Training by intensity doesn’t mean hammering and painful intervals. Training by intensity simply means riding harder than you are used to riding in order to improve in a specific way, which range from increasing your endurance and cruising speed to having more power to achieving high performance.
Intensity training is like prescription medicine. If you take the right medicine you’ll get better. If you take the wrong medicine you won’t get better and you might even get worse! To get better you need to take the appropriate medicine in the proper doses at the correct times. If you take the appropriate medicine incorrectly, at best you won’t improve as much and you might even get worse.
This is the second of a two-part column. In last week’s column 6 Kinds of Intensity Training: Why One is Best for You I helped you decide which type of medicine (intensity training) is best to help you to achieve your personal objectives. In this column In I’ll teach you how to take the medicine (do intensity training) correctly so you improve.
The way to improve is to take the right medicine, to train at the right intensity. Last week I described the different training zones that I use, which range from Zone 1 (very easy) to sprints (maximum effort). I described them in terms of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), Heart Rate and Power.
How to Set Your Training Zones
Here are three ways of gauging effort. Each of the three works.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is the simplest and requires no equipment. You just listen to your body. Studies have shown that once you get used to RPE it is as effective as monitoring your heart rate in producing results. I use RPE. One year I coached two riders training for the Race Across AMerica. One used RPE and the other used heart rate. They finished fourth and fifth with close finishing times. To learn to train by RPE two different ways:
- You can learn to ride at a true conversational pace so you can talk comfortably. This is zone 2. You can learn to ride a little harder so you can still talk but can’t whistle. This is zone 3. You can then get a feel for the other zones relative to zones 2 and 3.
- You can learn to train in the different zones by heart rate and once you get a feel for the different zones you can put your HR monitor away and listen to your body.
Your maximum heart rate is determined by your age and genetics, not by your physical condition. Defining your exercise intensities based on your maximum heart rate would be like telling you what size shoes to wear based on your age and parents. Many bike computers calculate your max HR based on your age and then set training zones based on your assumed max HR.
Your Anaerobic Threshold (AT), also called lactate threshold, is also determined in part by your parents and age. However, AT is also a function of how fit you are. The fitter you are the harder you can ride before you start to ride anaerobically, i.e., ride without enough oxygen so that you start to produce significant amounts of lactic acid. Because your AT is based on your personal fitness you should define heart rate training zones relative to your AT.
Your AT is the heart rate you can sustain for a 1-hour time trial, but that’s a pretty painful test. Here’s a less painful test to estimate your AT. Your actual AT is about 95% of your average heart rate for a 20-minute time trial:
- Ride a 20-minute time trial solo rather than competing with anyone. If you ride it competitively, then your average heart rate for 20 minutes will be more than 95% of your average heart rate would be for an hour and your estimated AT and your training zones won’t be accurate.
- Do the test after a very easy week when you’ve only ridden a few hours so that you are fully recovered.
- Use a course that is flat or slightly uphill and will take you at least half an hour to ride going flat out. You use a course that takes longer than 20 minutes so that as your fitness improves you can repeat the test and go farther on the same course.
- Do the test on a calm day and at the time of day when your personal energy level is good.
- Warm up thoroughly for about half an hour at a brisk conversational pace.
- Start your computer and ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes.
- Try to pace yourself so that your effort is pretty constant for the full 20 minutes rather than starting out too fast and fading.
- You may need to repeat the time trial several times each time after an easy week to get an accurate average heart rate and AT.
Record how far you rode, your average speed and average heart rate. (If your heart rate monitor doesn’t calculate average heart rate just eyeball it.)
Your anaerobic threshold is about 95% of your average heart rate for the 20 minutes. To get your AT subtract 5% from your average heart rate for the time trial.
In addition to showing how hard you are working your heart rate can be affected by anxiety and other stresses in your life, how well you slept, the ambient temperature, how well hydrated you are, how much caffeine you’ve had and other factors.
When you use RPE or HR you are using the input to your muscles — your effort and blood supply — to gauge how hard you are working. With power you are gauging output — what your working muscles are producing.
To gauge intensity with a power meter you need to estimate your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Your FTP is the maximum average power you can sustain for an hour. An hour is a long test—here’s a common, shorter method:
Follow the same 8-step protocol as for anaerobic threshold time trial.
The time trial course can also be a hill climb. Many riders have a higher FTP climbing than on the flats so you may want to do both flat and climbing 20-minute tests. Then in training you can use zones based on your flat FTP for relatively flat intensity workouts and zones based on your climbing FTP for those climbing intensity workouts.
Record your Normalized Power (NP), average heart rate, distance and average speed. Average power is simply the arithmetic average of all your instantaneous power levels. NP takes into account the variability of your power output and is a more accurate measure of the metabolic cost. Your FTP is about 95% of your normalized power from a 20-minute time trial. To get your FTP subtract 5% from your NP.
Calculate Your Training Zones.
