Interval training: An essential guide for cycling performance

High-intensity interval training is vital for competitive performance, but why is it so important, and what is the most effective form? Rafik Tahraoui finds out

Interval training is a necessary evil for optimal performance – it’s uncomfortable but it works, and the benefits are manifold.

Regularly completing multiple bursts of high-intensity riding can increase VO2 max and stroke volume (the amount of blood ejected by each heart beat), reduce blood lactate levels, enhance fatigue-resistance, improve neuromuscular efficiency, and increase peak power by up to six per cent in as little as four weeks. It’s a powerful package of physiological improvements.

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In the landmark 4×4 study (Helgerud et al), subjects completed four repetitions of four minutes at 90-95 per cent max heart rate (HR max) followed by three minutes of active recovery at 70 per cent HR max, three days per week for eight weeks.

This resulted in a 7.2 per cent increase in VO2 max and 10 per cent greater improvement in stroke volume (compared to long, slow training).

Types of interval training, table

Many subsequent studies have supported these findings, and a recent one (Stöggl and Sperlich) added to support for polarised training: several intense weeks followed by a relatively restful period, before repeating the cycle.

The cyclists and triathletes in the study participated in nine weeks of training consisting of four six-session weeks and two three-session weeks on a bicycle ergometer.

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Polarised training demonstrated the greatest increase in VO2 peak (11.7 per cent), time to exhaustion during the ramp protocol and peak velocity/power (8.1 per cent).

To summarise: interval training is important for cyclists because of the multiple physiological adaptations it stimulates.

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The increases in VO2 max and stroke volume justify its use for endurance cyclists, and the increases in peak velocity/power equally make it indispensable for shorter-duration cycling disciplines.

What’s more, interval training is very time-efficient; it can be conducted as a standalone session or as part of a longer ride.

Learn your training zones

‘Intervals are vital race preparation’

Team Wiggins rider Luc Hall, 20, specialises in time trialling, and so spends much of his time focusing on longer-duration work as well as threshold training. Here, he explains how and why he includes regular interval training in his regime.

“Interval training is important for cyclists for various reasons. Firstly, when coming out of the winter into the cycling season, intervals simulate the high-intensity efforts that must be sustained in race situations — this helps prepare for intense exertion.

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“I tend to perform interval training sessions on the turbo, and these sessions include bouts of 40sec max effort followed by steady cycling for 20sec. Because of the intensity of the effort, I perform no more than eight to 10 rounds.

“This method of training is helpful for me when racing in criteriums or town centre races, where there are a lot of tight circuits and I am required to accelerate out of the bend — intensities that are replicated during interval training. It is also beneficial in preparation for times when I have to close gaps, chase or start an attack, which requires a burst of high-intensity effort. These are the reasons why I include interval work within my training.”