Chloe Dygert works out in Santa Monica, CA, USA on July 17, 2017.
© Marv Watson/Red Bull Content Pool

Interval training sessions for cyclists

Use these sessions to bolster your cycling fitness or prepare for your next long-distance sportive.
Written by Charlie Allenby
8 min readPublished on
Preparing for a long-distance bike ride is much more than hitting the country lanes for a few hours at the weekend. Training plans are built around a number of different sessions – the most efficient (and sometimes painful) of which being intervals.
Here, Elliot Lipski, team coach for professional outfit Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, and cycling coach Stephen Gallagher of Dig Deep Coaching explain how interval training can improve your performance on the bike and provide some of their favourite sessions for you to try next time you head out in the saddle.

What is interval training?

At its essence, interval training is alternating between periods of low and high intensity cycling – and can range from hill repeats and cadence drills through to longer blocks lasting as long as two hours.
“Training is about three basic variables – your intensity, duration and frequency,” says Gallagher. “Interval training focuses very much on these at vastly different levels.”
“The ‘intervals’ do not always need to be completed at 100 percent effort however,” adds Lipski. “It all depends on the goal of the session and how that fits in with your longer-term targets.”
Interval training is a time-efficient way to prepare for a race

Interval training is a time-efficient way to prepare for a race

© Greg Coleman / Red Bull Content Pool

Why is interval training beneficial?

As a result of being more focused on a specific goal (be it climbing a particular hill faster or holding a certain wattage for longer), interval training will lead to noticeable improvements in your performance a lot more quickly than just going on moderate-to-low intensity rides. The added benefit of this is that they’re also a lot more time efficient, making them perfect for those who can’t dedicate 20-30 hours a week to riding their bike.
“For most people, interval training is a highly time-efficient way of training for a goal event, or to just get fitter,” says Lipski. “Physiologically you will likely see increases in VO2 max (the maximal amount of oxygen your body can take in and utilise), increasing power output and better cardiac response. Generally speaking, the less ‘trained’ you are, the better the responses will be in the short term.”
“You’re being specific in what you’re doing, and you have maximised your efforts in that one-hour training session to the event or goal you’re heading towards,” adds Gallagher. “Generally with interval training, if you are as specific as possible in that intensity [e.g. maintaining 90-95 rpm for three-minute intervals with high resistance] you don’t need to do the bigger volumes that you’d have to do if you were doing moderate-to-low intensity training. The misconception is that interval training is for professional or dedicated sports people but, in essence, it’s as important for people with limited time.”
Gordon Benson rides down a road.

Gordon Benson tucks into the descent

© Henry Knock/Red Bull Content Pool

When should interval sessions be used during training?

If taking on a sportive and time allows, your training is likely to be split into two-to-three shorter sessions during the week with a longer ride at the weekend. And it’s important to keep a balance in the work you do on the bike.
“The downside [of interval sessions] is that they’re just not as enjoyable or sociable as rides to the cafe at the weekend,” admits Gallagher. “There has to be a balance between the social aspect of the sport, which is why most people take it up. But if you’ve only got a limited amount of time [and are training for an event], you might have to sacrifice some of the social and pleasurable side of cycling.”
Tahnée Seagrave warming up during the downhill World Cup off-season.

All change for Tahnée Seagrave this off-season

© Dave Mackison/Red Bull Content Pool

He recommends including at least two interval sessions a week, which would increase to three around a month before an event, and Lipski agrees, adding: “As you progress towards your goal, you should add progression and specificity. This could be increasing the number of intervals you complete, or time spent at a certain intensity. If you have a specific target, it will help to add intervals that is befitting of what you will experience.”
“Intervals aren’t always maximal efforts – falling on your knees tired,” says Gallagher. “You need to be able to complete the intervals at the required intensity and technique though, otherwise they’re useless. You’re safer not doing any intervals and doing a general aerobic ride than doing intervals that are well below the target power, heart rate, cadence, etc.”

