Cycling Interval Training Example

Pro-cyclists can maintain speeds of 50KPH+ for 8 hours a day during a race, and hit more than 60KPH during a sprint.  They’re some of the fittest people on the planet in terms of their VO2 Max performance, and also in terms of their ability to recover from really strenuous exercise.

Of course, they don’t hit those levels of performance without sacrifice and hard work.  It’s easy to ride a bike, but it’s hard to ride a bike fast, and even harder to ride a bike fast all day.  If you’re trying your hand at cycling – either during an evening time trial series, or a triathlon, boosting speed can be hard to achieve.  Cycling is like running, once you’ve improved your endurance, you work on your speed, and the best way of doing this is through cycling interval training.

Cycling Interval Training preparation

Interval training on a bike isn’t so much about the speed you ride at, but the power, so to train effectively, you need a heart rate monitor that tells you what power you are outputting.  The two things you need to know are:

  • Your peak power
  • The maximum time you can sustain peak power

You find your peak power output by riding at increasing power levels until you become unable to turn the cranks.  That can take a full training session to achieve – you need to warm up at a light intensity for about 10 minutes before hitting a 100watt power level and increasing by 10watts every minute until you fail.  Make sure you warm down afterwards to avoid injury.

Post recovery, you need to identify your maximum time at peak power.  Again, this will require some effort.  After a good warm up, you need to hit your peak power and then stay there as long as possible.  Most people will manage a minute or two.

Once you know your peak power and the maximum time you can sustain it, cycling interval training becomes possible.

Cycling Interval Training Schedule

You will either want to do this ride using a turbo trainer, or on a safe road with no other traffic because your pace will vary, which might make you a risk to other road users.

Warm Up Phase

Start with a 20 minute warm-up ride to increase heart rate and warm up your muscles

Intervals Phase – repeat 5 times

Ride at peak power for half of your maximum sustained time

Ride at recovery pace for 2x your time at peak

Recovery Phase

Have a warm down ride for 20 minutes.

Notes:

The level of intensity that you ride at during interval training on a bike is far higher than the level you hit running, and many people find it uncomfortable.  in the cycling interval training schedule above, we’ve suggested 5 interval sessions.  At first you may struggle to achieve this, however once you can, you might want to increase it to 10 gradually.

Don’t forget, the purpose of cycling interval training is to boost maximum power levels and the time you can sustain them, so regularly review these KPIs to maintain training intensity.

Calculating Your VO2 Max

While BMI Calculators are an indicator of your health, the most accurate measure of your fitness is your VO2 Max.  Calculating your VO2 Max is essentially tells you how efficiently your body is able to convert energy from food into physical movement.

A high VO2 Max is important for endurance athletes, and it is something that will develop as you train harder over time.  VO2 Max is normally represented in terms of a ratio of milli-litres of oxygen / kilogram of body weight / per minute and as such allows you to compare your results with a competitor.

There are a number of ways of calculating your VO2 Max score.  To get the most accurate possible representation, you would need to actually measure the volume of oxygen you use during a set piece of exercise which requires specialised equipment.  This isn’t always practical, however it’s reasonably straightforward to get an accurate estimate of VO2 Max using the simpler Cooper Test.

The Cooper Test

The Cooper test was developed for the US Air Force during the 1950s to measure the fitness of airmen and determine their fitness for service.

To carry out the Cooper Test, you measure the distance in metres that you can run in 12 minutes at peak effort.  The following equation is used for calculating your VO2 Max:

VO2 Max Equation

Equation to calculate VO2 Max

As an example, if you were able to run 2.5KM in a 12 minute period, the calculation for your VO2 Max would be:

(2500-505)/45 = 44.33

Your VO2 Max score is always relative to your age and gender.  For a man aged 19, 44.33 would represent a “fair” VO2 Max, while for a woman aged 40, it would be “superior”:

VO2 Max Graph for Men

VO2 Values for Men

VO2 Max for women

VO2 Values for Women

For most regular people, both the Cooper test, and the performance bands outlined above are sufficient to determine VO2 Max values with a reasonable degree of accuracy – certainly enough to be able to measure health improvements over time.  Truly elite athletes will often have performance values for VO2 max that are off the normal scales.  The cyclist Greg Lemond often performed well above a VO2 Max of 88.

We’ve developed a VO2 Max calculator that uses your Cooper test results so you can track your fitness over time. Try it out here.