How Long, How Hard, and How Often?

When a new client signs up for coaching with Cycle-Smart it almost never fails that they're shocked and concerned with the lack of anaerobic and other high-intensity intervals in their training program. Other than sprint workouts, for the first 4-12 weeks of the season the hardest interval they're asked to do is just below their functional threshold. It takes a large amount of trust as it seems counter-intuitive; if you want to get faster, you have to train as long, hard, and often as possible, right? Trying to get them to take a new approach can be difficult.

Many of my articles revolve around the importance of base training, rest, and recovery. These are the foundation and framework of deep, solid fitness, and almost always the aspect that self-coached riders overlook in their anxiousness to get to the "hard" stuff. With no base, you'll be able to do a certain volume of anaerobic work - you'll get fast, but your fitness will have a low ceiling and a short shelf life. With a solid aerobic base, you'll be able to do a much higher volume of anaerobic work with less days of recovery in between each workout. Your fitness will reach a higher level and last longer, with much less risk of overtraining.

At some point, most of my clients will arrive at the point where they've finished their base work and are ready to complete their fitness picture with the anaerobic training I've kept from them until now. It's not that they haven't been anaerobic yet; they've been racing every weekend and getting some default high intensity work done then. Only when they've achieved all their aerobic goals, however, is when I allow them to begin specific anaerobic training during the week. There are 3 types of anaerobic intervals that I utilize: maximal (or neuromuscular power), submaximal (or anaerobic work capacity), and high (or VO2max) intensity efforts.

Maximal efforts can be done year-round and are simply 8-15 second sprints, the details of which I've outlined in other articles on the Cycle-Smart Web site. 

Submax: Submaxal efforts or anaerobic work capacity (AWC) intervals begin like a sprint, with an all-out effort, but then the effort is held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, with full recovery between each interval. The goal with these intervals is two-fold: to increase the capacity of work one can do using the anaerobic engine, and secondarily to increase the power one can make. In other words, you want to be able to ride not just at a higher power, but at that power for a longer duration. Anaerobic power, like neuromuscular power, is difficult to train and determined largely by muscle fiber type. But anaerobic capacity, the length of time one can hold that power and the size of the tank that fuels the effort, is very trainable and responds quickly to stimulus.

Ideally. these intervals should be done early in the week after full recovery from the weekend, and early in a training phase when your body is still fresh enough to handle them. 4-6 one-minute intervals, with 5-10 minutes of recovery between each one, is sufficient.

High: High intensity or VO2max intervals are very different from Submax, and almost a misnomer to simply label them "anaerobic" intervals, as I'll explain. The interval time is ideally 5 minutes, with a limited recovery period of about 50%. Unlike the AWC intervals, your goal isn't to empty the tank quickly and hold on for the rest of the interval, but to ride a consistent, steady effort at an average power above your functional threshold. It's easy to overstart these intervals and fade, which defeats the purpose here.

With partial recovery, each subsequent interval will be fueled less and less from the anaerobic system as it becomes exhausted, and more and more through aerobic mechanisms. There's no switch that gets flipped when you go above your threshold power; you're always using the aerobic system to some degree. The goal here is to increase the power you can produce at VO2max, but you'll also see some impact on and improvement of your threshold power as well.

The intervals can be done on the first or second day of a training block, but again only after full recovery from the weekend. In the context of a weekly training race, taking one-lap flyers or an extended pull on the front is ideal. 4-6 five-minute intervals for a total of 20-30 minutes of work is appropriate.

In both cases, these intervals can be used to emphasize many different aspects of your form. They can be done motorpacing or in training races, on climbs or flats, on a TT bike, or with aero bars. They can also be done at high RPMs to try to increase efficiency at optimal cadences, or at low cadence to encourage muscle fiber conversion from fast- to slow-twitch. Which aspect you choose to emphasize will depend on your strengths and weaknesses, and what events you have coming up. While I've made volume recommendations for the intervals, the reality of what you do within a single workout should depend on how long you can maintain the quality of the work. When you find you can no longer maintain the power or your perceived exertion doesn't match the effort, you should end the session and be pleased with what you accomplished up to that point.

The most important thing to keep in mind with anaerobic or supra-threshold work is that overdoing it is the easiest way to ruin your season. Most riders can only handle 2-4 workouts of this type in a week, and that includes racing. So, if you're racing on both Saturday and Sunday your only hard workout for the week might fall on Wednesday, or you might not do it all. At this time of the year, full recovery between races and training is crucial to keeping you rolling and away from overtraining.