Interval training and fitness for cyclists

Everyone knows that elite pro cyclists spend many more training hours in the saddle than their amateur brethren. But according to Joe Beer, that’s only part of the secret of success, which is good news for the rest of us…

Grand Tour winners who race day after day for two to three weeks are some of the fittest athletes on the planet. Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner has been tested in the lab and shown to have an incredibly high maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) of around 80-85mls/kg/min (1).

In interviews after his recent hour record of 49.700km Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka said of his preparation ‘lots of medium-intensity work, supplemented by strength training. I tried not to go beyond my anaerobic threshold too much’ (2). How nice it would be to have seen exactly what he did.

The training required to ride as a professional, making your living on two wheels, is no big secret. It’s an awful lot – somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000km of riding per annum. But if we trawl the scientific journals, only a few papers actually report on elite riders’ data; even the Lance Armstrong data above only spanned 1992-1999. Recent data may be hinted at, but nothing appears in black and white based on scientific analysis.

Smoke and mirrors

Most elite data reports come from interviews, team or rider websites or general cycling folklore passed around clubs through hearsay. Often this is released for maximum psychological impact – perhaps a hint on how many watts a rider is producing uphill, how much faster a new bike has been shown to be in the wind tunnel, or how many hours per day they are riding consistently. Did someone say smoke and mirrors?

However, there’s much less of a hush-hush culture among the UK’s elite level time-trialling fraternity. Top riders often give out information about what they do, probably because few have ever relied totally on their riding to pay the mortgage, so the secrecy level is lower.

In defence of professional cyclists, many sports don’t tell their secrets to success – after all, why would you? Granted, it still takes the right genetic make-up and a lot of hard work to get to the top, but why tell your competitors what you are up to?

It’s true that there’s some passing around of information as riders move teams and independent trainers/coaches work with riders across various teams and countries. But wouldn’t it be nice for you, the budding amateur, to get hold of some of the insider knowledge?

Tips from the top can help amateurs to improve and reach their own genetic limits. However, we need to bear in mind that just because we know what the pros do won’t make the rest of us (with our humble genetics) into tour winners, hour record holders or elite level time triallists. Sadly, we didn’t get the cream of the genetic handout. That said, the challenge for athletes across sports is to maximise their genetic potential – to get 99.99% out of what they have. So, what little golden nuggets have trickled down from elite riders and the top sports science labs to help us maximise performance?

The dragon’s den

There’s a well-known quote about the best performers in a sport: ‘Winners do what losers are not prepared to do.’ Turn that around and you get something along the lines of: ‘Copy what winners do and you won’t be a loser.’ The rub, however, is that you have to take the whole package, believe in all aspects and not pick and choose what you want to believe.

Although amateur riders can’t commit the same amount of time as the pros, the bottom line is that the training proportions and principles must still be held to rigidly. The pros will most likely be riding four to six hours per day, most days of the week – in other words they have a 25- to 35-hour week in the saddle. Pro team websites give you instant information (albeit uncorroborated) about what riders are up to. For example, Matthias Kessler on the spoke of ‘a solid five hours each day on the bike’ in December 2005(3). Your time, on the other hand, is taken up with your day job.

However, there’s no short cut to getting your best. You can’t skirt around the need for time in the saddle and just hammer intervals three or four days a week. Read that sentence again. There are no quick fixes, no short cut secrets, no miracle riding intensities allowing you to get by with hardly any ‘in-the-saddle hours’ being banked into your ‘riding fitness bank account’ – period.

Three big differences between the amateurs and the pros
Here are the three big differences between elite riding and amateur riding, backed by science and rider data:

Controlled base riding

The biggest difference in elites versus amateurs is discipline. Pro teams ride at controlled levels for their base training, which is checked using after-session data analysis of heart rate monitors and/or power measuring systems. The amateur, meanwhile, usually uses an emotional assessment of the session such as the degree of fatigue, or whether he or she has managed to ride faster or slower than the normal speed.

Sports scientists have devised a way to break the training into three ‘zones’, each with a separate intensity and physiological training effect. Yes, there have been zones or percentages previously written into training folklore, such as the Karvonen heart rate method, but these are often theoretical models, and there’s little actual proof that pro riders use these methods themselves.

The new training impulse (TRIMP) method works by studying elite heart rate (HR) data to find out what works best and therefore how amateurs should train. The TRIMP zones 1, 2 and 3 are calculated by pinpointing two cardio-respiratory markers as a rider performs a RAMP test. Zone 1 can be thought of as a low intensity zone, zone 2 as a modest intensity or ‘threshold’ zone and zone 3 as a ‘lactateaccumulation’ or high intensity zone.

By hooking up a rider to a mouthpiece and very expensive oxygen and carbon dioxide measurement equipment, a breath-by-breath analysis is possible. From this rider ‘input and output’ breathing data, critical metabolic thresholds can then define where zones 1, 2 and 3 occur (see article on cyclist testing on page 8)

This kind of testing is obviously not possible for amateur riders to do at home. Fortunately however, analysis of data across several sports shows similar points where the zones are likely to occur (4,5,6). Specifically, tour riders have been shown to have top of zone 1 and top of zone 2 at 79 and 89% maximum heart rate respectively (5).

