
Work duration 30 seconds flat out
Rest 4.5 minutes
Reps 12
Results: VO2 max up 10%, 4% increase in 40km TT speed
Frequency twice a week

Laursen, Blanchard, Jenkins Acute high-intensity interval training improves Tvent and peak power output in highly trained males
Work duration 1 minute flat out
Rest 2 minutes
Reps 20
Results: VO2 max up 2%, 8% increase in threshold
Frequency twice a week

If you are new to cycling, then any sort of cycling (long rides, bunch rides) will improve your performance.

If you have already been training for a few years, then only high intensity work will provide the sort of stimulus you need to improve. It is painful, but it works. More volume just won't give you any more benefits.

At some point you will reach your genetic potential. Unless you take drugs, that's as good as you'll get, but don't despair, everyone can win races, they just might not be pro races.

Do not overdo these intervals - twice a week is enough. Doing more won't make you get fitter faster, as the body can only adapt at its own rate. There's no need to do too many intervals either. 6-9 is enough for most of the regimes.

If you do too much HIIT (or similar regimes like crossfit) then you will eventually experience adrenal fatigue. You'll be cooked and need a month off to recover.

The main point is to do some flat out, vision burring, brain scrambling intervals once or twice a week. Whether you do 30 second intervals with long recovery or 5 minute intervals with short recovery, just do them if you want to get fit fast and win races.

Nice article about building mitochondria through HIIT <- aimed at triathletes.

Linear increase in aerobic power induced by a strenuous program of endurance exercise

The original Tabata interval. Effects of moderate intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity

Recommended reading: (links to books in Amazon)

Training and Racing with a Power Meter This is a really useful book about training with power. I feel that the training loads can be a little bit too hard to handle, but everyone can handle different loads, so you need to find out for yourself.

Cutting-Edge Cycling This is a really good book coving a lot of topics of Training and Racing with a Powermeter, but adding more information around the subject, such as aerodynamics and diet. Easy to read and worth having on your bookshelf.

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