You can download a spreadsheet to calculate your own training zones by RPE, heart rate and power from my website.
Which one is right for you? If you ride for enjoyment and good health then RPE is the way to go. If you like to ride hard then either heart rate or RPE works. If you are training for high performance then use power.
Principles of Training
To improve you need to overload your body, ask it to do more than it’s used to doing. Then you need to allow time to recover, after which you are fitter. If you just do the same rides every week and don’t stress your body any differently, you don’t improve. To improve you need to increase one of these key factors at a time:
- Length of longest ride
- How often you ride
- How much you ride
- How hard you ride
Training includes recovery as well as progressive overload. Your body adapts to the overload during recovery, not during the overload itself. To increase the overload, follow these four principles:
- Increase just one type of overload at a time: longest ride, frequency, volume or intensity.
- Mix hard, moderate, easy and rest days each week.
- Progressively build your training for three to five weeks or alternate harder and easier weeks with each pair of weeks progressively harder. Then cut back for a recovery week before ramping up again.
- Every two to three months take a physical and mental break for a week. Do just a few hours of easy riding or walking the dog after dinner or hiking or playing catch with the kids.
As you add intensity to training you also need to train more responsibly. It’s essential to give your body time to rest, recover and grow stronger.
Hierarchy of Intensities
Unless you are a masochist and want to risk injury and overtraining, don’t jump right to training in zone 4 Sub-Threshold (Sub-Barf), zone 5 Super-Threshold (Barf) or zone 6 VO2 max (Eyeballs Out) intensities.
Top endurance riders spend about 75% of their training time riding at low intensity, 15 – 20% riding hard and not much time in between. They build a huge endurance base and so should you. If you only have time to do one kind of training then ride aerobically in zones 2 and 3. You should have several months of steady, conversational riding in zones 2 and 3 before you ratchet up the intensity at all, and then you should increase the intensities progressively.
Training at each intensity from the sweet spot through super-threshold builds the necessary fitness to handle the next level of intensity. You should train for a month or two in the sweet spot before stepping up to sub-threshold training. Then train there for four to six weeks before moving up to super-threshold efforts. Moving up a level of intensity is one way of increasing the overload. If you just do sweet spot training, at some point your fitness will plateau. To continue to improve you need to go harder.
As you add the different kinds of intensity workouts beyond endurance and tempo rides, do so in this order:
- Sprints. These will benefit roadies from health and fitness riders to racers and everyone in between. Sprinting increases the coordination of the firing of individual muscle fibers. This means you increase your pedaling economy without using more fuel or oxygen.
- Sweet Spot. Sweet spot training increases the power that your muscles can produce. Riding in the sweet spot overlaps the top of zone 3 brisk conversational riding and the lower part of zone 4 sub-threshold riding. The harder you ride, the more you overload your body, which stimulates more adaptation. However, the harder you ride, the more recovery you need both between hard efforts and between hard days. The need for more recovery limits the total volume of hard efforts you can do. The sweet spot is the range that balances intensity and recovery to produce the most total overload on your body.
- VO2 Max Zone 6. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your working muscles can utilize. Training to increase your VO2 max also increases your pedaling economy. VO2 max efforts are very tough mentally as well as physically. Be conservative.
- Sub-threshold Zone 4. Training just below your anaerobic threshold is the most direct way to increase your power after a period of sweet spot training. These efforts are tough on both your body and your mind.
- Super-threshold Zone 5. The physiological adaptations from riding this hard increase your tolerance for lactic acid as well as continuing to increase your power. These efforts are also very tough mentally as well as physically.
All roadies should do most of your riding in zones 1 to 3, active recovery, endurance and tempo rides. Depending on your goals you may want to add different types of intensity.
Health and fitness riders. In addition will benefit from sprints and VO2 max intervals; however, if you don’t want to do either of these—don’t!
Recreational and endurance riders. In addition you will also benefit from sprints, VO2 max intervals and sweet spot training; however, if you don’t want to push yourself that hard I won’t fault you.
Fast club riders and racers. In addition you will benefit from training at all five of the intensity levels above. However, if you don’t want to push all the way up to super-threshold, then don’t inflict the pain on yourself.
Rules for Intensity Training
Some riders like unstructured intensity rides—I do. I’m working on improving my cruising speed. This morning I rode a loop that starts with a gentle downhill to warm up. Right turn and the rolling hills start. I climbed each at brisk conversational pace. I could still talk easily but couldn’t whistle. Then I cooled down riding home. Other riders like more defined structured intervals. For example, warm up for at least 15 minutes in zones 2 and 3. For the main set repeat 3 to 5 times [5 minutes in the sweet spot and 3 minutes recovery]. Cool down for at least 15 minutes.
Both unstructured and structured intensity workouts work. Whether you do unstructured or structured intensity, follow these rules:
Always warm up before a main set of intensity and always cool down after.
Mix hard and easy riding during each main set.
