High Intensity Intervals to Meet Your Goals

Eventually, you outgrow your old workouts and need to go even harder if you want to keep your fitness gains going along an upward trajectory. That means more high-intensity intervals training.

Selene Yeager |

Eventually, you outgrow your old workouts and need to go even harder if you want to keep your fitness gains going along an upward trajectory. That means more high-intensity intervals training. – By Selene Yeager


When you push yourself to your absolute upper limits, everything—endurance, power, lactate threshold, efficiency, and speed—rises up and comes along for the ride, even in well-trained riders. In a study of 38 conditioned cyclists, Australian researchers found that those doing high-intensity interval training twice a week slashed their 40km time-trial time by nearly three minutes (about five percent), and improved their average speed by nearly 1.5km/h.

“We know even highly trained riders can increase their stroke volume [how much blood the heart pumps per beat], increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles, and improve the muscles’ ability to extract oxygen,” the study author and exercise physiologist Paul Laursen, PhD, told me during an interview for Bicycling magazine. Intervals also seem to make your powerful sprint-centric fast-twitch fibers become more fatigue-resistant, so they behave more like slow-twitch fibers, allowing you to go really fast longer.

The beauty of this kind of training is that although it’s kind of painful, you don’t need to do much to reap great gains. Even the shortest bouts—just 20- to 30-second micro-intervals—have been shown to increase max VO2 (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during all-out exertion), improve fat burning, and boost endurance performance. And they work fast.

“Just two weeks of training can enhance performance,” says Laursen. Here are the best short workouts for all your riding needs. For each interval session, warm up for at least five minutes. Cool down as needed when you’re done. Do these no more than twice a week, preferably midweek if you’re riding long and/or hard on the weekends. “Intervals are a potent stimulus for rapid improvements. But too many per week can rapidly lead to signs of overtraining,” says Laursen.


The Intervals

Hang With the Fast Pack: Attack Intervals
Three to 5 minutes is the optimum intervals time for raising your threshold pace. Ride as hard as you can (95 to 100 percent of MHR) for 3 minutes. Recover at an easy pace for 2 minutes. Repeat 2 or 3 times to start. Work up to 8 (very tough). Then increase the interval time.

Build Power Fast: Tabata Intervals
Named after exercise scientist Izumi Tabata, these eye-popping efforts train your body to recruit maximum muscle fibers and fire them faster, as well as raise your lactate level threshold. They take only 10 to 12 minutes. After a warmup, sprint as hard as possible (you’re going for maximum wattage) for 20 seconds. Stop and coast for 10 seconds only. Repeat 6 to 8 times.

Pack a Punch: Flying 40s
These slightly longer micro-intervals build power and train your body to recover quickly between hard pushes. They are helpful if you ride with a group that likes to push the pace on climbs and sprint for signs. In a medium to large gear, push as hard as you can for 40 seconds. Recover for 20 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Rest 5 minutes. Do 2 or 3 more sets.

Monster Climbing: Hill Charges
Climbing hills builds strength. To get speed, you need to turn that strength to power (i.e., push that same gear faster). These charges do the trick. On a moderate incline that takes about 30 seconds to climb, stand out of the saddle and charge up the hill as fast as possible. Coast back down. Repeat, this time staying seated. Alternate between standing and seated for six climbs. Recover for 10 minutes. Do another set.

Quicken Your Cadence: “10 Speed” Intervals
These lightning-fast efforts demand fluid, fast feet. Over time, that silky, high-cadence will become second nature. Using a gear you can push at 90 to 110 rpm with effort, pedal as hard as you can for 10 seconds. Spin easy for 20 seconds. Repeat for 10 to 15 minutes. Rest 5 minutes. Do another set.

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