By Coach Peter Wimberg
Whether you ride simply for the fun of it and to maintain your health and fitness, or you’re a more “serious” rider who regularly races or does goal events or tours, including intervals in your riding is important. And making the most of those intervals will help you get the most out of whatever type of riding you do.
One of the first things I discuss with new clients is what was involved in their previous training, or what type of rider they are. The answers are sometimes interesting, to say the least, and run the gamut. I’ve run into the I-went-on-a-week-long-tour-and-suffered-every-day rider, the I-get-dropped-every-Saturday-on-the-group-ride rider and the I-do-intervals-every-day competitive rider.
I’ll always take some time to explain to these cyclists that they would enjoy that week-long tour instead of suffering through it, be able to hang with the group ride, and perform better at their races if they simply added some specific interval training to their schedule.
Even the easiest-going health and fitness riders will derive more health and fitness, be able to outrun the occasional stray dog, or win the sprint to the coffee shop, by incorporating intervals into their riding.
Intervals Maximize Time Spent on the Bike
Some will argue that doing more of the specific type of riding you’re trying to train for, or that is the focus of your upcoming tour, will lead to greater success at the event, or allow you to ride better on the tour. But how many of us can train six to eight hours per day getting ready for that tour or simulate a 75-mile spring race after work on Monday evening?
One of the great advantages of interval training for any rider – no matter the type of riding they do, or what goal they’re trying to achieve – is that it maximizes the time spent on the bike.
For the rider headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a week-long tour who lives in, say Ohio, there just aren’t that many long climbs around to help them get acclimated. But knowing that Blue Ridge is going to be a series of long uphill efforts and shorter downhills, we can offer several interval options that will help.
Some nice long tempo rides of anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes at a cadence expected on the climbs, along with short breaks in between, can replicate the effort needed. Do you have to train on a hill to be able to climb? No. I can make the argument that that simply isn’t the case.
Other than shifting back on the saddle for a climb, your body – specifically your legs – don’t know if you’re pushing that power and cadence on a hill or a flat road. Ideally, in a 90-minute weekday ride or two- to three-hour weekend ride, you can run though a series of tempo efforts that will have your legs ready for the tour. The essential idea here is to not show up the day the tour begins never having put your body through the efforts that will be needed. Your body needs to know what’s expected of it, and how to deliver that effort.
Winning the Saturday World Championship
For the local Saturday morning hang-on-for-dear-life world championship ride, I’d recommend working in some steady state efforts. If you don’t train with a power meter, and I realize most riders don’t, use perceived effort, or rate of perceived exertion (RPE). On a scale of 1-10, tell yourself to push around at 8.5 to 9. If you know your heart rate zones, these should be just below your lactate threshold.
On your solo weekday rides, or even with friends, replicate the effort needed for those longer efforts when someone drops the hammer on the group ride. And, just for fun, try to settle right back into an endurance pace. You can use heart rate for this or even use your typical speed if you ride a consistent route.
For example, on that first thirty minutes of flat road hold your typical average and then kick it up 10% or more for a few miles, or maybe for 10 to 15 minutes. Look for ways to measure your effort to show that you’re working at 7 out of 10 and then 9 out of 10 – whether it’s heart rate, speed, RPE or even time from one intersection to the next, a climb from bottom to top, etc.
The key here is to replicate that feeling you have on the group ride when you’re riding hard to stay with the pack. Before you know it, you’ll be not only hanging with them but taking turns on the front.
Hard Days Hard, Easy Days Easy. Repeat.
When reviewing previous training records for competitive riders, more often than not I see one of two things. The first is the rider who is doing so many days of intervals that their training essentially has become stagnant, along with their results. You shouldn’t be doing intervals every day that you ride. This is a great way to go beyond over-reaching in your training to simply over-trained.
The other issue I see is the athlete who rides hard, but not hard enough on the hard days – and at the same time, not easy enough on the easy days. In both cases the rider isn’t seeing an increase in the power needed to meet their goals, whether in crits, road races, time trials, grand fondos, organized tours, or that coffee shop sprint.
When designing an interval program, the type of event(s) the rider has on the calendar will dictate the types of intervals. The amount of time between the start of the training process and the A races or key events is also important.
I hesitate to take on clients who contact me with just three months before their A race or event, as there just isn’t much time to see progress. Assuming we have six or more months, we can make an impact. Keep in mind that training is cumulative, and weeks and months aren’t nearly as relevant as years when trying to maximize our potential in endurance sports.
Most Important Days are the Rest Days
When designing your training calendar for any type of rider, the most important days are the rest days. I have no problem with 2-3 tough days of interval training per week and a long ride (or two) on the weekend, but the recovery days have to be just that.
A recovery day may be spent totally off the bike or 30 to 60 minutes on the bike – but very easy. I once read a quote from Jonathan Vaughters that an easy day would be when senior citizens on beach cruisers are passing you. Not sure if he’s ridden against the some of the seniors who participate in the Nationals Senior Games, but you get the idea. Take it easy! Really easy!
This active recovery ride can be more beneficial than a day completely off the bike. Just don’t allow the recovery day to become another day of endurance or even intervals. The temptation to catch other riders or join the local peloton can be great. Learn to hold back, or just spin on the trainer instead of even going outside.
Solo Intervals Require Mental Fortitude
When it comes to the interval days, every rider has to learn to push into some uncomfortable heart rate and power zones. Think of the effort needed to do well in your event or group ride and how you feel afterward when the pace was faster than expected, the hills longer and steeper than anticipated.
Can you replicate the effort during your training that is needed to stay in the front and compete for the podium? Or the 5-minute effort to get back to the coffee shop first? Or to handle climb after climb after climb from mile marker 1 through 470 on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
Can you even push a little beyond what you need? Knocking out intervals on your own requires mental fortitude that will pay off in the pack or when staring at the map that shows you still have 60 miles and 5,000 feet (1,524m) of climbing to go that day. Just one more benefit of interval training!
There are many great books covering training with heart rate and/or power and designing interval programs for any type of rider. The options when designing the frequency, intensity, and time during and between the intervals are infinite. The key is to have a plan that provides the right of amount of stress and the right amount of recovery.
Your training program should take into account your goals, the type of effort needed to reach them and then the plan to make that happen. Make your training count, and your rides more fun, with interval training.
Peter Wimberg is a USA Cycling Level 1 Power Certified Coach who runs Wimberg Bike Coaching in Cincinnati, Ohio.