Interval training is one of the most effective ways to improve your cycling performance. By mixing high-intensity intervals with periods of lower-intensity recovery, you can train your body to ride harder and faster. This guide will provide everything you need to know to start using bike interval workouts to reach your cycling goals.
What is a Bike Interval Workout?
A bike interval workout consists of repeated bouts of hard effort, interspersed with periods of easier pedaling for recovery. The high-intensity intervals are done close to your maximum sustainable pace, while the recovery segments are done at an easier, lower intensity.
This type of workout builds endurance by forcing your body to repeatedly go outside of its comfort zone, which over time increases your ability to sustain higher paces. The intervals also build greater power and speed by recruiting more muscle fibers.
Interval training provides all the benefits of high-intensity exercise in shorter time frames by focusing on quality over quantity. Just a few interval sessions per week can lead to impressive fitness gains.
Benefits of Bike Interval Training
Interval training provides a host of performance and health benefits:
- Increases VO2 max – VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. It is one of the best measures of cardiovascular fitness and endurance. Interval training has been proven to boost VO2 max more effectively than steady riding at moderate intensity.
- Builds muscular endurance – The repeated intensity spikes recruit more muscle fibers and condition them to handle lactic acid buildup. This increases your ability to sustain higher power outputs.
- Increases anaerobic threshold – This is the intensity level above which your body can’t clear lactic acid quickly enough. A higher anaerobic threshold means you can ride harder before fatiguing.
- Greater speed and power – Intervals train your muscles to fire more forcefully and pedal at faster cadences. This translates directly into greater cycling speed and power.
- Improves bike handling skills – The surges in pace also sharpen bike handling abilities like cornering, climbing, and descending.
- Burns fat – The intensity spikes jack up metabolism and the body’s fat burning capabilities. This leads to noticeable fat loss over time.
- Saves training time – With intervals, you reap the benefits of high-intensity training in half the time of a long, slow distance workout.
For any bike racer, intervals should form the core of training. The performance gains are simply too great to pass up. But any cyclist at any level can benefit from mixing some interval sessions into their weekly riding schedule.
How Interval Workouts Work
To understand how interval training provides such big benefits, it helps to look at what’s happening inside the muscles.
- At the start of an interval set, your fresh muscles have ample energy stores of glycogen and oxygen supply. This allows you to produce high power.
- As you continue repeating hard efforts, your energy stores deplete, oxygen debt builds up, and lactic acid accumulates. This causes burning muscles and fatigue.
- During the recovery periods, your body clears excess lactate, replenishes oxygen, and utilizes fat as fuel. This prepares you for the next hard effort.
- Over time, your muscles adapt to this stress by building greater strength and endurance. Your cardio and respiratory systems also become more efficient at delivering oxygen.
So while the intervals feel brutally hard, they trigger your body to make beneficial adaptations that increase your overall fitness and cycling capabilities.
How to Structure Your Bike Interval Sessions
There are countless different interval workout formats. By manipulating the following variables, you can tailor sessions to target your specific goals and fitness level:
This is the effort level during the hard intervals. A good starting point is 80-90% of your maximum heart rate. As your fitness improves, you can increase intensity to 95%+ max HR to create greater gains.
Intervals typically range from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. The longer the effort, the greater the endurance development. Shorter intervals of 1-2 minutes build more lactate tolerance for speed and power.
Recoveries should be 1-3 times the interval duration. Take enough time to clear lactate and regulate breathing before the next interval. Active recovery around 60% max HR is optimal.
Number of Repetitions
Most interval sets range from 3 to 10 repeats. Optimal volume depends on the rider’s fitness level and goals. Start with 3-5 and build up over time.
You can use both passive (sitting still) and active (zone 1-2 spinning) recoveries. Active recovery circulates blood and speeds lactate clearance.
All-out max efforts, slight overgears, hill repeats, roller sessions, and variable/progressive formats are options.
Varying these parameters over time provides the greatest long-term results. Always begin an interval block with 2-3 weeks of shorter, less intense sessions to build an endurance base first.
