A Simpler Guide to Interval Training for Cyclists

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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A Simpler Guide to Interval Training for Cyclists

Intervals can be as simple as racing friends to a town sign or sprinting up a local climb. This interval strategy can be fun, push your limits and work on race-specific tactics. However, at some point in your athletic development, you’ll need to focus your interval training to see progress, regardless of whether you do short races, long rides or something in between. While not always as fun as smashing your friends on the local KOM, one or two well-executed interval sessions each week will boost your cycling fitness and help you win more races and be stronger on group rides.


The first rule of interval training: Before your interval day, plan a rest day. Intervals need not be complicated — there are great resources to help you climb hills faster, perform intervals for mountain bikers, learn how to use VAM to improve climbing pace and how to boost your threshold. The concept of intervals — alternating easy and hard work periods — also applies to our training days, weeks and months. During the week many athletes take their rest days on Monday and Friday, leaving Tuesday and Saturday for intervals. On these days, you should notice labored breathing and aim to push your comfort level. Accordingly, your endurance and easy days should not have this hard work and heavy breathing so that you recover your motivation and energy to push that comfort level again a few days later.

On your interval days, your workout will consist of a good warmup to get sweating and activated. I encourage athletes to hone their race warmups on these days. Once warm, alternate periods of hard work with very easy portions. While we could be scientific and precise with our zones, let’s try three basic interval types that serve most athletes well. If you are just starting training, you could rotate through each of these once every 7–10 days and see great success, more experienced athletes would be better served by planning their training in phases focused on each of the durations as they progress toward the specific demands of their goal race.


1. Short sprint intervals (5–120 seconds), rest 6+ minutes between (e.g. 60-minute ride with 6 x 10-second sprints every 8 minutes)

2. Medium duration hill intervals (2–7 minutes), rest 1–2 times longer than the work interval (e.g. 4 x 4 minutes with 4-minute recovery)

3. Longer ‘threshold’ intervals (8–30 minutes), rest less than 5 minutes between efforts (e.g. 2 x 20 minutes with 5-minute recovery)


There are many methods to decide on interval intensity, but I find most athletes are best served by learning to hold a ‘best pace’ with a minimal fade for a given interval set. So if you are doing sprint intervals you can do 5 x 10-second sprints this week and then the next week you can add a rep, make the interval longer or go harder for the same number of repetitions. The gradual progression is really motivating once you start tracking your performance.

If you don’t measure your output/results, then you can’t assess whether you had a great session. To succeed in interval training — and in cycling generally — you need to track an output metric. This can be time up a familiar hill, the distance you can cover in a certain time (40 kilometer time trial) or the average power you can put out during the interval. These output measures have some variability with conditions (wind, surface) but help you see if you are getting fitter between workouts, and also if you are fading during a workout.


If you don’t complete a workout set, that’s a sign you went too hard on the intervals and need to either back off on the first intervals, reduce the number of reps you’re aiming for or simply increase the recovery time between repetitions. If you are doing the workout set and covering more ground or producing more wattage over a few weeks, it’s a great confidence boost and sign your training is working. If you find you can’t progress a workout anymore, it’s a sign you need to change things up, and likely take a recovery week to let your body adapt.

Too often athletes complain they can’t go hard enough in intervals and they need to do a group ride to be pushed. I have found that, generally, the lack of an output metric and seeing the improvement each workout is the issue. Checking that the athlete is taking enough recovery days so they can push themselves enough can also play a role. There is no right or wrong in a single workout, with some attention, you will learn where your limits are and slowly push yourself to do a bit more work each session.

Intervals need not be complex, monotonous or dreaded — OK, maybe dreaded, but only until they’re completed. They are among the most beneficial workouts any cyclist can do and will provide you with confidence that you have experienced race or ride intensity before the big day. We all have weak points in our cycling ability and intervals are a great way to improve our weaknesses and continue to maintain or boost our strengths so we can be stronger next time.

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.


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