by Frank Overton, 2004, revised May 2016
Race specific cycling intervals: what are they, how and why you should do them. Smart training revolves around precisely understanding the power demands of your event and then designing workouts to simulate that power output in training. We’ll primarily focus on the power demands in terms of duration and order that which the demands occur in a race. Then suggest and explain interval workouts specific to criteriums, road races, time trials and US Mountain Bike Nationals this year in Mammoth.
Criteriums: Short, Sharp Intervals (Zone 6 & Sprints)
If you race a road bike in the United States, chances are you might enter a criterium or two. Some of us even enjoy them. Accelerating out of corners, attacking, counter attacking, and of course sprinting for the “W” are all part of the dynamic power profile you’ll need to be successful. Therefore, criteriums can best be summed up as repeated short high powered efforts with minimal recovery. Intervals on the order of 5-20 s in length at high cadence and from a rolling start are specific to crits. Because of the short duration of the interval, really go for it with these intervals, all out full guns blazing!
If you are racing a 4 corner criterium for 1 hour and each lap takes 5 minutes, that’s 12 laps and 48 corners. You can replicate this effort by performing a workout with 24 x 10 s sprints. For example, this might be broken down to 4 sets of 6 x 10 s sprints from a rolling start, with 30 s off between reps and 5 min between sets. An industrial park during the evenings or weekends are perfect low-traffic sites for these workouts.
Further refinements to your training can be made based on the terrain. If the criterium course has a 30 second hill, incorporate 30 second intervals into your training. Training with purpose is all about specificity!
Example Sprint Workout: 4 sets of 4 x 15 secs ON 30 secs OFF Full Gas (as hard as you can) between > 160% of your threshold power
Example Anaerobic Workout: Zone 6: 2 sets of 3 x 1 min On 1 min OFF Full Gas (as hard as you can) between 121 – 160% of your threshold power
To read more about Criterium Training, read our “Criterium Racing: Watts UP?” training tip HERE.
Dissect the Race Course’s Power Data:
The power requirements of races vary widely and your training should too. From threshold efforts, VO2max intervals, anaerobic 1 minuters, to sprints, many races have it all in the same race. Optimize your intervals considering the course and terrain of your target race. Is there a rolling section where crosswinds promote echelons that shatter the field? Or is there a climb that lasts 10 minutes or more?
By analyzing power data from a race you can identify the length of intervals you need to focus on. Courses with short hills lasting 2-5 minutes would be best trained for by doing a number of 2-5 minute VO2 Max interval workouts.
For Example, here’s a VO2 workout: Zone 5: 2 sets of 2 x 3 min On 3 min OFF Full Gas (as hard as you can) between 106 – 120% of your threshold power
One of my favorite all time race specific interval workouts actually has the athlete perform the intervals on the course they’ll be competing on, the Morgul Bismark Road Race. This famous course has three climbs: the Hump, the Wall and the “Feed Zone Climb” – all 2-5 minutes in length depending on ability (and power to weight ratio!). See the power graph below with the 3 climbs.
Racers that do 2 laps will have to do 6 VO2 climbs (tactics and race pace may require less but its better to prepare for them to be hard). Ouch! But, like to say, “its better to cry in the dojo so you can laugh on the battlefield”. In other words, replicate in training what you’ll face the race. To make the workout specific to the Morgul course, I have athletes perform these VO2 intervals from the bottom to the top of each of the climbs in succession. Presto, just like the race. So 1 lap = 3 VO2 intervals. 2 laps = 6 VO2 intervals which is similar to the standard VO2 workout above but here the athlete see and feel for themselves how hard each climb will be.
Time Trials: Enter the Pain Cave
Time trials are so fundamentally simple: go as hard as you can for the entire distance. Due to the lengthy time frame you will gravitate to your maximal sustained power output. If you nailed down your Functional Threshold Power, this is where you can use it. Be careful not to go out too hard or start off too slow. Pacing yourself by perceived exertion or “feel” also works well with experience but this is really where powermeters are invaluable!
I recommend starting your threshold training gradually (as with all phases of your training) with a couple of 10 minute efforts, 2 x 10 min On 5 min Off. After ample recovery and adaptation up the ante to 15 minute efforts at the same workload, 2 x 15 min On 5 min Off. Increase the power output of the intervals as your fitness progresses and you’ll be ready for the infamous 2 x 20’s: 2 x 20 min On 5 min Off. That’s perfect training for a 40K time trial!
Example Time Trial Threshold Workouts: Zone 4: 2 x 20 min ON 5 min OFF Full Gas (as hard as you can) between 100 – 107% of your functional threshold power
Cross Country Mountain Biking:
Here are the power demands of the upcoming 2016 US National Mountain Bike Championships held at Mammoth MTN in California this July. The race course is the same as last year so here is the critical climb:
An example race specific interval workout would be
Zone 4: 5.5 minutes then 2 minutes REST > Zone 5: 3 minutes then 3 minutes Rest then Zone 6: 1 minute into an 7.5 min Zone 4 interval with a 5 sec burst every minute.
In all total that’s a 22 minute effort broken up into the power demands from the race. The athlete could work their way up to performing this effort the numbers of times they’ll have to race up it each time concentrating on maximal power output for the durations prescribed (Zones 4 , 5 & 6).
Attacks, Counterattacks, and Breakaways: the fun hard stuff!
We all agree it’s more fun to race up front. What’s even more fun is throwing in a well timed attack or leaving your arch rival with a “no answer” counter attack. A successful attack involves going well above your threshold and deeply into your anaerobic zone for a period of time until you’ve established your gap, and then being able to go directly from that effort into prolonged riding at your lactate threshold.
For attacking, I suggest working on your anaerobic capacity: intervals 1 minute in length in a 1 to 1 work to rest ratio. Try starting off with 5 x 1 min On 1 min Off and working your way up to a more advanced workout like 3 sets of 6 x 1 min On 1 min Off with 5 minutes in between sets. What you’re trying to replicate here is the initial burst to establish a small gap from the pack.
Now that you’ve attacked or counterattacked, make your effort count! Ensure the success of the breakaway by committing 100% for 3-6 minutes. You’ll need to sustain a power output greater than your threshold near your VO2max. Intervals of 3-6 min at as high a power output as you can sustain for the entire interval will force the physiological adaptations to help you sustain and repeat such high powered efforts.
Then put those two physiological adaptations together into an “Over/Under”: Zone 6 to start the effort followed by a VO2 max effort. So z6 for 1 minute straight into z5 for 4 minutes, 5 minutes total. Try 4 of those mid-week then attack and breakaway this weekend!
In summary, identify the power demands of your race and design interval workouts to mimic the course. Improve your race specific power for the most important part of the race. Best of luck and go FAST!
Copyright 2017 , FasCat Coaching
Frank is the owner of FasCat Coaching in Boulder, CO. He is a full time professional USA cycling certified Elite level coach, former category 1 road racer and semi-pro mountain biker. FasCat prescribes race specific intervals for athletes all over North America and Europe. To talk with a FasCat Coach about the interval training described above, please call 720.406.7444 or fill out a New Athlete Questionnaire to set up a coaching consultation.