11 Types of Bike Interval Workouts
Here are some of the most effective interval workout formats to build cycling fitness:
|1. Classic 2x20s||Two sets of 20-second all-out sprints with 2-3 minutes recovery between sprints and 5 minutes between sets.||Builds raw power and sprint speed. Great for road racers and criterium riders.|
|2. Tabata Intervals||Eight rounds of 20 seconds at full effort followed by 10 seconds rest.||Develops anaerobic and aerobic endurance. Burns fat. Efficient workout.|
|3. 30/30s||30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy, repeat 8-12 times.||Excellent for beginners. Builds muscular endurance.|
|4. Long Intervals||3-5 x 3-5 minutes @ 85-95% max HR with 1:1 rest ratio.||Builds strength and cardiovascular fitness. Mimics race pace effort.|
|5. Hill Repeats||6-10 x 30-90 seconds max effort up hill with jog back recovery.||Builds power and strength. Increases VO2 max.|
|6. Roller Sessions||3-8 x 30 seconds to 3 minutes in aero position, high cadence at fast pace. Recover actively.||Develops power, speed, and bike handling skills. Perfect indoor option.|
|7. Progressive Overload Intervals||Gradually increase effort each interval. Ex: 40%, 60%, 80%, 100% x 5 minutes.||Allows you to sustain intensity increase over time. Builds mental toughness.|
|8. Variable Intensity||Alternate interval intensity and duration. Ex: 2 minutes hard, 1 min easy, 3 mins hard, 90 sec easy.||Adds variety to prevent boredom and overuse injuries.|
|9. Overspeed Intervals||Pedal above normal cadence at moderate effort. Ex: 110+ rpm for 30-60 seconds.||Conditions muscles for faster pedaling turnover.|
|10. Descending Intervals||Start at maximal effort and gradually decrease intensity each rep. Ex: 100%, 90%, 80% x 5 minutes.||Teaches body to keep pace high as fatigue sets in.|
|11. Aerobic Capacity Intervals||Longer intervals at 80-85% max HR with shorter rest periods. Ex: 5×4 minutes with 1:30 rests.||Builds muscular endurance and aerobic system.|
Mix up these formats over the course of your training to see continued progress. Use shorter, more intense repeats during peak training and higher volume intervals in your base period.
How to Incorporate Intervals into Your Training Plan
While intervals are great for boosting fitness, you need to be strategic about integrating them into your overall cycling training plan. Here are some tips:
- Do most intervals in the 1-2 month periods before your key races or events. This peaks your speed and power for race day.
- Start with only 1-2 interval sessions during a base training block focused on building endurance.
- Slowly increase interval volume and intensity as your base fitness improves. High volume intervals require an endurance base.
- Allow 24-48 hours between hard interval days. Follow intense repeats with an easy recovery ride.
- Always warm up thoroughly before intervals and cool down after. Include accelerator pickups in warm up.
- Refuel and rehydrate completely after interval rides. Recovery nutrition is vital.
- Vary interval formats to prevent overuse injuries. Don’t repeat the same workout week to week.
- Adjust intensity and volume if you feel overly fatigued or are not recovering adequately between intervals.
- Make sure you keep building endurance with long weekend rides. Endurance and intervals complement each other.
- Rest adequately and periodize training to avoid burnout. Your body needs recovery to adapt.
With careful planning, bike intervals will deliver awesome benefits without overtraining you. Be patient and stick with it!
How to Push Yourself During Intervals
To gain the full benefits, you need to truly push yourself hard during the intense intervals. Here are tips for getting the most out of each repeat:
- Warm up thoroughly – Do at least 10-15 minutes of gradual spinning and a few short accelerations first to maximize performance.
- Use a timer – Set a watch or bike computer to accurately pace efforts and rests. Precision is key.
- Start conservatively – Your first 1-2 intervals serve as additional warm up. Build into full intensity.
- Focus mentally – Stay focused on maintaining form and hitting your targets. Block out discomfort.
- Maintain speed/pace – Fight against the urge to fade. Push through the final seconds.
