Climbing intervals will help you ride uphill faster for your Strava PR’s, group rides or hilly races. Mountain bikers, Road Racers, Gravel, Fondo’s – any athlete that wants to ride uphill faster will benefit from these climbing intervals.

What do we mean by climbing intervals?

We are talking about zone 4 threshold wattages, heart rates & rates of perceived exertion (RPE) for interval durations between 8 – 30 minutes.  Using the six zone  model in TrainingPeaks, zone 4 = 98 – 104% of one’s “threshold” or Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Or by feel” whatever intensity is ‘as hard as one can sustain’ for not only the first interval but for all intervals.

Threshold intervals are hard and need to be completed when the body is the most recovered, after a rest day or a couple easy days on the bike following a fatigue dependent training plan design. In order for the intervals to be effective, cyclists should use the following guidelines:

  • Identify your FTP [Functional Threshold Power]
  • Identify what value is 98-104% of FTP**
  • Perform these intervals hard as you can go “Full Gas”, Heart Rate will lag behind initially and not represent your effort for the first half of the interval.
  • Be well rested, fueled, motivated and hydrated for your workout
  • Find your best climb, ideally a steady grade between 2 – 6% but use whatever you have to ‘make the watts’
  • If you live in an area void of climbs that’s ok because threshold watts on the flat are physiologically close to threshold watts climbing
  • Go as hard as you can for these efforts! Use your powermeter to stay above 98% but not above 104%.  If you are able to sustain wattages for your climbing intervals > 104% that means your FTP is probably set too low (and that is a good problem to have 🙂

3 Example Climbing Intervals:

Here are three example climbing intervals that start on the shorter side and progress to longer durations and greater total time spent at threshold.  Choose the shorter intervals if you’re training for climbs less than 15 minutes.  Or if you are training for longer climbs, 20-60 minutes,  work you way up to these longer climbing intervals starting with the shorter intervals and progressing towards longer.

#1 Supra-Threshold: 3 x 8 minutes

We say ‘supra’ because we wan to see the athlete achieve average wattages > than their FTP (what they can sustain maximally for one hour)

Here is real world power, heart rate and gps data from a FasCat Athlete executing the 3 x 8 minute supra-threshold climbing intervals from above:

Notice the steady power up and down the consistent 6% grade hill where the athlete averaged 302 > 204 > 306 watts for a total of 24 minutes of climbing threshold work.

#2 Threshold: 3 x 15 minutes On with a 2:1 work to rest ratio so 7.5 minutes Off = 45 minutes of threshold work

Because the fifteen minuters are longer efforts than the 3 x 8 minuters, the wattages will be lower even if performed as hard as possible [**unless the you’ve gotten faster]  This lower power is simply how the critical power-duration curve works (1)

The total time spent at threshold also increase from 24 minutes [3 x 8] to 45 minutes  [3 x 15].

** with a well designed training plan often times we see athletes adapt from week to week. In other words their FTP is literally increasing from week to week following their training plan and they are able to hit higher wattages week to week.

#1 Threshold: 2 x 20 minutes:

The infamous ‘two by twenty’ is close to one of the most difficult climbing intervals in the playbook.  Time trialists we recognize this threshold workout and the physiology is more or less the same: maximal steady state power for performance bouts > 40 minutes.  We prescribe 100- 110% of the athlete’s FTP again by the critical power model with FTP being what the athlete can sustain maximally for 60 minutes. We also teach, coach, explain ‘full gas’ by feel and often times like the 3 x 15 minuters above the athlete is able to achieve wattages greater than tradition zone 4 ranges 98 – 104%.

Here is real world power, heart rate and gps data from a FasCat Athlete executing the 2 x 20 minute climbing intervals from above:

Note the drop off in power in the 2nd half of the second interval while heart rate remained elevated.  This is fatigue and pushing the legs as hard as they will go.

Pacing: 

Pacing your climbing intervals is easy with a powermeter but know that you could probably exceed the prescribed wattage for the first interval.  When we say ‘full gas’ and ‘as hard as you can’ we mean for all the intervals, not just one super good one and 1-2 more that fail to hit the prescribed wattages.  Therefore, in practice the first climbing interval may feel easier than the next intervals. By 2nd half of the last interval you should be using your powermeter for motivation to keep your power above the lower end of the prescribed wattage!

Summary:

Perform climbing intervals to ride faster uphill.  Start with a simple 3 x 8 minute climbing interval workout and progress to longer intervals that achieve a greater total time at threshold. For example:

3 x 15 and then graduate on up to the 2 x 20 minutes.

Execute your climbing intervals as hard as you can by feel and use your powermeter for pacing and motivation.  Perform one full gas threshold workout per week along with your sweet spot workouts and see if your power output doesn’t increase after 3 – 4 weeks.

References:

  1. Poole, David C et al. “Critical Power: An Important Fatigue Threshold in Exercise Physiology” Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise2016 Nov; 48 (11): 2320-2334

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