The Ultimate Interval Training Guide for Cyclists: Why and How to Do Intervals

cycling interval training for climbing

If you want to become a faster cyclist, the most effective thing you can do is use interval training. 

Interval training is such a fundamental component of improvement, that I don’t know where to start. Yet, many cyclists think interval workouts are complicated, and the more complicated it is the more effective. I think that’s wrong. If anything, training should be simple to be effective and sustainable. 

And no, intervals are not just for pro cyclists or dedicated racers. No matter why you train, you get lots of benefits for your performance from interval training. No matter, if you plan an adventure with your bike, ride at group rides, or participate in Gran Fondos, gravel races, or centuries, intervals are the key to getting fit for it.

Here’s everything you need to know about interval training as a cyclist…

Interval Training in Cycling: What It Is and How It Works

Interval training is a simple method to stress our bodies and become stronger cyclists. 

The most basic format is alternating between high- and low-intensity for a particular duration. If you do a 30-30 workout, you have 30 seconds at a hard pace and 30 seconds at a low pace. However, the structure can be altered by changing volume, frequency, duration, and intensity to target specific areas you want to improve.

Nonetheless, an interval session almost always involves a warm-up, some sets of hard duration followed by rest periods, and finally, a cool down to get the mind back to rest.

But interval training is more than just alternating intensities. Intervals induce physiological adaptations. That’s why we have different interval intensities as every intensity targets a different energy system, from the sprint up to the enduring tempo interval.

Interval training is all about putting different stresses on your body. We need these different loads because our body adapts to training stress. Accordingly, we need some variation in our training to avoid stagnation and push our bodies into adaptation.

No matter what interval design you choose, the key point is that interval training provides the necessary stress for your body. It’s a signal that you are making progress. Of course, that’s not all it does…

Interval training in cycling is powerful for three reasons. 

  1. It supplies you with the greatest training result for your available time
  2. It provides you with a sufficient training load for progress. And seeing progress motivates you.
  3. It helps to individualize your training toward your physiology and goals

Let’s break down each one.


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Benefit #1: Interval training is efficient to get the most out of available time

Interval training makes up for less available time. If you want to make the necessary progress and physiological adaptations you would need a lot of volume in training. That takes a lot of time, time most of us don’t have. And even if you have the required time you will reach a point of diminishing returns.

Most time-constrained riders, won’t cause enough training stress with just 1-2 hours of easy endurance training. Even though that doesn’t mean excluding zone 2 endurance training, high-intensity should always be built on a solid volume of basic endurance training. 

So if you have less time, don’t waste valuable training time with unstructured sessions. It’s these sessions that are considered “junk miles.” Instead, concentrate the workload on structured higher-intensity interval sessions that bring the desired improvement.

Benefit #2: Interval training provides the right load to make progress

One of the most important benefits of interval training is repeatability. When you head out for a ride to do an all-out effort at VO2max you’ll probably crack after 5-8 minutes. However, if you do a structured interval session instead, you would be able to dedicate a higher load of time at VO2max than just with this one effort alone. For example, with a 3x6x30-30 VO2max interval session, you would accumulate around 18 minutes at maximum oxygen uptake as the rest intervals also count due to oxygen debt. 

Interval training helps you to complete more time at a target intensity than just doing a single effort and allows you to accumulate enough time at a given intensity, like threshold, for example, to cause adaptations.

Benefit #3: Interval training helps with individualization

Finally, you can tailor intervals toward your goal event and your physiology. You can place training stress on areas you want to improve, which is a big strength of interval training. 

Every training zone targets a different energy system. Now, I don’t want to get too deep into the different ways of energy supplies in the muscles. If you do threshold intervals, the main improvements will occur around the threshold. Other areas of your physiology, however, will improve as well because your body doesn’t know systems. All systems work at the same time, it’s just that one system is dominant at a given intensity. 


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How to Include Interval Training as a Cyclist

Alright, those benefits sound great, but how do you incorporate intervals into your training plan for optimal fitness gains? 

To get the most out of intervals we need to consider two things: Frequency and types of intervals to know when to use which type to achieve the desired effect. Recent research indicates that two interval sessions should be enough to maximize performance. On occasion, three interval sessions per week can be done. But do more than three and you’ll likely find yourself burned out. As the saying goes “more is not always better.” And twice as many interval sessions are not twice as good. 

