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 OK, maybe not your life but certainly your training. Here they are:

It seems that, for athletes who are already trained, improvements in endurance performance can be achieved only through high-intensity interval training.” (Underline mine)

Get that?

Let’s be a little bit more specific and quote from the same study:

It does not appear that additional submaximal endurance training volume improves endurance performance or related physiological variables in this particular population (i.e. already trained athletes).”

So you’re fit. You regularly ride with your friends (and occasionally spank them maybe), you do well at the local crits or you are pretty happy to ride the odd 100 miler event or charity ride. Whatever gets you out on the bike in the morning to achieve meaningful cycling goals, you are right to feel that you are part of an elite group of endurance athletes who go beyond trying to “stay healthy”. So well done, congratulations!! You fall in the above “already trained” category. So what next then? If for you “what is next” is “more of the same” then you can stop reading. If you are ready to step it up a bit and you want to get fitter and stronger then keep ready.

The first thing you need to know is that it seems to me you are in for a lot of pain. Why? Because as the study suggests, in order to improve you now need to add a little HIIT to your training and HIIT is hard and painful physically and mentally. A HIIT session consists of a warm up period of exercise, followed a repetitions of high intensity efforts of varying lengths, separated by easy/medium intensity exercise for recovery, and ending with a period of cool down exercise.

How long and how hard are the high intensity efforts supposed to be? That is where recent studies on the topic have provided interesting – and surprising – answers.

According to a fascinating article I recently read: “High-intensity interval training is known to boost endurance performance, but not much is known about which type of high-quality interval training produces the largest performance gains, especially in well-trained athletes. The optimal intensity and duration of intervals, as well as the length of the recovery period between intervals, have been largely unknown.”

Please allow me to quote extensively from the above-mentioned article:

This lack of clarity around interval training has been particularly apparent in the field of endurance cycling. Only one published scientific study has taken a close look at interval training optimisation in endurance-trained cyclists, and the research produced somewhat perplexing results. In this lone investigation, carried out in South Africa, 20 endurance cyclists were split into five groups, each performing a different high-intensity interval workout twice a week for three consecutive weeks.

Surprisingly, this research revealed that sub-maximal intervals (8 x 4 minutes per workout at 85% of peak power output, with 90-second recoveries) produced the same improvement in 40k time-trial performance as a greater number of shorter but much more intense ‘supra-maximal’ intervals (12 x 30 seconds per workout at 175% of peak power output, with 4.5-minute recoveries). It was unclear why these supra-maximal, ‘anaerobic’ intervals improved endurance performance as much – in an event lasting about an hour – as traditional ‘aerobic’ intervals with longer duration, lower intensity and shorter recovery. And critics of the work suggested that the research needed to be repeated with a larger number of subjects in each interval-training group before they could be confident of the results.” (Underline mine)

In other words, you get to pick your own desired “length of pain” if, as an already trained athlete, you wish you keep progressing and getting stronger. If you are like me and decide to surf the Internet for additional studies on that topic you will find a pretty consistent message. As cyclists, we need to suffer to get stronger.

Personally I like to mix it up the pain a bit and I alternate between very short efforts (30 seconds) and not so short efforts (2 to 4 minutes) but I do tend to favour the shorter, harder intervals. It was astonishing to me to find that such sort hard efforts can have such a large impact on fitness and overall power:

However, carrying out interval workouts at 175% of Peak Power Output (PPO) (which happens to be about 185% of Pmax), with very abbreviated 30-second work intervals and extraordinarily long (4.5-minute) recoveries, can also provide a nice boost to seasoned cyclists. This training schedule, as performed by Group 3, increased VO2max by 3% in just four weeks, took PPO up by a similar amount in the same period of time and super-charged 40k time-trial speed by over 4%.” (Underlined mine)

Today I rode three hours inside and I included one hour of 30 secs all out efforts (13 times) and 4:30 mins recovery. This is what it looks like (the yellow line is the power in watts):

30 seconds efforts and 4:30 mins recovery

30 seconds efforts and 4:30 mins recovery

The “beauty” of this approach is that 4:30 minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time to recover which allows me to repeat the effort over and over again. Although my best 30 second effort was the first effort – as might be expected – the last few efforts were really not that bad. Earlier in the week I was taking a different approach by doing two minute efforts with two minutes of recovery.

2 mins efforts with 2 mins recovery.

2 mins efforts with 2 mins recovery.

On Tuesday I mixed up the two workouts described above and attacked at the start of each two minute effort and struggled to maintain power for the duration of the effort. As you can tell from the graph below, after five efforts like this I reverted to just trying to maintain good power through the two minute efforts. I know pain is good but I had hit my limit for that day. Don’t get me wrong, the last few efforts were also painful but after how I felt in the first five efforts the last few intervals provided some kind of “relief”.

Mixing it up: longer efforts with attacks at the start.

Mixing it up: longer efforts with attacks at the start.

I am anxious to start riding outside in groups and find out where I stand fitness wise. I have been doing a fair bit of HIIT since mid-December while last season I did NO HIIT until after I started riding outside in Tucson in March. According to all the studies I have read I should show up in Tucson in a couple weeks much fitter and stronger than at this time last year. I’ll report on that in March. I hope all those studies I read are right.

I guess the conclusions of this post are:

1 – Read a lot about training and focus on scientific studies, not your next door neighbour’s opinion (or even worse, the Mr. Know It All on your group ride or local cycling team).

2 – There is more than one way to get stronger so chose the one that suits your style.

3 – Harden the fuck up.

4 – Beware: I won’t be able to ride the Haute Route Dolomites and Alps back to back in August (1,700 kilometers in two weeks) on only short, hard, one hour or ninety minute HIIT workouts. But this is the subject of the next post: the balance between HIIT and volume. As my good friend Chris Carmichael, CEO and Founder of Carmichael Training Systems and boss of my coach Jason Tullous says: “High intensity training is valuable especially for time crunched athletes but high training volume at sub-LT levels for elite athletes continues to be very valuable in their development and cannot be replaced by high intensity training.” Not that I consider myself an “elite” rider but what Chris means – I think – is that there is a point where volume really starts to matter. Stay tuned.