I wrote a recent column on Anti-Aging: Interval Training Increases Longevity. This column explains how to do intensity exercise.
For many riders intervals sound like “no pain, no gain.” No worries! I explain in this column Why ‘No Pain, No Gain’ Is Wrong. And intensity training to increase your longevity doesn’t necessarily mean structured intervals. Fartlek, which I do, is equally effective. Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. A fartlek workout mixes harder and easier exercise in a random, perhaps playful, way.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in Interval-based exercise: So many names, so many possibilities, “The workout by any other name would still be effective. …High-intensity interval training (or HIIT or HIT) is likely the most common name but several other labels exist as well, including sprint interval training (or SIT) or high-intensity interval exercise (or HIIE).”
Benefits of intensity training
An article in Medical News Today lists these benefits:
- Reducing body weight The harder you exercise the more calories you burn per minute. Hard exercise also results in a higher metabolic rate for a while after the workout. You can get the same benefit with a long slow distance (LSD) endurance ride. Neither HIT nor LSD burns more fat; HIT is just more efficient.
- Improving cardiovascular and metabolic health High intensity exercise may improve blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol. These cardiovascular and metabolic benefits are similar to those of moderate intensity workouts.
- Slowing the decrease in mitochondria. Mitochondria are the parts of muscle cells, in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur. LSD training also increases the mitochondrial density.
- Improving memory Aerobic exercise may enhance memory and higher intensity exercise may yield the greatest benefit.
- Time efficient Consistency is one of the most important factors in slowing and even reversing the effects of aging. High intensity exercise is an efficient way to work out.
- Improved motivation Because hard workouts take much less time riders are more likely to exercise.
- Improving mental health All exercise may benefit mental health and high intensity exercise may be especially helpful in addressing issues like depression.
The ACSM says, “The important idea behind all forms of HIIT is providing an intense phase of exercise followed by a period of recovery. Each phase can range from a few seconds to a few minutes and are conducted across a range of intensities. … While there is no magic recipe for creating the perfect HIIT experience, research suggests that a good approach is to avoid the combination of work intervals that are both long and extremely intense. Longer intervals should be paired with high intensities, while shorter intervals can be paired with very high intensities.” [emphasis added]
When you’re doing a SIT workout, during the interval you’re at your limit, breathing very hard and your legs are screaming. When you’re doing HIT, during the interval you should be able to say a few words, but not complete sentences. Your heart is pounding, not exploding and your legs are pumping, but not dying. You don’t need a heart rate monitor or power meter – use these cues of perceived exertion.
ACSM suggests, “This form of training is so flexible that it has produced an endless number of training options.” Here are some examples, which you can use to create your own workouts.”
Warm up and cool down
The following are main sets for your workout. Always warm up for at least 10 minutes before the main set and cool down for at least five minutes after it.
Sprint Interval Training
In the earlier column I described an amusing experiment with mice. The experimental group did SIT workouts. They sprinted uphill for one minute followed by a minute of walking, with the interval repeated four times. These interval sessions continued three times a week for four months, which would be about eight years in our lives. The control group lay around. The interval-trained mice were stronger, had greater endurance capacity, more muscle mass in their hind legs than the sedentary animals, and they scampered faster.
The following are all very short intervals like the mice did. Ignore your heart rate monitor or power meter for the hard efforts – just give it all you’ve got.
One-one One-minute intervals with one minute of recovery between each interval. Canadian researchers showed that ten repeats of the one-one pattern led to the same changes within muscle cells as about 90 minutes of moderate bike riding.
30-20-10 Ride gently for 30 seconds, moderately for 20 seconds and flat out for 10 seconds.
20-40 + 4 Michelle Grainger gave me this one: Ride flat out for 20 seconds, barely pedal for 40 seconds and then ride moderately for four minutes.
TV commercials can be a variation of Michelle’s workout. At the start of a commercial break ride very hard for approximately 20 seconds, soft pedal for the rest of the first commercial and then ride at a conversational pace for the rest for the commercial break.
On the road again When a car of a certain color, e.g., passes, chase hard for roughly 20 seconds, recover until you catch your breath and then ride on down the road until the next red car.
For all of these examples, the number of repeats you should do depend on your level of fitness. If you start to struggle during an interval then stop and cool down. If you try to continue you aren’t getting the benefit of the intervals — you’re just wearing yourself out and will need more recovery before your next ride. You should always feel like you could do one more repeat.
High Intensity Training
4 x 4 Norwegian researchers made volunteers ride at about 90 percent of each volunteer’s maximum heart rate (i.e., hammering) for four minutes and repeat four times, with a three-minute rest between each interval. They found this high-intensity aerobic interval training resulted in significantly increased VO2max compared with long slow distance and lactate-threshold training intensities.
