Short, interval sessions to improve fitness

By Ric Stern*

The end of the season approaches, and maybe you need to boost your fitness level? That'd be good, wouldn't it? Fear not, here is an excellent performance booster that can help all riders improve, be it roadies, time trialists wanting a new PB, or just to help you ride further, faster. Outlined is a training session to help you improve.

One of the core sessions that I have my riders do is a simple, short, moderately intense, interval session. The session works equally well for the professional's that I train, through to 5th category riders. The absolute intensity is different, but the principle remains the same.

What's involved?

The session is slightly different depending on whether you have a power meter (e.g., SRM cranks, Power-Tap hub, Computrainer, etc.) or a HRM, and revolves around results from either a (recent) 10-mile TT (~ 20 - 30 minute TT), or a maximal aerobic power test (see below).

Depending on what you're trying to target the session can be completed indoors on a trainer, outside on flat roads, or up a steady climb.

The session should be completed on your main race bike. If you mainly do TT's then complete the session on that bike, using your aero-bars. If you're a roadie then use your race bike. However, there's no need to use your race wheels/tires. The session can easily be modified for MTBers, and trackies, etc.

Having previously selected the modality of the intervals (e.g., indoors, outdoors, etc.), start the session with a good warm up, around 20 minutes, gradually upping the intensity, as if you were warming up for a race.


If you have a power meter, such as the Power-Tap hub, bring the power up to 105% of 10-mile TT power output (e.g., if you average 300 W for a '10', then target power is 315 W). Ensure that cadence is moderately high, 95 - 105 rpm, and hold this target effort for 4 minutes. Typically, most people report that the first minute feels 'easy', the second 'moderate', and the final minute 'very hard'. At the completion of the first 4 minutes, switch to an easy gear on your small chainring, and spin at 80 - 100 rpm for 1 - 5 minutes, to ensure full recovery.

The recovery period is dependent upon your fitness, and ability to recover. Try to ensure that each recovery period is the same duration. In subsequent sessions, you could lower the recovery time as your fitness improves.

Depending on your fitness the interval can be repeated two - seven times. Elite riders may be able to complete eight of these intervals, with a short (1 minute) recovery period between each one, whilst experienced master athletes may be able to complete four to six with a 4 minute recovery period.

Heart Rate

The principle of the intervals is the same with a HR monitor, i.e., just above 10-mile TT pace. However, as HR lags behind power output, it may take 60 - 90 seconds for HR to come up to slightly above race HR level.

Depending on the training methodology that you adhere to the likely HR zone for these intervals is going to be around Zone 5b (US), or the upper half of Level 3 (UK). The time for these intervals starts when you accelerate to the desired range, NOT when your HR gets to (e.g.) Zone 5b. You'll likely find that HR will get to the 'correct' zone at a faster rate on each subsequent interval, and may peak at higher levels.

Your perceived effort during the intervals should be just above that felt during a 10-mile TT, breathing will be hard, and rapid, and talking should be impossible! Out on the road, you should find that speed during the interval is ~ 0.5 mph faster than during the average of a 10-mile TT. However, this will be highly dependent upon the environmental, and topographical conditions being the same as during a race.

How many, how often?

The number of intervals that you complete is going to be dependent upon your current fitness levels. Fourth, or fifth category riders may want to start with three intervals, and at least 5 minutes recovery between intervals. Elite riders will be able to complete more, and with a shorter recovery period.

The frequency of the session is once a week for less experienced riders. Professionals, or elite riders may increase the frequency to two to three times per week.

Recovery from this type of session can take 24 - 48 hours. Therefore, you may need to programme a relatively easy day after the interval session, this maybe an hour at a very moderate pace.

Each week you should endeavour to increase the number of intervals that you can achieve by one, so that over a three-week period you may go from (e.g.) 4 to 6.

At the end of a three-week period most people programme in a rest/recovery week. When you start up again with these intervals they may need to be carried out at a slightly higher level (as you will have improved). Also, as your fitness increases the recovery period may also come down.

Good luck with these intervals, and enjoy your new fitness level.

Maximal Aerobic Power Test

For the riders who I test, I use a 15 - 25 watts per minute ramp rate depending on gender, and fitness level; women 15 wpm, elite males 20 wpm, non-elite males 25 wpm. Starting power is dependent on fitness, but a 3rd category rider may start at ~ 150W. The test is a continuous, ramp, type test, and continues until the rider can no longer keep at the correct power. I then average the final minute of the test, termed maximal aerobic power - MAP. These intervals can then be performed at 78 - 84 % of MAP, depending on ability, and fitness (an already excellent TTist may perform these at a higher level than a 'pure' roadie).

Physiologically speaking, this session improves VO2 max, maximal aerobic power output, and the relative, and absolute percentage of MAP that you can sustain for around a 1 hour time trial.

The above test and intervals should only be carried out by people who are physically fit, are not ill, or have a medical condition. If you are in any doubt about your suitability to perform these intervals then please speak to your health care provider in the first instance.

Richard Stern is a cycle trainer, Sports Scientist, and writer, who has been professionally helping cyclists and triathletes for over 3 years. He has helped riders to national and international success in time trials, road racing, track racing, cross-country and downhill mountain biking. His research has been published in the Canadian Journal of Physiology, and has had articles in Cycling Weekly, The Independent, and other media.

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