Intervals? In December? Lessons From Peter Sagan

By Coach John Hughes

Last week’s column was about the importance of Year-Round Base Training. This column discusses how one pro does his own base training this time of year.

Peter Sagan’s Training Program

Cycling Weekly recently published Peter Sagan’s training program for a week. Sagan is a triple world champion who has won a total of 101 races, including 8 stages in the Tour de France, 15 in the Tour de Suisse and 16 in the Tour of California.

At the start of his base training he’s doing:

  • 2 endurance days totaling about 8 hours
  • One of the rides includes long intervals
  • One of the rides includes hill intervals
  • 1 long endurance ride of 4 - 5 hours.
  • 1 ride of 3 - 3:30 hours including short intervals
  • 2 easy recovery rides totaling 3:30 hours. These are what the pros call “coffee” rides, i.e., a very easy ride to meet buddies for coffee.
  • 2 gym workouts

He’s training a total of about 19 hours a week, more than any of us ride unless we’re at a training camp or on a tour.  I’m NOT recommending anything approaching his volume for us mere mortal recreational riders. But other aspects of his base training, specifically – his approach to intervals – can be instructive for us.

Aerobic Threshold

All of his intervals based on his aerobic threshold. The aerobic threshold is the classic conversational pace, the pace he can sustain for hours of racing. Remember seeing the pros chatting in the peloton? They're able to do that at a pace that would destroy most of the rest of us.

You’re probably familiar with the anaerobic threshold, which is the point at which the production of lactate exceeds the body’s capacity to clear it.

Even at rest your body is producing small amounts of lactic acid. The aerobic threshold is where the blood lactate concentration starts to rise above the level at rest. Up to this threshold your body produces power almost exclusively from your slow-twitch muscles, and energy is produced almost exclusively from fat.

 “Pro riders spend the bulk of their time training at or below this threshold.” (VeloNews April 2016)

Sagan’s Intervals:

Sagan rides three kinds of intervals:

  1. Long intervals of 4 - 6 reps of 10 minutes close to but below aerobic threshold (conversational pace).
  2. Hill intervals are climbing 2 or 3 hills a little harder but still below his aerobic threshold. Each hill is about 10 - 20 minutes long, and he rides at an “effort that’s sustainable for a long time” – the effort at which he’d climb in the Alps or the Pyrenees in the Tour.
  3. Short, harder intervals are blocks of 12 repetitions at or slightly above of his aerobic threshold, which he rides on short hills. “The goal is to introduce a small amount of intensity.”

If his intervals are at a brisk conversational pace, how hard is he riding between intervals? Not very hard at all!

Intervals in December

Fortunately, base training doesn’t have to be just grinding out long, slow miles in crappy weather. Sagan’s intervals are built into his endurance rides, totaling only about 25 - 30% of the duration of each ride. You can do this, too, to avoid the monotony by mixing up your efforts as follows:

  1. Multi-hour endurance ride — The pace at which you can easily talk in full paragraphs. These rides increase your endurance.
  2. Long efforts — The pace at which you’d ride into a headwind. You can still talk in full sentences but you can’t whistle. These efforts, along with #3, increase your cruising speed.
  3. Moderate efforts — The pace at which you’d ride a sustained climb. You can still talk in full sentences, but the sentences are shorter.
  4. Brisk efforts — The pace at which you can talk in phrases but not full sentences. These efforts start to increase your power.

As the intensity increases from 1 to 4, the quantity and length decrease.

At this time of year, stick with #1 and #2. After 6 - 8 weeks you can add #3. If you plan to do hard intervals in the spring, then after another 6 - 8 weeks you can step up to #4.

Other Lessons from Sagan's Training

Sagan’s training includes other wisdom. He has only four longer and/or harder rides a week, two recovery rides and one day with no training. Sagan is just 27 and a seasoned pro, but he and his coach recognize the importance of recovery. For regular roadies, four recovery days and only three longer and/or harder rides will produce more improvement with less risk of overtraining. For roadies who’ve only been riding a few years or are 60 years or older, just two longer and/or harder days are better. 

Sagan does his rides with intervals on his own so that he can dial in the right pace for him. One or two days a week, he rides with friends. If he wants to push a little harder on those days, that’s okay.

I’ve been riding since I was in my 20s and have many thousands of miles in my legs. I’m now 68. I can handle two longer and/or harder days a week. If I try to do more, my performance falls off. I also do a lot of my riding alone so that I can match the level of effort to the purpose of the ride rather than trying to keep up with (or drop) a buddy.

Asked about the best training advice he ever got, Sagan responded, “A great coach once told me that doing one session less than you had scheduled is preferable to doing one too many.”

My 41-page eArticle Intensity 2016 describes in much more detail how to gauge intensity by perceived exertion, heart rate and power. It then describes how to train at different intensities to achieve different physiological changes.


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.

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