3 to 6 x 6/3 Back off from hammering and ride in the sweet spot (SS). The sweet spot is the optimal combination of the right intensities and durations to produce the most cumulative overload. You can do more and longer efforts in the SS with less recovery than hammering. A typical main set I give a client is to do three to six repeats of [6 minutes in the SS and 3 minutes EZ]. The Norwegian 4 x 4 totals 16 minutes of intensity and 12 minutes of recovery. Just three reps of the SS workout total 18 minutes of intensity with 12 minutes recovery. When the client can do six reps, I increase the workout to three to six repeats of [7 or 8 minutes in the SS and 4 minutes EZ].
TV commercials can be SS workouts. Ride in the SS the entire commercial break and at a conversational pace during the program.
Rolling hills climb in the SS, coast down and then ride at a conversational pace to the next hill.
I wrote two columns:
Chase down Joe is one of my favorites. You or your buddy Joe decide on how much of a lead one rider gets, e.g., two minutes. Joe takes off riding hard. You wait two minutes and chase him down. And then switch roles. By varying the length of the lead-outs you vary the intensities.
Race the rollers is similar. Race your buddy to the top and then chat to the bottom of the next roller.
Rarely are riders equally fit. One rider’s sweet spot workout could be another rider’s hammering pace. If you want to train at a specific intensity then it’s better to train alone or warm up together, do your intensity workouts independently and then cool down together.
Don’t neglect moderate exercise
Exercise scientists at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, investigated what happens if people do HIT three days a week and don’t exercise the other four days compared to training moderately five times a week. They found that “people who worked out with HIT routines three times a week for six weeks did not improve their blood pressure or body fat as much as people who exercised far more moderately five times a week. . . The authors of that study speculated that, by being sedentary for four days each week, the intense exercisers in the study may have undermined the otherwise potent effects of their HIT sessions. On a weekly basis, they were not exercising enough.” (New York Times: The Benefits of Moderate Exercise.
Words of caution
Any sudden change in volume or intensity risks injury. You can reduce the risk by modifying your exercise program to moderate the total impact on your body. For example, if you decide to adds intervals reduce (but don’t eliminate) the amount of endurance riding you do.
Too much high-intensity exercise may be bad for you. Swedish scientists studied 11 healthy men and women who exercised but weren’t competitive. The volunteers cycled HIT workouts for three weeks followed by an easier week. At the end of each week the researchers tested the riders’ metabolisms. The first week the riders worked out twice a week and week two they cycled three times a week. At the end of week two they were getting fitter, with better daily blood-sugar control and more mitochondria.
During week three they suffered through five workouts a week. Power output flattened, the number of mitochondria decreased by about 40% and blood sugar rose and fell during the day.
During the fourth week they didn’t ride as hard. Their mitochondria started to increase, but not to previous levels and their blood-sugar levels also stabilized, but not to the same extent as before. Interestingly, the riders could pedal with the same — or even greater — vigor as in week two.
This study was small and short-term with healthy volunteers so it’s cautionary but not conclusive. (New York Times: Too Much High-Intensity Exercise May Be Bad for Your Health)
In the medical literature 46 cases of rhabdomyolysis after taking a spin class have been reported, 42 after a first class. Rhabdo, a rare but life-threatening condition, is often caused by extreme exercise. It occurs when overworked muscles begin to die and leak their contents into the bloodstream, straining the kidneys and causing severe pain. Experts say it occurs when people don’t give their muscles time to adjust to an aggressive new exercise routine. (New York Times As Workouts Intensify, a Harmful Side Effect Grows More Common)
You can do three things to help you gain the benefits and avoid the problems:
- Before starting a high-intensity program discuss it with your health care professional.
- When you start a new program do a less intensive version at first. Start a new HIT program with relatively light intervals. Start a new strength program start with one set of relatively light weights.
- Know your limits: If you start to struggle slow down or leave a class.
You should always finish a hard workout like you could have done a little more.
I explain how to do intensity workouts in the latter half of my column How Cyclists Should Approach Intensity Training for Maximum Benefit.
- Anti-Aging: Research on Longevity
- Anti-Aging: Benefits of Training with Intensity
- Why Increasing Intensity Is Good for All Riders
- Should You Do Intensity Training This Winter, pt. 1
- Should You Do Intensity Training This Winter, pt. 2
My eBook Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity explains what happens to your body as you age, and the physiological benefits of riding with intensity. Doing some hard riding slows the aging process and delivers an array of benefits at any age:
- More efficient training.
- Stronger heart.
- Greater lung capacity.
- More powerful muscles.
The eArticle describes five progressively harder levels of training and gives 3 to 5 examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts. The 27-page Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity is just $4.99.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on how to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I explain how to incorporate intensity workouts for maximum benefit. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
How did the studies determine the individuals max HR? Did they use the 220-age formula or did they perform a test to determine max HR?
John Hughes says
Michael, an excellent question and the study didn’t report how max HR was determined.