I must admit, I am one prone to getting stuck in a rut. Most of my riding comes from commuting, or from one of two morning rides, so when I get frustrated that I’m not improving, I’ve really got no one to blame but myself. When my cycling buddies ask why I don’t do long endurance rides, I pedal the age old excuse of not having enough time. Work, study and personal commitments get in the way of reaching that next level of riding. That was, until I rode with a friend in training who actually knew what he was doing.
Casual river loops, unfortunately, just don’t cut it when it comes to improving as a cyclist. Photo cred: @mierankoon
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) isn’t a new concept, but it is a training technique which hasn’t been fully refined (1). Essentially, the theory goes that if you alternate short periods of maximum intensity efforts, with brief low intensity rest intervals until you can’t do anymore, you’ll accelerate the rate at which you improve your cardiovascular fitness. This is compared to the traditional form of training, Sub-maximal Endurance Training, which is effective at getting you from the couch to a weekend hacker out on the bike, but if you really want to push yourself to the next level, you’re going to need to try a new approach.
Studies have shown that within 10 weeks of using a HIIT training schedule, you can increase your VO2 max by up to 44%.
Fitness can be effectively indicated by someones’ VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen a person has available for them to use. For someone who does minimal physical activity, you can expect to have a VO2 max of under 45ml of oxygen per kilo of body weight per minute, and in an elite athlete, you would see a VO2 max of over 60ml/kg/min. Using traditional training methods, it takes several years to improve an individual from a basal VO2 max to one of an elite athlete. However, studies have shown that within 10 weeks of using a HIIT training schedule, you can increase your VO2 max by up to 44% (2), with half of the studies’ participants exceeding the 60ml/kg/min mark, a rate of improvement which just isn’t seen using sub-maximal training methods.
If you’re really looking to improve, a good resting effort is the pace at which you would ride during a 40km time trial.
So how do you take this fancy new training method and apply it on your bike? Well, the good news is that HIIT is just a simple formula that can be rearranged to make it work for you. As previously mentioned, the core of a HIIT session is the repetition of short maximal efforts, followed by short low intensity efforts. Either side of this is a warm up and cool down period, lasting about 40% of your workouts’ length in total. Generally on a bike you are looking at about 10 minutes warm up, 30 minutes of alternating high and low intensity session, and then 10 minutes cool down to finish. Marcel Kittel, arguably one of the greatest sprinters around today, uses HIIT in his training. He uses sprint periods of 12 seconds, alternating with a ‘rest’ period of less intense riding, a pace which is something you can consistently keep up throughout the workout. If you’re really looking to improve, a good resting effort is the pace at which you would ride during a 40km time trial. Kittel does 2 minute rest periods in a set of 4 sprints, followed by a 10 minute low intensity interval, and then repeats that initial set. Surrounded by the warm up and cool down segments, this gives a great 45 minute workout which you can easily do at home, and that will improve your VO2 max far beyond what a moderately paced 45 minute ride could do.
The core of a HIIT session is the repetition of short maximal efforts, followed by short low intensity efforts.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how does this save me any time? I still have to get out on my bike. The beauty of HIIT is that it fits into the time you already have. My commute is about 45 minutes, so by adding the efforts into my morning ride, I’m maximising the time I’ve already set aside as riding time, and I’m already seeing benefits. It’s important to note though, if you’re riding to lose weight, stick with moderate intensity, longer rides, as they have been found to result in larger reductions in weight than HIIT, so always consider whether the training plans you use are going to be the right ones for you, to help you meet your goals.
- Laursen, P. B., & Jenkins, D. G. (2002). The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training. Sports Medicine, 32(1), 53-73.
- Hickson RC, Bomze HA, Holloszy JO. Linear increase in aerobic power induced by a strenuous program of endurance exercise. J Appl Physiol 1977; 42: 372–6