- Sit or stand – Use your most powerful pedaling position to generate max force.
- Use cadence shifts – Change gears to vary cadence and hit higher speeds.
- Leverage group dynamics – Let a partner or group push you to work harder.
- Monitor metrics – Track watts, speed, HR, cadence to gauge effort and progress.
- Breathe deeply – Work on taking full belly breaths to supply oxygen.
- Stay relaxed – Avoid death gripping the bars. Keep shoulders, jaw and knees soft.
- Spin easy between intervals – Keep legs turning over smoothly to clear lactate.
- Fuel/hydrate adequately – Take fluids/gels to maintain energy and focus.
If an interval feels easy, you aren’t riding it hard enough! Maximize each repeat and the results will come.
How to Structure an Effective Bike Interval Workout
Follow this framework to ensure you design interval workouts that are time efficient and deliver results:
- 10-20 minutes building effort from zone 1 to zone 3
- Include a few accelerations or hill efforts in the final minutes
- 3-8 intervals total
- 1:1 to 1:3 work to rest ratios
- Intensity between 80-100% max effort
- 10+ minutes at zone 1 pace
- Keep legs spinning
- 2-3 x 10-15 seconds max accelerations just before cool down end
Total Workout Time
- 45 minutes to 1.5 hours
Mix up the intervals with different formats. Adjust volume, intensity and rests based on goals. Utilize marked climbs or sprints. The main set is where the magic happens!
Bike Interval Workout Example Sets
Beginner Bike Interval Workout
- 7 minute warm up
- 3 x 30/30s – 30 seconds fast cadence (90+ rpm), 30 seconds easy
- 3 x 2 minute intervals at medium effort (~80% max) with 2 minute recoveries
- 5 minute cool down + 2 x 10 second sprints
Intermediate Bike Interval Workout
- 10 minute warm up
- 3 x 3 minutes at ~90% max effort with 2 minute recoveries
- 3 x 1 minute fast intervals (~100% effort) with 90 seconds recovery
- 8 minute cool down with 3 x 15 second sprints
Advanced Bike Interval Workout
- 15 minute extensive warm up
- 5 x 4 minutes at 85-95% max effort with 2 minute recoveries
- 3 x 2 minute max effort hill climbs with jog back recoveries
- 12 minute cool down
Adjust these workouts based on your current fitness and goals. Mix and match elements to keep your body improving!
Interval Workout Safety Tips
While highly effective, intervals are an extremely demanding form of exercise. Use the following tips to stay safe:
- Always do an adequate warm up before starting intense efforts.
- Choose low-traffic routes or routes with wide roads/shoulders to allow full focus on the intervals.
- Bring sufficient water and nutrition to maintain hydration and energy.
- Make sure bike is in top mechanical condition before doing fast efforts or sprints.
- Pay extra attention to traffic flow and road conditions when fatigued between intervals.
- Wear bright colors and use flashing lights in low visibility conditions.
- Build volume and intensity gradually over time to prevent overtraining and burnout.
- Know warning signs like labored breathing and dizziness that indicate you should stop immediately.
- Have emergency contact info, ID, and cash on you in case of accidents far from home.
- Tell someone your planned route in case of emergencies. Consider using a tracking app.
Intervals put serious demands on your cardio system and muscles. By taking precautions, you’ll remain safe while improving your fitness.
Top Interval Workout Mistakes to Avoid
It’s easy to fall into common mistakes when you start performing bike interval workouts. Here are the top errors to avoid:
- No warm up – Jumping straight into hard efforts without warming up increases injury risk. Always do an easy 10-15 minute warm up first.
- Intensity too high too soon – Build up intensity gradually over your first few interval workouts to prevent overexertion.
- Not enough recovery time – Under-recovering between intervals limits how hard you can push on each effort. Take adequate rest.
- Repeated workout formats – Doing the same workout each session leads to overuse injuries and plateaus. Vary interval formats.
- Intervals too long – Intervals over 5 minutes induce different training effects. Keep most efforts under 3 minutes.
