Interval training will boost your cycling speed and stamina

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Hey friends, it's the home stretch. In just a few weeks, we'll be jumping into our springtime training.

While it may still be a bit chilly, finer weather is just waiting around the next bend and with it, top-notch fitness.

By now you've started your base training: those long, steady miles designed to prepare the body for the more taxing workouts of cycling season. Just a few more workouts and you'll be flying.

But you remember your freshman-year economics courses: "There's no free lunch," they always tell you. And in the case of cycling fitness, that price is paid in intervals.

Pyramid intervals

OK, now catch your breath and relax: Intervals aren't that bad. They challenge the human body at a variety of levels. You can do them at lower intensity and for longer duration say, four 15-minute efforts or much shorter, harder ones.

Few of us outside of the pros have time to perform multiple types of intervals throughout the week. Longer "tempo" intervals are great if you have the time to specify your workouts. Most folks, though, have the time to get in one good workout during the week or weekend, and that's got to do.

With that in mind, let's first discuss the one workout you should do this cycling season in prep for a big event.

"They're the best interval ... the pyramid. I've been doing them since I was 16," says Christian Vande Velde, the U.S. Postal Service cycling team rider who's competed in the Tour de France and on the track at world's and in the World Cup.

"You do one minute, then two, then three, with the same amount of rest in between. It's a max effort," Vande Velde explains.

The workout is straightforward and efficient. With a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool down, and one or two "pyramids," you can complete the entire workout in less than an hour. Perfect for lunch time or early-morning weekend training.

I asked Vande Velde which one workout a part-time cyclist should do for fitness. He immediately answered with "the pyramid," explaining, "They're good for all around because three minutes is almost endurance and one minute is like a kilo ... They're a good trainer workout, too."

What Vande Velde means is that different intervals train different physiologic capacities. The one minute, or "kilo," helps build short-term, explosive power. This type of fitness will help you close or bridge a gap, escape in the final miles of a race, or ride away over a particularly rocky section in a mountain-bike event.

The "endurance"-type intervals works at a slightly lower intensity and builds longer-term muscular endurance for sustained climbs, windy road races or time trials. The advantage of doing pyramids is that you'll train over a variety of zones during your workout.

The pyramid can be done on a mountain or road bike, indoors on a trainer or rollers, or out on the road or trail. Vande Velde further recommends doing your intervals on the same terrain (a long hill, stretch of road, or wherever) each week so you can gauge your fitness as you improve.

After you've reached a solid base of general training, it's time for your pyramids. One day a week, one day on the weekend, maximum. Intervals are like a powerful drug: Just a little and you're flying high, too much and it's lights out.

Start with one pyramid (one set of a one-minute, two-minute and three-minute effort with a minute's rest after each) during your workout, and after a few weeks add a second pyramid set. Take every fourth week off to avoid overtraining.

'Cruise' intervals

Suppose you've got a bit more time to put into your workouts. Cycling is one sport into which you may pour endless hours and energy, so if you've got the time and motivation, we can go nuts here.

We can get a little more specific on the bike, for starters, and that'll take up time and energy, believe me.

Another productive type of interval is the "cruise" interval, as detailed in Joe Friel's authoritative work The Cyclist's Training Bible. If you really want to get into the particulars of interval training, then check Friel's book, or log onto Ultrafit.com or Friel's online coaching program TrainingBible.com.

The cruise interval involves a longer interval, done at a slightly lower intensity. As with all intervals, you want to ride strongly throughout the length of the effort. Don't start hard during a 15-minute effort, only to crater and crawl the last five minutes. Get yourself up to an intensity you can hold for the full interval and keep it there.

A cruise interval will build longer-term endurance at an exertion level just below your anaerobic threshold. This will give you stamina for longer climbs, a time trial and the sustained effort of a mountain bike race.

Warm up, do a 10- or 15-minute effort, then recover by spinning an easy gear for five minutes or more (at least until your heart rate is down in zone 1 again, in which you'll be able to breathe through the nose comfortably -- see Friel's book more on the heart-rate zones). If you're up to it, try another, but remember that you want to finish the interval as strongly as you started it.

As with all intervals, you'll want to only do them as long as your body's responding. As soon as you can no longer raise your heart rate to the targeted level (high zone 3 for a short interval, high zone 2 or low 3 for a cruise interval -- roughly, gauge your own intensity), it's time to warm down and go home.

Likewise if your heart rate doesn't return to recovery level (zone 1) then it's time for the showers.

How and when?

The road bike is a bit better suited for interval training, but by no means do you have to stick to it for your workouts. Avoid, however, excessively rough terrain if you choose your mountain bike for an interval session. You want to focus on consistency, good form and steady effort, rather than struggling over rocky or loose earth.

This way you'll get a more thorough workout, rather than stopping to put a foot down or changing your cadence dramatically. Do your free-riding to work on skills and apply your fitness, but generally try and get your interval sessions done on easy terrain or on the road bike.

And remember Vande Velde's advice on where to train. Try and get back to the same hill or road for your intervals and pretty soon you'll notice you're covering more distance in less time ... and that means your fitness is coming along nicely.

Happy riding, and use these intervals sparingly. They work only when performed in moderation. See ya out there.

Online training diary: Use Training Bible to record your mileage and vital stats, and gear up for your next race.

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