How to Be Your Own Coach

The Best Speed Workouts for Cyclists

To see major improvement in a matter of weeks, you'll need to learn how to sprint

You can challenge yourself without riding all day, or straight up a mountain. (iStock)
Racing Bicycle

Unless you have the freedom to crush out hours of daily saddle time, intervals are the most efficient way to increase your cycling fitness and performance. “Training comes down to generating enough workload to overload your system, which you do primarily by adding volume and intensity,” says Chris Carmichael, owner of Carmichael Training Systems and author of The Time Crunched Cyclist. Since you can’t infinitely increase your number of hours on the bike (volume), you introduce speed to up the intensity. Research shows that interval training increases VO2max and stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat) more effectively than steady moderate exercise.

The following six workouts lay the foundation for a training plan intended to get you stronger and faster quicker. For best results, gauge your efforts using the heart rate and power intensities calculated in a field test ahead of time. If you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the field test, you can also rely on the rate of perceived exertion method. Carmichael recommends that amateur cyclists train four days per week. Start with an effective warm-up of your choice, then try a different workout on each day.


Steady State

Best For: Increasing a cyclist’s maximum sustainable power for a prolonged period.
What to Do: Increase and hold your power for ten minutes. Pedal easy for six minutes. Repeat three times. These are best performed on flat roads or small rolling hills.
Intensity: Rating of perceived effort (RPE): 7 out of 10; heart rate (HR): 92%–94%; power: 86%–90%

Climbing Repeats

Best For: Building your ability to hold power while climbing. Training intensity is similar to steady-state intervals but reflects the additional workload of riding uphill.
What to Do: Increase and hold your power for ten minutes. Pedal easy for six minutes. Repeat three times. This workout should be performed on a road with a long, steady climb.
Intensity: RPE: 8; HR: 95%–97%; power: 95%–100%

Over-Unders

Best For: Developing the ability to handle changes in pace during hard sustained efforts.
What to Do: During a 12-minute interval, ride the first two minutes at steady-state intensity, then increase to climbing-repeat intensity for one minute. Continue alternating this way until the end of the interval, always ending on the shorter, harder intensity level. Spin easy for five minutes. Repeat three times.
Intensity: RPE: 7 alternating with 9; HR: 92%–94% (under), alternating with 95%–97% (over); power: 86%–90% (under), alternating with 95%–100% (over).

Power Intervals

Best For: Creating big aerobic gains in a small amount of time, using short, sharp efforts. Try to reach and maintain as high a power output as possible for the duration.
What to Do: For a three-minute interval, take the first 30 to 45 seconds to gradually bring your power up, then hold. Spin easy for three minutes, then repeat. One set consists of a trio of three-minute intervals. Ride three sets, with eight minutes of easy spinning between each set. These maximal efforts can be performed on any terrain except sustained descents. The rest periods are purposely too short for full recovery; completing subsequent intervals in a partially recovered state is key.
Intensity: RPE: 10; HR: 100% max; power: 101% of highest

Speed Intervals

Best For: Focusing on acceleration and leg speed. This is a great workout for cyclocross and crit racers, and it passes the time quickly on an indoor trainer.
What to Do: Accelerate for 30 seconds, then let the gear spin down as you pedal lightly for 30 seconds. Repeat 12 to 20 times. Make sure the accelerations are full efforts. The first few will seem easy, but they will get hard quickly.
Intensity: RPE: 10; HR: 100% max; power: 101% of highest

Threshold Ladders

Best For: Mimicking the accelerations and sustained power of breakaways and race starts. These suckers hurt—but so does racing.
What to Do: Begin with a one- to two-minute all-out power interval, followed immediately by three to four minutes at climbing-repeat intensity, and end with five to six minutes at steady-state power. Spin easy for five minutes. Repeat three times.
Intensity: Follow prescribed intensities for power, climbing repeat, and steady-state intervals.

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