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How to Perform Intervals Properly with a Power Meter

When I bought my first power meter in 2001, one of the things I first learned is that intervals are performed so much better by power than by heart rate. In this training tip I am going to describe how to perform intervals with a power meter. When you perform intervals with a power meter you benefit so much greater than with heart rate or by feel.

Yes, that’s right, if there is one single thing you can do to become faster, it's intervals. It is possible to evaluate an athlete's interval 'technique' and show them visually how to perform intervals with a power meter. Even if you don't have a power meter the graphical analysis below will help you conduct your intervals the "RIGHT WAY" by “feel”.

The Right Way:

In the graph below, one can see power, heart rate and elevation data. This is the "RIGHT WAY" to perform intervals with a power meter: consistent steady power output. Notice how the last interval (av 414 watts) is close to the first interval (av 445 watts). We call that proper interval pacing not only during the one interval but for all 4 intervals in the set.

The Right way to perform cycling intervals

During the interval, use the real time power data to adjust your effort based on your power readout and wattage zones. Not too hard, not too easy, just right like Goldilocks. A steady effort produces a nice consistent power output over the course of the interval as shown above. The bottom line is to go as hard as you can but gauge your effort so that you can finish the interval with as much effort or power as you started the interval. If you can do this your power output will look like the graph above and you are well on your way to improving and maybe winning some races.

The Wrong Way:

Starting off too hard at the beginning of an interval is a common mistake especially for cyclists going off of heart rate alone. Notice how the intervals below start with a huge surge followed by a drop in power for the remainder of the interval. In other words the athlete “blew up” chasing a heart rate zone. Don’t make the mistake of going as hard as you can in order to get your HR up as soon as possible. Heart rate lags behind your power output and in the case of these intervals is not a true indicator of what’s going on.

The Wrong way of performing Intervals

There are two reasons why you want a consistent power output for your intervals: First, there will be less pain and suffering! Second, by pacing yourself you'll actually be able to perform more intervals at the prescribed wattage.

In the "WRONG WAY" graph above the athlete's average power for the first interval is too high/above his prescribed zone and then because it was too hard, the athlete really starts to suffer and limps thru the next 3 intervals with the last one below the prescribed wattage. Thus the physiological adaptation is not achieved. From a sports psych perspective this 'performance' is discouraging for athletes. So the athlete went out too hard, underperformed, and limped home discouraged. Not optimal.

In the "RIGHT WAY" graph, the athlete paced himself properly and all four intervals were between the prescribed wattage zone. Plus there was less suffering and a feeling of accomplishment. By RPE the first interval wasn't 'that bad', the second wasn't either, the 3rd interval really 'hurt' (but the wattage was there) and the fourth interval was not only extremely hard but the athlete's power dropped off ~ 30 watts. That's a well paced and executed interval workout in my opinion and experience.

Here’s our motto of interval training: Go as hard as you can BUT only as hard as you can maintain for the duration of your entire interval workout. You’ll be able to do more intervals, recover in-between each, and start to see a big difference in your training, racing, and cycling performance.

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Frank wrote this training tip 18 years ago but still coaches athletes to this day on their intervals using this tip!  To talk with Frank lr a FasCat Coach about performing your interval properly, please fill out a New Athlete Questionnaire to set up a FREE Coaching Consultation.

Otherwise you can find him performing consistent intervals with his power meter up one of the many climbs in and around Boulder, CO.

Finally for those of you who know how to train but need an expert training plan, that works (!) check out the $49 Training Plans with the intervals described above that Frank and the FasCat Coaches have designed! 

About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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