Looking at interval types we can distinguish between long-range intervals, short-range intervals, and intermittent intervals. I’ll break down each one by one below with when to use them and the desired adaptations. 

Long Range intervals

These types of intervals develop your broad aerobic base. The intensity is usually below your FTP or at FTP, which induces an aerobic stimulus. At long-range intervals, we have tempo intervals (80-85% of FTP power), sweet spot intervals (88-94% of FTP power), and threshold intervals (96-102% of FTP power). 

Whereas tempo and sweet spot sessions work to fatigue fast-twitch fibers and increase mitochondrial density to enhance fatigue resistance and increase FTP from below, threshold intervals improve your lactate clearance capacity to maximize your sustainable pace. 

FTP is a good performance determinant and the higher your FTP, the higher your average power will be for a long race, group ride, or century. For example, with an FTP of 275 watts, you might be able to finish the gran Fondo with 70-80% of FTP which is up to 220w. But increase your FTP up to 300w and that average power can increase up to 240 watts. That’s an invaluable increase in speed. 

Short-range intervals

These intervals fall in the 2-8-minute time frame. Though these intervals primarily work the (glycolytic) anaerobic system, the main adaptations occur at VO2max due to the high oxygen rate. Because of that the name VO2max intervals

These intervals should be performed at 106-120% of your FTP power. The shorter the interval the higher your power should be in that range. VO2max intervals should be included when race season approaches. You want to get more specific with training the closer race season is to mimic the efforts similar in a race. If you look at races, no matter if an ultra-endurance event or a crit race, you always push above the threshold at certain times.

Intermittent intervals

These workouts, also known as Tabata workouts, are alternating short high-intensity bursts with a short recovery period where you keep pedaling. Also known as Billat’s 30-30 intervals, for instance. 

With “micro-intervals” an upward drift of heart rate towards maximum is caused. These drills are highly anaerobic and cause adaptations around VO2max due to the high respiration rate. The end goal is to be able to deliver more oxygen to the working muscles. The power range should be between 120-130% of FTP power and can be accelerated at a pace up to 150% of FTP. You can either choose a 1:1 work-rest ratio or the more taxing 2:1 work-rest ratio if you’re more experienced. 

Next up we look at workout examples you can use for your interval sessions.

Interval Training Examples

Tempo intervals: 

  • 3×10 minutes at 80-90% of FTP
  • 4×12 minutes at 80-90% of FTP
  • 4×15 minutes at 80-90% of FTP
  • 3×20 minutes at 80-90% of FTP

Recovery time between intervals is 20-30% of the interval time.

Threshold intervals:

  • 4×12 minutes at 95-105% of FTP
  • 2×20 minutes at 95-100% of FTP
  • 3×12 minutes over/under 2 min at 103-105% of FTP, 2 min at 85-90% of FTP
  • 3×15 minutes over/under 1 min at 120% of FTP, 4 min at 70-75% of FTP

Recovery time between intervals is half the interval time.

VO2max intervals:

  • 4×8 minutes at 105-110% of FTP
  • 5×3 minutes at 115-120% of FTP
  • 7×2 minutes at 120-125% of FTP
  • 4×6 minutes at 110-115% of FTP

Recovery time between sets matches interval length.

Micro intervals:

  • 3x6x30-30 sec at 120-130% of FTP
  • 3x8x40-20 sec at 120-130% of FTP
  • 3x11x30-15 sec at 120-130% of FTP
  • 3x13x30-15 study interval at 120-130% of FTP

Recovery time in between sets should be the total interval time.

Max Sprint intervals:

Recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers to improve the CP system for attacks and sprints.

  • 6×6 seconds max effort sprint
  • 8×6 seconds max effort sprint
  • 10×6 seconds max effort sprint
  • 12×6 seconds max effort sprint

Recovery time between sprints should be at least 5-10 minutes.

Let’s look at how you can progress these intervals to increase the training load and counteract stagnancy.

How to Handle Interval Progression 

We always strive for improvement in cycling and our goal is to keep our progress going. We get fitter and our body is already adapted to the training we’re doing. And as we know weekly interval frequency is quite limited. Therefore, we need to increase the training stress by either increasing the duration of the intervals or the total number of sets. 

Planning progress requires you to realistically assess what you’re capable of. A good way to do this is to think conservatively and start with easier sessions than you think you need to.