Ride at the target intensity. You’ve planned a workout to have a certain training effect. If you go harder or easier then your efforts won’t bring about the specific physiological adaptations you are trying to achieve.
Start timing the interval when you start riding hard. RPE and power respond immediately to an increase in effort; however, your heart rate may lag the increase in intensity. Stop timing the interval when you stop pedaling hard; your heart rate may not fall immediately.
Always recover fully before the next hard effort unless you are training to hammer club rides or race.
Don’t struggle to maintain intensity. If you can’t stay in the intensity zone planned for the main set of a workout then just cool down and go home. Riding below the target intensity will just fatigue you without the intended training benefit. If you continue riding below the planned intensity, then you’ll just need more recovery time before an effective training session.
Build intensity appropriately during the main set rather than peaking early and then fading. For example, if you’re riding in the sweet spot up five hills try to pace yourself so that you’re putting in your best effort on the fourth or fifth hill rather than on the first and second.
Plan a range of efforts, for example, three to six repeats. The number you actually do should depend on how many quality repeats you can do at the planned intensity.
Stop with one more hard effort still in your legs. Always end the main set feeling like you could have done one more good effort.
Master the starting range of efforts before increasing the overload. For example, the starting range is 3 to 5 repeats of [6 to 8 minutes hard and 3 to 4 minutes recovery between each]. Start with 3 repeats of [6 minutes hard with 3 minutes of recovery]. Build up to doing 5 repeats of [6 minutes hard with 3 minutes of recovery]. Then start with 3 repeats of [7 minutes hard with 3-1/2 minutes recovery] and build up to 5 repeats. The start with 3 repeats of [8 minutes hard with 4 minutes recovery] and build up to 5 repeats Only then increase the overload by increasing the duration of the hard efforts or the intensity of the hard efforts.
Master the finishing range of efforts before stepping up to the next level of intensity. For example, by the end of your sweet spot training you should be able to do a total of 20 to 40 minutes (plus recovery) in the sweet spot. When you can do at least 20 minutes, then you may step up to sub-threshold training depending on your goals.
Increase overload by increasing just one of the following at a time:
- Increase the number of repeats.
- Increase the duration of the hard efforts.
- Reduce the recovery between hard efforts.
- Increase the intensity of the recovery breaks between hard efforts, still staying below the intensity of the hard efforts.
- Step up to the next level of intensity. When you increase the intensity, start with shorter and / or fewer intensity efforts and build back up.
The harder the effort, the shorter the duration. Sweet spot efforts are the longest, sub-threshold are shorter and super-threshold are even shorter. VO2 max are very short and sprints are the shortest.
The harder the intensity, the more days of recovery you need between sessions. You may do two days of tempo workouts in a row if you can do a quality workout the second day. Allow at least one recovery day between sweet spot workouts and at least two days between sub-threshold, super-threshold, VO2 max and sprint workouts.
Gauging Progress of Your Intensity Training
Whether you use RPE, a heart rate monitor or a power meter to gauge intensity, repeating your baseline time trial every four to six weeks on the same course under the same conditions is a good idea. If your time is improves then your power and pedaling economy are improving.
RPE. If you are using RPE, as you get faster your power is increasing and you will ride faster at the same perceived effort.
Heart Rate. If you are using a heart rate monitor your average heart rate for the time trial may go up. This means that your anaerobic threshold is increasing, that you can put out more power and go faster before you start to accumulate significant amounts of lactic acid in your blood. If your AT goes up, then you should redefine your heart rate zones.
Don’t worry if your AT doesn’t go up as long as your time improves, which means that your efficiency and power are increasing. If you are already pretty fit your AT may not change with training.
Power. If you are using a power meter if your time improves your Normalized Power has gone up and you should redefine your FTP and training zones.
Beware of Excess Stress: Don’t Overtrain
Intensity training is like prescription medicine: not enough and you won’t get better, too much or the wrong kind or used the wrong way and you might get worse!
Neal Henderson is the former director of Sports Science at Colorado’s Boulder Center for Sports Medicine coaches both top-notch pros and budding amateurs. In an interview with VeloNews Henderson said, “I try to seek the point of maximum adaptation to the minimum of training stress, rather than to try to achieve the greatest level of fatigue. Excessive fatigue does not guarantee improvements or adaptations.” In a talk he added that 75% of the athletes he sees over-train (too much and / or too hard), 10% under-train and 15% get it right—usually pros that are paid to race. When in doubt, err on the side of less volume and less intensity.
If you aren’t improving, you may be on the verge of overtraining, especially if your performance in your baseline time trials isn’t improving. Instead of adding more overload, try reducing the total overload and adding more recovery—this usually allows improvement.
My eArticle Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness has workouts in each zone totaling 73 workouts, both structured and unstructured. The 73 workouts are explained by RPE, heart rate or power. The 41-page Intensity Training is only $4.99.
You can download from my website a spreadsheet to determine your training zones.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.