Repetitive training sessions got you down? Get fired up (and a little faster) with these alternatives to intervals. By Selene Yeager
Some cyclists love structured training. Others? Not so much. If you want to get stronger and faster, but pushing your limits with lung-busting intervals again and again—and again and again—doesn’t exactly get you stoked, amp up your performance with these workouts instead. (Spoiler: You still have to work for it.)
Do some speed play
Interval training is nothing more than riding at above-average speed for short bursts, then backing down to recover before going fast again. You can call it interval work—or you can call it speed play. The latter sounds more fun, no? Once or twice a week, do a ride with your friends (or join a spirited group ride) where you sprint for town signs, challenge each other up some kickers, and/or do some pacelining down long straightaways. You’ll get all the benefits without the monotony.
Swing some ‘bells
One of the lesser-appreciated ways to get stronger and faster in the saddle is improving your muscle efficiency, which basically means being able to use less energy to do the same amount of work. You can improve your on-bike efficiency by increasing the number of muscle fibers at your disposal, developing stronger, more fatigue-resistant muscles, and by strengthening your core stability muscles so you waste fewer watts as you pick up the pace. Kettlebell training is good for all of that and then some.
In one study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found that fit men and women doing eight weeks of kettlebell workouts twice a week not only improved their leg strength (that was expected), but also increased their aerobic capacity by nearly 14 percent and improved their core strength by a whopping 70 percent.
Strength training moves like kettlebell swings, which includes hip extension, also train your muscles to tackle hills. Start with lower weights at higher repetitions before progressing to heavier loads and fewer reps to improve your strength and power. You can do strength training by itself as cross-training, or on the same day you do another one of these rides. Just don’t do them on easy or recovery days, because they’re not easy.
Head to the hills
Hills are Mother Nature’s intervals with a view. Pushing against the forces of gravity challenges your muscles much like strength training. For an even bigger bang from your hump-busting hill work, spend a few minutes on each ascent climbing in a bigger gear than usual. Climbing in big gears strengthens your legs to improve your peak pedal force, which in turn helps your legs stave off fatigue during long climbs when you’re using a smaller gear. To do it, alternate between climbing hills in a big gear at a lower cadence for one to two minutes, and spinning in an easier gear for one to two minutes, all the way up the climb. Hit the hills once or twice a week.
Eddy Merckx’s tried-and-true method of “riding lots” really does work. Endurance training at lower intensities improves what is known as peripheral adaptation—increased capillary density so you can get more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood into your hard-working muscles, more mitochondria for energy production, more myoglobin, a protein that is the main oxygen carrier of muscle, larger glycogen stores, and improved fat-burning ability. That’s a boatload of benefits that make you fitter and stronger on your bike. It just takes time. Head out for one or two steady long rides a week.