- Sloppy technique – Rushing intervals often compromises pedal stroke, gearing and posture. Stay smooth.
- Insufficient fueling – Intervals demand quick energy. Make sure to properly fuel and hydrate before, during and after.
- Overtraining – Too much interval volume stresses your body. Build gradually and rest adequately.
- Ignoring rest days – Rest days are when your body adapts and gets stronger. Make sure to take them.
- No objective measurement – Use heart rate, pace or power monitors to properly gauge intensity and progress.
Avoiding these common mistakes will ensure you maximize the benefits from every interval session safely and efficiently.
How to Integrate Interval Training Indoors
While intervals are generally ideal to do outdoors, you can integrate them into indoor trainer workouts over the winter or for added training stimulus:
- Smart trainers allow you to program specific wattage targets, perfect for dialing in intervals.
- Use Erg mode for precise power and resistance control.
- Add sprints and high cadence drills to roller sessions to mimic intervals.
- Focus on maintaining form and bike handling when fatigued.
- Follow instructor cues for high intensity efforts and recovery periods.
- Use perceived exertion to gauge interval intensity.
Indoor Cycling Apps
- Apps like Zwift, Sufferfest, and TrainerRoad have structured interval workouts.
- Interact and compete with others for added motivation.
- Online cycling training videos offer guided interval classes.
- Just be sure to take breaks as needed.
Go hard when the instructor/program says to go hard, then back off during the prescribed recovery periods. This indoor approach can greatly expand your interval training.
What to Eat Before and After Intervals
Fueling is critical when doing demanding interval sessions:
Pre-workout Nutrition Tips
- Eat a carb-rich meal 2-3 hours pre-workout. Good options: oatmeal, whole grains, fruit
- Hydrate well in the hours leading up to intervals.
- Have a small carb snack 30-60 minutes pre-workout if needed.
- Consider a caffeine source for alertness.
During the Workout
- Consume 30-60g carbs per hour via sports drink, gel or chews.
- Replenish electrolytes lost in sweat.
- Stay well hydrated with 7-10 oz fluid every 15-20 minutes.
Post-workout Recovery Tips
- Eat a carb/protein meal within 60 minutes. Helps replenish glycogen.
- Continue hydrating with water and electrolytes.
- Consume 20-40g protein to help rebuild damaged muscle tissue.
- Refuel again with a meal 2 hours later.
Proper workout nutrition ensures you have enough energy to complete intervals optimally and recover quickly.
How Intervals Help You Get Faster On The Bike
Intervals build greater cycling speed and power by producing both physiological and neuromuscular adaptations:
- Increased blood volume and hemoglobin levels – improves oxygen delivery to working muscles
- Greater capillary density in muscles – allows for more oxygen extraction
- Increased size and strength of heart muscle – improves cardiac output
- Expanded mitochondria volume and aerobic enzymes – enhances cellular energy production
- Improved buffering and removal of lactate and protons – delays fatigue
- Increased motor unit recruitment – uses more muscle fibers
- Improved firing rates of motor units – faster and more forceful contractions
- Strengthened pedal stroke – smoother and more efficient transfer of force
- Increased muscle-tendon stiffness – better translation of muscle force into pedal power
- Improved pedaling efficiency – less energy wasted with each pedal stroke
Together, these changes make your entire cardiovascular and muscular systems more capable of delivering the power, speed, and efficiency needed to ride faster in races and training.
How to Use Technology to Get the Most From Intervals
Using technology like bike computers, power meters, and heart rate monitors can help ensure you maximize the benefits from every interval session:
- Provides reliable pacing and duration guidance for intervals and rest periods.
- Tracks speed and distance metrics to gauge progress over time.
Heart Rate Monitor
- Gives real time feedback that intensity is in the proper training zone.
- Helps prevent overexertion or under-training.
- Allows precision in targeting specific wattage goals for intervals and recovery.
- Tracks average power increase over time as fitness improves.
- Automatically controls resistance to match target wattage profile.
- Provides motivation through immersive, structured workouts.