Lipski's VO2 intervals

Increase your push power with interval training

Increase your push power with interval training

© Gines Diaz / Red Bull Content Pool

“This is a great session to improve your performance on the bike. It’s not an easy session though, so it’s best to complete once a week with progression over the weeks as you get stronger. Try and build the session up to a total of 60mins spent at the ‘high-intensity’ part.”
For more on FTP and training zones, follow this link here.
  • 3mins – easy (50% FTP)
  • 3mins – medium, able to speak in full sentences (70% FTP)
  • 3mins – heavy, short of breath, struggle to hold a conversation (80% FTP)
  • 3mins – hard, focussed on the effort (90-100% FTP)
  • 3mins – easy to recover (50% FTP)
Start with 2x 8mins at a high-intensity effort. Treat each interval as an 8min time-trial, where you are trying to get the most power out of each eight minutes as possible. This means pacing the effort to be able to complete each interval, so don’t start too hard. You should be close to your maximal heart rate at the end of each interval.
  • 8mins – VO2 max interval (120% of FTP) maximal effort for the duration
  • 7-10mins – recovery between intervals
Depending on how you find this session, try and add an interval every one to two weeks, increasing to seven intervals.
Triathlete Lucy Charles hill training by the coast

Triathlete Lucy Charles hill training by the coast

© Graeme Murray / Red Bull Content Pool

Gallagher's hill repeats

“This session is perfect when training for a sportive with lots of short, sharp climbs. It would be perfect, for example, when training to ride the Tour of Flanders sportive, or a UK sportive with similar climbs in quick succession. The goal of this session is not only to increase your five-minute power but also to improve your ability to recover between efforts. If you are using a power meter, you should aim for no more than an eight percent drop in power between the first and the last effort.”
Again, if you need to know more about training zone, you can download this PDF.
  • 20mins – a slow progression from zone one, through zone two, with the last five minutes in zone three
  • 5mins – easy (zone one/two)
  • 5x 5mins hill efforts (zone five) with 5min recovery between efforts. Would recommend descending the hill, going a few hundred metres past your start point and then turning around and riding back, ready to start the next effort
10mins – easy (zone one)
Quiet roads are ideal for interval training

Quiet roads are ideal for interval training

© Christoph Wisser / Red Bull Content Pool

Gallagher's threshold intervals

“One of the best ways to develop your threshold, which is an essential objective of all endurance cyclists, and also your ability to go over/under your threshold, is using specific pace/intensity changes during a tailored interval session. This is normally done at an elevated effort like what you would ride in a breakaway, but the adaption and development brought by such training sessions see great gains in not only your threshold riding but your three-to-five minute maximum power.”
10mins (zone two)
  • 3x 30secs fast cadence efforts, 120rpm (zone three), with 30secs recovery (zone one) between each effort
Then you'll do 5x 5mins lactate tolerance efforts with 5-7mins recovery (zone one) between each effort. Each effort should consist of:
  • 1min VO2 (zone five)
  • 1min threshold (zone four)
  • 1min tempo (zone three)
  • 1min threshold (zone four)
  • 1min VO2 (zone five)
5mins (zone one)
Using pace changes during a  session can help to boost your threshold

Using pace changes during a session can help to boost your threshold

© Red Bull Content Pool

Gallagher's sprinting intervals

“This session works on the two aspects of sprinting individually and then puts them together.
"The first sprints work on muscle power and torque production – how hard you can push on the pedals. The second sprints work on leg speed – how quickly you can turn the pedals. Both the first and second set of sprints work on muscle activation and the number of muscle fibres that your body can fire at once – the more fibres, the quicker and stronger the force through the pedals.
“The aim of the third set of sprints is to put the two elements together and work on your sprinting speed. It is important to remember that sprinting isn’t only about pure power but also about technique. Work on sprinting as smoothly as possible and trying not to waste precious energy by moving your bike wildly from side to side.”
  • 20mins – a slow progression from zone one, through zone two, with the last 5mins in zone three
  • 5mins easy (zone one/two)
  • 4x 15secs standing start sprints – use a gear that allows you to get off the line but means that your cadence at the end of the effort doesn’t exceed 100rpm. 3mins easy (zone one) between efforts
  • 10mins easy (zone one/two)
  • 4x 15secs cadence sprints – sprints from a rolling start (25-30kph) in a small gear, where cadence exceeds 120rpm for the entire 15 seconds. 3mins easy (zone one) between efforts
  • 10mins easy (zone one/two)
  • 4x 15secs max sprints – sprints from a rolling start (25-30kph) in a gear that means you can sprint as fast as possible for 15secs. Feel free to shift down during these efforts. 3mins easy (zone one) between efforts
  • 10mins (zone one)