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How to Use High-Intensity Interval Training to Improve Performance as an Everyday Cyclist

If you're an everyday cyclist looking to boost your performance and leave your competition in the dust, then it's time to jump into doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT). 

These are the workouts you love to hate because they suck, but they work.

Whether you're an recreational everyday cyclist or you’re racing, incorporating HIIT into your training program can be a game-changer. 

These are short - and really short - sessions with minimal recovery times that drive up your overall fitness and performance.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be a great tool for everyday cyclists to improve speed and power.

What is high-intensity interval training?

Think of it as the turbo boost - or turning on the hyper drive - for your cycling workouts

HIIT involves alternating short bursts of intense exercise with periods of active recovery. Instead of slogging through long, steady-state rides(threshold and sweet-spot), HIIT pushes you to push yourself to the limit because you “trick” your body into going harder than it normally can.

The beauty of HIIT lies in its ability to maximize calorie burn and improve cardiovascular fitness in a fraction of the time compared to traditional endurance training. 

By challenging your body with quick bursts of big effort, followed by brief recovery periods, you get more adaptation and more time in the proper intensity zone.

Plus these intervals keep your metabolism burning after the workout is done so HIIT may have benefits for weight loss and overall fitness goals.

But incorporating HIIT into your routine doesn't mean abandoning those longer rides altogether; it's about finding the right balance between volume and intensity.

Another great benefit of HIIT sessions is for people with really short attention spans, like me. I have a hard time focusing during 20-minute threshold sessions, but I can throttle myself for 30 seconds at a time!

What are the benefits of HIIT for cyclists?

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has gained popularity among cyclists due to its numerous benefits. 

  • By incorporating short bursts of intense effort followed by periods of active recovery, HIIT workouts push the body's limits and increase aerobic capacity.
  • In addition to cardiovascular improvements, HIIT also enhances muscular endurance. The repeated high-intensity intervals engage fast-twitch muscle fibers, helping cyclists generate more power during sprints or climbs. This increased muscle strength translates into improved performance on the bike.
  • Moreover, HIIT sessions are time-efficient, making them ideal for busy individuals who struggle to fit in long training rides. With shorter but higher-intensity workouts, cyclists can maximize their training time while still reaping the benefits.
  • Rresearch suggests that incorporating regular HIIT sessions into a cycling routine can help reduce body fat percentage over time. This is especially beneficial for those looking to shed extra pounds or improve body composition.

What does the research say about HIIT for cycling

Research on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for cycling has shown promising results. Several studies have found that incorporating HIIT into a cyclist's training regimen can lead to significant improvements in performance.

  • One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that cyclists who incorporated HIIT into their training saw greater gains in aerobic capacity compared to those who followed a steady-state endurance program. The HIIT workouts helped increase cardiovascular fitness.
  • Furthermore, research has also shown that HIIT can help with weight loss and body composition. A study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that overweight individuals who participated in a 12-week HIIT program lost more fat mass compared to those who engaged in continuous moderate-intensity exercise
  • In addition to these findings, other research suggests that incorporating regular HIIT sessions into your cycling routine can enhance metabolic efficiency and improve lactate threshold - both critical factors for endurance athletes like cyclists.

How does HIIT benefit everyday cyclists?

Everyday cyclists can also benefit greatly from incorporating HIIT into their training routine. By pushing your body to its limits in short bursts of intense exercise, you can improve your performance on the bike and take your cycling to a whole new level.

One of the main advantages of HIIT for everyday cyclists is that it allows you to maximize your workout time. With our busy schedules, finding hours on end to ride isn't always feasible.

However, with HIIT, you can get an effective and efficient workout in as little as 20-30 minutes.

Plus research has shown that HIIT can help increase aerobic capacity, which is crucial for endurance cycling. It improves your body's ability to use oxygen efficiently and helps you sustain high-intensity efforts over longer periods of time.

Incorporating HIIT into your training program doesn't have to be complicated or intimidating. Start by adding one or two sessions per week, gradually increasing the intensity and duration as you become more comfortable with the workouts.

How to incorporate HIIT into your training program

To incorporate HIIT into your training program, start by determining how many days per week you can commit to this type of workout. Ideally, aim for one or two sessions per week to allow for proper recovery between workouts. 

Here are my favorite HIIT workouts:
1. 30/15s. After a good warmup, ride as hard as you can consistently ride for 30 seconds, then pedal easy for 15 seconds. I usually start clients with six of these and move up to 10 in two to four sets.

2. 40/20s. These become more of a threshold interval since the effort you need for 40 seconds gets you just at or above your threshold. Ride as hard as you can for 40 seconds, ride easy for 20 and repeat.

3. Death by VO2max. These are maximum efforts designed to leave you breathing like a fish out of water. Ride for two to four minutes at maximum effort but pedal at 110 or higher cadence. Your power will start out high but drop quickly. Keep pedaling fast, though!

4. “Hard” Intervals. I don’t like to call these anaerobic efforts because you’re still using aerobic capacity. These are two to five minutes maximum efforts with about two minute rests in between. These are really good for building muscle for big efforts.

5. Soccer field sprints. This is my favorite cyclocross workout. On a grass local soccer field, sprint down one sideline and make the turn at speed. Pedal slowly behind the goal, come around the corner, and sprint down the next sideline. I start clients with four sets of six minutes and build up to race duration of 10 to 12 minute sets. 

What’s important about all these is keeping your efforts consistent in the interval. Go as hard as you consistently can go in the 20 or 2 minutes. Don’t start all out, then fade. 

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Fuel your workouts

You may find that doing more HIIT work stimulates your appetite, so make sure you’re staying fueled.

Similarly, you may find yourself getting fatigued with these workouts. The usual culprit is not enough food! 

You’d be surprised how much you may have to eat to fuel these kinds of workouts, especially the VO2max intensity. 

Just like doing long gravel races, doing intervals requires proper fueling, even if it’s shorter distances. 

Likewise, make sure you’re maintaining yoga recovery sessions and your strength training to keep your body strong and mobile.

Three things to know about HIIT for everyday cyclists

  1. Start with one session a week. These are hard interval sessions that will tax you! 
  2. Maintain your long, slow endurance work.
  3. Be consistent in your work efforts. Try to maintain the same intensity throughout the whole interval time.

Need more?

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Paul Warloski is a:

  • USA Cycling Level 3 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer
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