- Monitors workout strain, recovery time, sleep and overall training load.
- Helps determine optimal rest required between interval days.
Leverage technology to introduce more structure, objectivity, variety and motivation into your training. It takes the guesswork out of optimizing your intervals.
How Intervals Build Mental Toughness on The Bike
Interval training does more than just boost your physical fitness – it builds greater mental toughness and resilience:
- Overcoming discomfort – Pushing through the pain of hard efforts teaches you to suffer.
- Increased confidence – Meeting targets gives you belief in your abilities.
- Tolerance for uncertainty – Repeats create skill in pacing without fully knowing the finish point.
- Emotional control – Controlling nerves, anxiety, excitement in a group environment.
- Managing fatigue – Continuing hard efforts in a pre-fatigued state simulates race demands.
- Focus and determination – Laser mental focus required to hit the numbers each interval.
- Coping with poor conditions – Adapting to perform in heat, cold, wind, rain, darkness.
- Competitiveness – Group intervals build motivation to work harder than others.
Just like the physical stresses, the mental demands of interval training force you to develop greater resilience, grit, and discipline on the bike. These skills directly translate to enhanced racing performance.
Sample Bike Interval Workouts For Different Goals
Here are sample interval workout plans to target specific cycling goals:
|Crit Racing – Speed and Vo2 Max||5min warm up, 3x30sec sprints w/90sec rest, 3x2min @115% FTP w/2min rest, 5min cool down|
|Road Racing – Lactate Threshold||10min warm up, 3x5min @105% FTP w/3min rest, 5x1min @120% FTP w/2min rest, 8min cool down|
|Time Trialing – Sustained Power||15min extensive warm up, 3x8min @110% FTP w/4min rest, 12min cool down|
|Hill Climbing – Strength and Power||7min warm up, 6x90sec seated climbing intervals w/2min rest, 5x30sec standing sprints w/90sec rest, 8min cool down|
|Ultra-Endurance – Aerobic Capacity||12min warm up, 3x10min @85%HRR w/5min rest, 8x90sec sprints w/3min rest, 10min cool down|
Adjust the interval format, sets, reps and rest periods based on your specific goals. Retest fitness metrics monthly to ensure continued adaptation.
Choosing Interval Workout Locations
Use these tips for selecting optimal roads or routes for your bike interval sessions:
- Look for low-traffic roads with good site lines and minimal stop signs or lights.
- Consider safe sections of bike paths. Avoid overcrowded multi-use paths.
- Straight roads are better for tempo and threshold intervals.
- Hills are ideal for VO2 max and hard climbing interval efforts. Include descents in recovery.
- Criterium courses work well for speed intervals. Utilize straightaways and corners.
- Marked distances allow you to easily gauge effort over a set segment.
- Use different route options to add variety and prevent overuse injuries.
- Consider loops close to home to allow for refueling/hydration access and emergency rides home.
Test different roads and memorize optimal interval locations. This allows you to plan effective sessions anytime.
How to Use Bike Intervals to Train For a Century Ride
Bike intervals can help prepare your body for the demands of long rides like century events. Use these strategies:
- Do longer intervals like 3-5 x 8-10 minutes in your base period to build muscular endurance.
- One longer interval workout a week maintains endurance while adding metabolic demands.
- Include some moderately paced intervals to simulate ” tempo” riding at century pace.
- Practice pacing intervals to nail fueling, hydration and exertion levels for century intensity.
- Use intervals to simulate late-ride fatigue. Do them toward the end of long training rides.
- Build mental toughness for the hard final miles. Extend one interval set each week.
- Incorporate longer intervals into indoor trainer rides to boost fitness if outdoors isn’t an option.
- Two weeks out, switch to shorter VO2 max intervals for a final fitness boost before tapering.
Smart incorporation of bike intervals into your plan will help you optimally prepare for the century distance. You’ll finish strong!
Common Bike Interval Training Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)
It’s easy to fall into common mistakes when doing bike intervals. Here are some of the biggest errors and how to fix them:
Starting Too Fast
- Don’t do max efforts in the first interval. Build up to your hardest in the middle intervals.
