The Art of the Interval

By Trey Steele & Dave Appel – October 25, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

No matter how long you’ve been riding a bike, there comes a point where you say to yourself, “I wish I were faster.” Whether it’s catching every green light on your commute, winning the group ride sprint, or setting a personal best bike split, a desire to be faster on the bike is almost an inevitability of cycling. And yes, this also goes for those of you who have already convinced yourself you can’t get any faster on the bike. It all comes down to one simple word: intervals.

Simply defined, intervals are periods of intense activity followed by periods of recovery. The duration and intensity level of intervals vary based on your current fitness level and training goals but, no matter whether you ride ten miles a week or 200, intervals should be a weekly part of your plan. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has made its way into most recreational sports including cycling. Numerous studies demonstrate that short workouts containing multiple periods of all-out effort deliver as much or more cardiovascular benefit than long, slow endurance workouts. Calling all triathletes! You’re already time crunched with trying to fit in training for three sports plus strength and core work. If you want to crush your bike split, stop going long and slow and start going short and fast.

But intervals are not just for triathletes. They are for everyone who rides a bike. Intervals don’t just make you faster. They help you burn more calories, lose more weight, and build a different part of your aerobic engine. When you complete an interval workout, your body will continue to burn calories after the workout is over. And the great news is that most interval workouts rarely last longer than an hour, so you get big calorie burn, great cardiovascular development, and solid muscle building all in an hour or less. Talk about turning cycling on its head!

How do you incorporate intervals into your training? At Cycle Camp USA, we use a variety of intervals to train our athletes. We start by selecting one area of focus for our athletes, such as heart rate, distance, time, etc. Then we ask them to hold a high intensity level for the duration of the area of focus. If it sounds simple, it is.

As coaches with many years of cycling experience, we’ve discovered a barrier that prevents cyclists just like you from getting the most out of interval training. Ready? It’s your brain. The first time you try intervals, you’re going to think you’ve pushed yourself as hard as you possibly could. But you didn’t. And how do we know that? Because we work with cyclists just like you. And we have watched them the very first time they tried to push themselves to the edge of the aerobic abyss. Try as they might, they just could not max out their intensity level. Why? When you start to perform an interval, your brain sends signals to get you to stop (think burning legs or searing lungs). It thinks you’re going to continue doing your current activity until, eventually, you keel over dead, so it activates what’s known as the “central governor” to try to shut you down. But because you are a highly intelligent, evolved creature, your brain will learn. After the first time you perform intervals and don’t die, your brain goes, “Oh, ok; so we’re going to do this from time to time. I get it.”

Once the brain gets it, the body is released to begin adapting so that it can perform high-intensity work with the least amount of effort. The cycle continues—you push yourself; your brain tries to stop you; you go just a bit further; the brain releases; your body adapts, and presto—you now find you can push yourself harder than you did when you started interval training. And you get faster!

This progression is why interval training works as a part of group fitness programs for riders of all ability levels. No matter your fitness level, you’ll push yourself harder than you ever have at your first class. For some, it may be because there’s a professional cycling coach to offer “encouragement.” For others, it may be the spirit of competition found in a group.

So go for it! Hop on the bike and try just 15 minutes of intervals. Make it a consistent part of your weekly rides and you will be amazed at the results. Or come jump into a CycleFit class and see just how hard you can go. If you have any desire to increase your cycling fitness, then the interval cannot be beat.



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