For example, if you’re relatively new to racing you shouldn’t try to copy a 4×20 min steady-state session from an elite racer. Better start with 3×10 min steady-state intervals and work your way up. As I’ve said there are two possibilities for progress: making an interval longer or performing more intervals in a session. I suggest choosing just one approach at a time.

If you do the 3×10 min you could either add a set and progress it to 4×10 min or increase the interval duration to 3×12 min by adding 2 minutes per interval. 

Progression is all about increasing the duration and repeatability and not about increasing the power itself. 

One of the biggest endurance performance advocates Dr. Stephen Seiler just recently said that the difference between high-level athletes and amateurs is the ability to repeat a power very often or hold it for a long duration instead of achieving a higher power. Pro cyclists are masters of reproducibility and can ride at VO2max after several fatiguing hours of racing. 

Stop worrying about power numbers and start working with the numbers you have. 

As we’ve discussed the principles of interval training, let’s look at how to frame an interval session and what a training week could look like to make the most of our training time. 

How to Get the Most Out of Interval Workouts

To complete our interval sessions successfully and reap the benefits of it, we need to plan. There are a few factors to consider when planning such demanding sessions:

Execution day: We always want to perform intervals when we’re the freshest. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to place our intervals after a long and hard day in the saddle. You may be too fatigued the day after to complete the intervals properly. A better way to schedule your intervals is after rest days or easy recovery days when you’re feeling ready. 

Eating and drinking: Don’t make the mistake of riding intervals on water, especially if the sessions exceed an hour. You can sweat a lot, lose some salt, and burn a lot of carbohydrates. It’s difficult to make up the deficit after the ride and you could end up lacking the power to complete all intervals. Carbs are your main driver for endurance performance, make good use of them and drink accordingly. If you start in the morning enjoy a solid breakfast.

Mental Toughness: Practicing resilience is key to sustaining the pain you’re up against during intense workouts. It’s not about feeling good all the time that builds mental toughness. It’s the ability to get better about feeling bad. In other words, sustaining the difficult interval sessions and pushing through these tough workouts makes us more resilient. Do your sessions with purpose, and know why you want to accomplish them.

Power range: If you look at my interval examples you’ll notice that I always prescribe a power range. That’s because a single number will leave you in danger of overshooting the interval intensity. You may end up riding the first couple of intervals too hard and struggle to finish the last sets at the prescribed intensity. 

Heart rate: Don’t be too focused on power numbers. Use your heart rate to track progress as well. Heart rate may be useful when doing VO2max intervals and the goal is to reach time over 90% of max HR. In addition, heart rate is your body’s response to given power outputs, it may help to look at the internal load and adjust the external load accordingly from time to time.

Alright, you’re now armed with everything you need to know to perform intervals and bag the returns. Here’s an example week of how well-planned intervals can look like in a training plan:

  • Monday: Rest day
  • Tuesday: 60 min HIIT with 4×4 min VO2max at 110-115% of FTP
  • Wednesday: 60 min endurance zone 2
  • Thursday: 60 min zone 2 endurance
  • Friday: rest day 
  • Saturday: 2 hours with 3×15 min at 95-105% of FTP
  • Sunday: 4 hours endurance zone 2

Because interval training is quite challenging in cycling, make it fun and purposeful. If done right and with adequate recovery it yields huge performance gains for the time you invest. Don’t stress yourself, you’re looking to make small changes you can stick with for years. Intervals are an effective way to make progress and motivate you to show up again tomorrow. 

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Footnotes

  1. Why intermittent intervals work so well: https://www.sportsperformancebulletin.com/endurance-training/high-intensity-training/billat-intervals-magic-bullet-next-pb/
  2. The human body is always working on lactate production and lactate clearance: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/what-is-lactate-and-lactate-threshold/
  3. Doing intervals the proper way in cycling with CTS-Trainright: https://trainright.com/cycling-interval-training-guide/?inf_contact_key=3ef7288fe0f226e7a79c79bb84acadcbd18a532c4142cb79caf2b269de1401fa&utm_medium=email&utm_source=ctsnewsletter
  4. The benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT): https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00445.2013?papetoc=
  5. Adaptations to aerobic interval training: interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01351.x
  6. You may choose your personal cadence to see the best results as science indicates.

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