Fatiguing Too Soon
- Start with shorter interval and rep volumes and work up over time as fitness improves.
- Take full recovery periods – never cut the rest short between intervals. 1:2 work to rest ratio is ideal.
- Vary workouts each week using different formats and interval durations to prevent plateaus.
Poor Warm Up
- Always do 10-15 minutes of easy spinning plus a few short accelerations before intervals.
- Schedule an easy spin day after hard interval sessions to absorb the training.
- Use different gears to keep cadence in 85-105 rpm range for most intervals.
Going Too Easy
- Really make sure you are pushing into your max sustainable pace, especially in final reps.
Fix these common mistakes in your interval training to see continued progression. Record sessions to gauge exertion and effort.
Using Heart Rate to Guide Your Bike Interval Intensity
Your heart rate response offers an excellent way to objectively measure and modulate your interval intensity. Here’s how to leverage heart rate for optimal sessions:
Determine Max HR
First, find your max heart rate, either through testing or estimating (220-age). This serves as the reference point.
Calculate Training Zones
Use max HR to set training zones for different interval intensities. For example:
- Zone 1: 60-70% max HR (easy spinning)
- Zone 3: 80-90% max HR (tempo)
- Zone 5: 95%+ max HR (VO2 max)
Observe HR Response
During intervals, monitor your real time heart rate response via a heart rate monitor strap or bike computer.
Based on target zone for that interval, scale effort up or down to keep heart rate in the proper zone.
Progress Over Time
As fitness improves, expect to see lower heart rate response at the same interval power/pace.
Let your heart rate guide you to dial in the optimal intensity for the training adaptation you want from each unique interval session.
Top Bike Interval Workout Apps
Interval workout apps provide guided, structured sessions with programmed sets, reps and recoveries. Here are some of the most popular:
The leader in cycling training apps, with a huge workout library and integrated power and heart rate training.
The interactive platform lets you complete structured workouts in immersive worlds. Adds competition and community.
Real video route simulationsindoors with power and heart rate feedback.
Ride real world route videos that control resistance on smart trainers.
Customized, adjustable interval plans with videos and analytics.
Stream spin classeswith top coaches and music right to your bike or treadmill.
Try a few apps to find your favorite features and training styles. They provide a great alternative when weather prohibits outdoor rides.
Bike Interval Workouts for Beginners
If you’re new to interval training, here are some effective sample bike interval sessions to build fitness safely:
Beginner Workout 1
- 5 minute warm-up
- 3 x 90 seconds moderate effort (~70% max) with 90 seconds rest
- 3 x 30 seconds faster effort (~80% max) with 60 seconds rest
- 5 minute cool down
Total Time: 25 minutes
Beginner Workout 2
- 10 minute warm-up
- 5 x 30 seconds hard (~90% max) with 90 seconds rest
- 3 x 2 minutes moderate effort (~80% max) with 2 minutes rest
- 10 minute cool down
Total Time: 35 minutes
Beginner Workout 3
- 7 minute warm-up
- 4 x 1 minute moderate effort hill climbs with descents to recover
- 4 x 30 seconds faster cadence spinning (~100rpm) with 60 seconds rest
- 8 minute cool down
Total Time: 30 minutes
Focus on keeping proper form, pacing efforts evenly, and recovering fully as you build your interval training skills and fitness.
Interval training is clearly one of the most effective methods for improving cycling performance. The high-intensity intervals interspersed with recovery periods drive rapid fitness gains by placing substantial physiological demands on the body that spark beneficial adaptations.
While challenging, intervals are time efficient, delivering results in half the time of traditional slow endurance rides. They build greater endurance, power, speed, muscular strength, mental toughness and fat burning.
By following the guidance in this article on interval intensity, duration, formats and proper incorporation into your training, you will be well equipped to use bike intervals to take your riding performance to the next level! Just be sure to progress slowly, focus on sound technique, adequately recover between sessions, and most of all – enjoy the process of getting faster!