Even those who race just 4,000m (at >60km/h) on the track still build an annual base of 30,000km or more ‘mostly low-intensity, high mileage’ (7). This paper by Schumacher and Mueller is actually a rare insight into just what the riders did to establish the world record 4km pursuit in the Sydney Olympics.

The TRIMP analysis derived from pro athletes suggests that amateurs need to ensure that more than two thirds of their weekly training volume is in zone 1. That means the heart rate is kept below 80%HRmax for typically 70 to 80% of weekly volume. This is, in fact, what some amateurs already adhere to during some winter months (ironically called ‘recovery’ by amateurs) but it’s actually what professionals do all year round. Even the big tour races, such as the Tour de France, are ridden in zone 1 for more than three quarters of the time(5). If there’s one thing that we see time and time again in amateur time triallists, road racers, triathletes, runners and duathletes, it’s doing the base training too hard.

Specific intervals

Part two of the pro riders’ jigsaw puzzle of training is specific interval training. Get the first principle right by building a solid base and keeping rides between interval sessions or races in zone 1 and you will be balancing stress and recovery just right. Remember the quoted percentage above; ‘more than two thirds’ will feel easy, so at the most you will be doing no more than 20-30% of total weekly time as intervals.

This quantity of interval training may sound a lot but many amateurs are unwittingly including extra anaerobic training (above 80%maxHR) sprinkled in their so-called ‘steady’ or ‘endurance’ training rides, which bumps up total time spent interval training beyond the 20-30% threshold. This is why subjective comments and feelings are no substitute for actual HR data downloading after training sessions.

I download data from clients to see what actually goes on – hence I call HR downloads lie detectors, because you can see if someone is in the right zone or not. If you stay in zone 1 when you are meant to, it’s possible to hit zone 2 or 3 when you need to.

The key to interval training is that you do the right intensity for the right amount of time and then rest accordingly. Some much loved intervals have no proof to back them up, such as ‘minute-on, minute-off’, where a rider goes hard for 60 seconds then easy for 60 seconds. This also raises the question of what is hard and easy if you are not using heart rate or power to gauge your effort.

Many cyclists now have heart rate monitors and (increasingly) power measuring indoor trainers or on-the-bike systems. This means amateurs can interval train using either heart rate or power output as a measure of intensity. However, you need to get the duration, intensity and rest right. Look at the table above; it gives you some proven pro cyclist originated sessions. Yes, they’re hard – but that’s OK because the rest of your riding’s been easy, right?

Interval training is a very potent form of training(8) and as such should not be used by those short on time to ‘get fit quick’. It has a downside of suppressing the immune system and bringing form on too early if entered into too aggressively in what should be a fitness-building period (eg October to January).

Monitoring fitness and form

How do you assess how your fitness is going when asked by another rider? Many times it’s a totally subjective stab in the dark based on recent riding feel or a ‘scalp count’ taken from recent group training rides.
Pro teams cannot guess; they have to use hard and fast numbers to work out who is on form, if the training is working and who needs to rest. Data have shown that sub-maximal RAMP testing is a sensitive indicator of the progress in the training state of elite male cyclists during a training or competition season(17). This can be achieved using one of the many indoor cycling trainers that measure power. Voilà – your own lab that tells you how well you are progressing.

If you get a drop in heart rate for the same power output, you’re getting fitter. Conversely, bad form, illness or tiredness is revealed by a raised heart rate for the same power. This is a clinical, ‘at home’ test and it predicts performances because you know when you are coming into form. As a warm-up the day before a race, a RAMP test gives you a good idea of how things are going for the next day. Granted, your head plays a big part in the outcome of your races, but you need to have the engine in place to hope to get a PB or a place on the podium.

So, three lessons then from the dragon’s den. None are quick fixes but they combine to build, monitor and peak form at the time that you want it. It’s no surprise when elite athletes hit form just as they hit their key race – it was planned for. As the old saying goes: ‘Planning prevents poor performances, possibly!’

1. J Appl Physiol 2005; 98(6):2191-2196
2. Pro Cycling Magazine Issue 8 Dec, 2005
3. Archive: 5 Dec, 2005
4. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005; 37(3):496-504
5. Sci Sports Exerc 2003; 35(5):872-878
6. Scand J Med Sci Sports Online Oct 2004
7. Med Sci Sports Excer 2002; 34(6):1029-1036
8. J Appl Physiol 2005; 98:1983-1984
9. Velo News Magazine 1996; 68-70
10. Aus S Sci Med Sport 1987; 19(1):10-14
11. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999; 31(5):736-741
12. Eur J Appl Physiol 1997; 75:298-304
13. Wright Dr G, Cycling Weekly Magazine 2004; 18-20
14. Can J Appl Physiol 1996; 21(3):197-208
15. Data taken from Team Telekom Coaching Column, Jan 2005
16. Road Cycling, An IOC Medical Commission Publication, Blackwell Science, 2000
17. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1993; 25(9):1062-1069

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