Tech Tips

A beginner's guide to interval training

Bike interval training
You will never attain the strength and speed necessary to attack the bunch without some hard interval training in your routine. All successful riders will tell you about the necessity of short, intense training as well as the longer, easier grinds. Photo: Pirin Spring

Interval training is one of those terms that does the rounds at the cafe after a ride. But what exactly is interval training, and why would people incorporate it into their riding? Let's take a closer look at the benefits of this type of training, and how it can help you be a stronger rider with less training time needed. Yes, that's right... less training, more results.



Intervals are altered efforts incorporated into an existing ride session. Let's just imagine you and a friend were doing a 1 hour road ride. Along the way, you decide to sprint each other to a street sign, before easing up afterwards to catch your breath. Another street sign catches your eye, so you sprint again! You've been doing intervals, albeit not very well formulated ones.

If you were considering formulating proper intervals, you'd firstly need to ensure you had a plan. Assuming you don't, we've got it for you! Read on, and ask questions in our comments section.


TIP:  Intervals are a great way to get the most out of a stationary trainer. It is much easier in a controlled environment than out on the road sometimes and it can add some interest to what is, let's face it, an immensely boring ritual! Just get a heart rate monitor and cadence computer and you're good to go.



Bike sprint chuck up
The unfortunate outcome of working yourself too hard. Don't bury yourself too deeply, keep it consistent and manageable. Photo: All Hail The Black Market

Here's the master plan - you've got four weeks to make yourself faster, but you can only ride three times a week. So you've basically got 12 rides to improve enough - in order to win the weekend sprint. Sounds tough, but with some hardcore intervals, we reckon you've got it made.

Pyramid intervals are a concept you should learn, use, and never forget. You don't need a coach just yet; some motivation and a creative mind is all that is required. Here's a PI (pyramid interval) for you to try on your next ride:


  • 1min @ 90% Perceived Effort @ 90 rpm
  • 3 min rest
  • 2 min @ 90% Perceived Effort @ 90 rpm
  • 3 min rest
  • 4min @ 90% Perceived Effort @ 90 rpm
  • 3 min rest
  • 5 min @ 90% Perceived Effort @ 90 rpm


The duration of the rest period stays the same, but the duration of effort increases. If you're a real nutter, you can do DPI's (Double Pyramid Intervals) whereby you do the above workout, then reverse it until you reach the starting point again. So it goes 1min, 2min, 3min, 4min, 5min, 4min, 3min, 2min, 1min and then a decent rest period.

If you find intervals too easy at 90% Perceived Effort, then go harder because obviously you aren't going 90% effort. But the crucial part is consistency, so do all your intervals at the same intensity. Don't kill it in your first one, and then drag yourself through the rest of them at a much lower intensity. If you just can't manage to do them at such a high intensity due to health reasons or physical limitations, then do them with at a lower level of effort - But always do them all at the same intensity... Consistency allows you to track progress, and gives you a controlled method by which you train.



Training with such a controlled method will make you realise just how many parameters there are for you to control. Perceived Effort, cadence, heart rate, rest time, effort time, overall time... If you happen to have a cycling computer with cadence, heart rate and a clock, then that's all you will need.

NOTE: Perceived Effort is for those without a heart rate monitor. If you have a heart rate monitor, then determine your maximum heart rate. If your maximum heart rate is 195 bpm, you can easily determine your percentage heart rates. For example, 195 divided by 100 = 1.95. For a 90% heart rate figure, multiply 1.95 by 90. As in, 1.95 x 90 = 175.5 beats per minute. You should then write down a table of figures using this method, for all your major heart rate percentages. Go from 60% Heart Rate through to 70%, 80%, 90% and finally 95% of your maximum heart rate. Update this every six weeks, as a way of tracking your improvements!



So back to the master plan we mentioned. If you ride three times a week, consider doing the following as an example - scroll up to check out the abbreviations again, or check them out below the program.




* Abbreviations:

rpm: revs per minute, in relation to pedaling speed.

DPI: double pyramid interval

PI: pyramid interval

PE: perceived exertion (replace with Heart Rate if you can, same percentage)



Drinking coffee on bike
It will be tough at first, but with time intervals will become a cup of tea! Photo: The Human Cyclist

There's a lot more science and complexity to intervals than we have mentioned here. This article is just to help get you off the ground and give it a go. Even following this basic program will result in greater increases in fitness, strength and speed than rolling around at tempo for many hours and miles.

We will be going a little deeper next time as we cover the three major energy systems used in your body. These energy systems are used at different times, based on the effort you're putting out.

Different intervals will improve these three individual energy systems in different ways, so you can again become much more specific in your training. This then leads to a big step up in your dedication, which is why you would then consider working with a coach.

But for now, try fitting some Pyramid and Double Pyramid intervals into your rides. Stick to it, because it's not easy. It's also mentally challenging to wake up at an ungodly time, knowing that in less than one hour, you'll be tasting your breakfast for a second time (sorry).

More information on its way but until then give these a go and dedicate yourself to it. Intervals can be demoralising at first, but after your first week you will already be able to notice substantial adaptations to your new best training friend!



Gopr2706Author: Joey Esterhuyzen
Joey has been racing bikes since he was a kid. He never grew old because of this, and still pops up on the race cards now and again near the pointy end... Joey loves nothing more than a solo road ride in the hills, or a fast and flowing MTB trail session... "Who says you can't whip an XC hardtail?!"

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