Interval training is an effective way to train for many endurance sports and this is especially true for cycling.

Using an alternating pattern of work and rest helps you to accumulate more hard training time than would be possible in the absence of any rest periods and provides a repeatable framework than can really help to boost particular areas of your fitness.

Here are some key steps to help you get started with interval training, as well as some practical suggestions to allow you to get the most out of your training time.

Choose the right duration

There are many ways you can perform interval training and choosing which ones to do can be tricky for those just starting out. The intervals that will be best for you will largely depend on what it is you’re training for and where you are in your season or training plan.

You’ll want to begin by using intervals to work on your general condition, and then progress to those which reflect or mimic the demands of your events or cycling discipline. As a general rule, try starting with longer intervals at a lower intensity to lay a strong foundation of fitness. These could be anywhere from 10-30 minutes in length.

Once these become more comfortable and you’re able to string together a good few weeks of consistent training, look to then shorten the intervals gradually and increase the intensity accordingly.

Set the correct intensity

Once you’ve decided on the duration of the intervals you’ll be doing, you’ll then need to decide on the right intensity or how hard you’ll go when performing them. What’s crucial here is having some way to accurately pace the intervals to ensure that you’re not going too easy for any adaptations to occur or too hard that you risk not completing the session.

Using a power meter is considered the gold standard, since they provide instant and accurate feedback of exactly what your output is. What’s great too is that these once expensive devices are coming down in price and becoming much more within the financial reach of the average cyclist.

Without a power meter though, intervals can also be paced using either heart rate or Rating of Perceived Exertion (often abbreviated to RPE). Whilst your heart rate can be affected by factors like amount of sleep, caffeine intake or temperature, it still provides a good measure of your effort level that can be repeated in subsequent sessions.

With RPE, you would simply assign a number, often out of 10, to the difficulty of each interval during the workout and try as best you can to match that in each proceeding effort.

Decide on recovery period

After setting the duration and the intensity of your ‘work’ intervals within a workout, you’ll then need to turn your attention to the recovery or ‘rest’ intervals. These can have a big impact on how hard the overall workout is and the nature of any interval session can be changed dramatically through the amount of recovery included.

Again, the right amount of recovery to use will depend on your current fitness as well as your overall goals for the session. For example, if you want to make sure you’re able to hit high power or heart rate numbers consistently during the work intervals, you’ll need to make the recovery portions long enough to ensure you’re fully rested for the next interval.

However, if your goal is to train your ability to surge repeatedly, much like in a race, keeping the rest intervals short can teach your body to produce lots of power in the presence of rising muscular fatigue and insufficient recovery.

Schedule your intervals

So now that you’ve designed some purposeful interval workouts, there’s still the issue of where to actually put them in your training plan and weekly schedule, and this can take a little bit of thought.

On the one hand, you don’t want to come into an important interval session with lots of fatigue from previous rides, as this can reduce the quality of the workout. On the other, you won’t want to rest too much and lose valuable training time, especially if this is limited as it is!

To get around this problem, try to schedule your weekly interval sessions after an easy or recovery day and consider scheduling your longer, steadier rides the day after your intervals. This should allow you to be fresh enough to complete your interval training to a high level of quality, but then still train well the next day when the intensity doesn’t need to be as high.

If your training time is very limited however, especially during the working week, consider alternating rest days with interval training days and then focus on longer, endurance-based rides at the weekend.

Bonus tips

So those are some of the fundamentals of how to perform effective, structured interval training, but let’s look at a few additional pointers to help you progress even faster.

Firstly, a turbo or home trainer works really well for interval training, as they allow you to make every pedal stroke count, easily control your intensity and get a workout in no matter what the weather is doing outside. Consider purchasing one if you haven’t already.

Next, when you can get outdoors, try to mix in some intervals on both flatter roads as well as on climbs too. This will ensure you can produce power on a multitude of different terrain and allow to you take advantage of using both lower and higher cadences too.

Finally, never overdo your interval training and focus on quality over quantity, since it’s a common mistake to think that the more interval workouts, the better. Always remember that hard interval training takes time to recover from and requires a lot of physical and mental strength to perform to the best of your ability.