Question: “I understand that interval training of one type or another is the best method to improve performance. However, I am coming off an extended six month period of minimal riding. Is there some level of base miles I should do before I start doing intervals?” RBR Reader Richard Z.
Coach Hughes responds: Richard you are asking an excellent question.
When Eddy Merckx was asked how to get better, he famously said, “Ride more!” Racing in the 1960s and ’70s, Merckx dominated the sport. The French magazine Vélo described Merckx as “the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known.” Merckx was an all-rounder, winning each of the Grand Tours several times, the one-day Classics multiple times and breaking the hour record. His goal was simple: win everything.
Merckx’ advice is still valid with a couple of modifications. Not all miles are equal: there are flat miles and hilly miles, calm miles and windy miles, solo miles and drafting miles, which is why I describe workouts by time rather than miles.
While you’re spending more time in the saddle, vary the intensity during your rides. How much you should vary the mix depends on how you want to improve your performance. Different levels of intensity improve performance in different ways. How many weeks and how may hours you need to ride before you add intensity to mix depends on the type(s) of performance you want to improve.
What is Improved Performance?
Improved performance could mean
- Better endurance, i.e. able to ride farther.
- Faster cruising speed on endurance rides.
- Climb faster or climb steeper hills or do longer climbs.
- Hang with the big dogs on a group ride.
- Increase your VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize. The higher your VO2 max the greater your aerobic endurance.
- Sprint faster.
What Levels of Intensity?
Intensity training could mean any of the following using a 10 point perceived exertion (RPE) scale where 1 is very easy and 10 is flat out and my descriptors:
- Zone 1 (Digestion pace after a big meal, RPE 1-2) In this zone you are burning body fat for energy. You should ride primarily in this zone for active recovery rides as well as the easy portions of long rides.
- Zone 2 (Conversational pace, RPE 2-3) You can easily carry on a conversation in full sentences. This pace builds endurance and trains the aerobic system to burn more fat and spare glycogen. You should ride in this zone most of the time on the flats.
- Zone 3 Tempo (Hill climbing and headwind pace, RPE of 3-4) You can talk in short sentences but can’t whistle. This pace trains the aerobic system to burn glucose and improves your cruising speed.
- Sweet Spot (Power pace, RPE of 4-5) You can talk in short phrases but not short sentences. The Sweet Spot is the upper end of zone 3 and the lower end of zone 4, just before you start to go significantly anaerobic. The Sweet Spot is the optimal place to train to increase sustained power. Training here stresses your body and it takes a day or two to recover.
- Zone 4 (Sub-barf, RPE of 5-6) You can’t talk. The pace for a 20-40 km time trial or racing up a sustained climb. Riding anaerobically trains the anaerobic system to burn glucose without enough oxygen and as a result your muscles produce lactic acid. Training here raises your anaerobic (lactate) threshold over time. This training is very hard on your body and it takes a two or three days to recover.
- Zone 5 (Barf, RPE of 6-7) The classic hammering pace, a hard effort for 5 – 10 minutes —any longer and you’d barf. In this zone you are working completely anaerobically. This trains your tolerance for lactic acid. The physiological benefits are similar to zone 4; however, the intensity is harder. This training is very hard on your body and it takes two or three days to recover.
- VO2 max (Eyeballs out, RPE 8+) Riding as hard as you can for only a few minutes with your eyes bugging out. Training here increases your VO2 max. This training is extremely hard on your body and it takes two to four days to recover.
- Sprinting (RPE of 10) Riding flat out for less than a minute. Your individual muscle fibers don’t naturally all fire at the same time. Sprinting improves the coordination of the firing of muscle fibers, like dialing in the timing of your car.
To achieve the best results your training should produce the maximum amount of a specific type of physiological overload. Different types of overload produce different physiological changes. Although riding in Zones 4 and higher is harder than riding in the Sweet Spot, in Zones 4 and 5 you can’t produce as much cumulative overload as riding in the Sweet Spot. This is why it’s called the Sweet Spot. Riding in Zones 4 and 5 you also need more recovery. You can probably do a second Sweet Spot workout with only one recovery day but you probably need two or three easy days between Zone 4 and 5 workouts.
How Big an Endurance Base?
How many hours you need to ride before going hard depends on the level(s) of intensity at which you wish to train, i.e., how much pain you’re willing to suffer. You can start including tempo efforts in your rides as soon as you start riding again. Just be careful not to go harder. If you can’t whistle slow down!
Riding base hours produces other changes in addition to improving your endurance. If you include some hills in your endurance rides you’ll obviously improve your climbing. Riding base hours also increases your VO2 max.
In general, training at the different the levels of intensity should be progressive, i.e., Zone 3 tempo riding before training in the Sweet Spot, training in the Sweet Spot before Zone 4, training in Zone 4 before Zone 5, etc.
Once you can ride tempo in zone 3 for a continuous hour or more then you could step up to Sweet Spot workouts.
You should spend at least a month doing Sweet Spot workouts before stepping up to Zone 4. You should be able to ride a set of segments in the Sweet Spot that total about 30 minutes before moving on to Zone 4. For example, you should be able to climb a series of hills in the Sweet Spot when the total amount of climbing in the Sweet Spot is at least 30 minutes.
If your goal is to be able to hammer with the big dogs, then progress to Zone 4. Train there for at least a month until you can do a cumulative 30 minutes in Zone 4. Then you can progress to Zone 5.
If your goal is to improve your climbing, and not to hammer, then stay with the Sweet Spot and continue increasing the total time in the Sweet Spot.
Intervals are quantitatively defined, e.g., Repeat 3 – 5 times [5 minutes in Sweet Spot and 3 minutes in zone 2]. If you did all five reps then you’d have a total of 25 minutes in the Sweet Spot. However, you don’t have to do intervals; the key is varying the appropriate types of intensity. You could ride rolling hills or randomly alternate harder and easier riding.
My two-part column on Intensity Training goes into more detail.
You can download a spreadsheet to determine your training zones from the Resources section of my website.
My 39-page eArticle Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness explains the benefits of training by intensity and how to use perceived exertion, a heart rate monitor or power meter to maximize training effectiveness. To make the article as useful as possible I provide a table with 10 different training objectives. For each objective I give the proper training zone described in terms of perceived exertion, heart rate and power reading. Each objective is then linked to 5 to 10 specific workouts. Each category of workouts includes two types of workouts:
- Some riders like structured workouts with measured periods of intensity and recovery.
- Others prefer unstructured workouts that just mix intense efforts with easy cruising.
I coach riders using both approaches. They all get fitter! And you don’t have to stick to just one or the other.”
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.