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Intervals for Speed

By Jeff Nachtigal - May 1st, 2001

Kids on bikes love to race. Watch a group circle the neighborhood on their bikes, and invariably one will shout: Go!

I know. My height of glory came at age 10, when I briefly ruled the block. We'd line up on our one-speed cruisers, a rag-tag fleet of secondhand bikes. After complex negotiations to determine who got to say "go," we'd take off, pumping furiously for the far intersection.

As soon as we hit the magical line across the street we'd roll to the side of the road and flop in the grass, chests heaving as we gulped air. After a few minutes we'd bounce back and head up the block for another run. On summer nights we'd race through dusk until our shadows beat us.

Little did I know at the time that I was engaging in one of the most important aspects of fitness training for a cyclist - speed intervals.

The basic premise of interval training is overloading the body's system and then allowing it to recover. The overload, or hard effort, trains and acclimatizes your muscles and cardiovascular system to accept increased effort, with less pain involved. That means you can go faster and feel better.

What's a speed interval? Simply put, it's a sustained effort at a hard pace. How do you define hard? Well, beyond pain, a hard interval can be scientifically termed as an anaerobic one. Your cardiovascular system breaks down roughly into two basic zones: aerobic and anaerobic. You train your aerobic system by doing long, evenly paced rides below an intensity level that requires hard breathing.

Once you pass over the hard-breathing level to the point where you can't carry on a conversation with a riding partner, you've entered the anaerobic zone, the point at which your body can't remove the lactic acid built up from hard muscular effort. When you push your body to go fast - say, racing your buddy for a city limits sign, or pushing hard to catch a stale yellow - you're "going anaerobic." Anaerobic speed intervals get your body used to putting out hard efforts.

So how do you do speed intervals? First off, make sure you've built up a solid base of aerobic riding before doing hard intervals. Your cardiovascular system needs plenty of time to gradually build the ability to handle the hard efforts you're going to put it through; if you haven't put in aerobic training time, you're much better off going for longer rides at an even pace before attempting intervals.

Cycling science has graced us with two high-tech tools to measure our intervals: the heart-rate monitor (cardiovascular) and the watts meter (muscular power). Each tool allows you to fine-tune your workout - at any level, be it aerobic or anaerobic - to an exact level. But they're not required for speed intervals. After all, intervals are easy to measure: Go until it hurts and hold. Any cycling computer, or wristwatch, gives a second count, which is enough to time your effort.

Pick a quiet road or trail that allows you to ride at a high speed for at least a couple minutes. (Indoor trainers and rollers also work, but outside is much nicer in good weather.) A long gradual hill also works well.

When beginning, do six intervals, one minute each. Start in the saddle in a low gear and work up as you gain speed, standing up midway and pushing as hard as you can in a gear you can turn over at a high pedal rate.

The secret to making it through a hard interval workout is a good warm-up. Spin for at least 20 minutes prior to your intervals. Then, do the first one or two intervals at half speed, gradually working up the ladder of your anaerobic system. Pick a landmark at the end of the interval so you can focus on a "finish line" for the rest of the set.

After the interval, pedal easily until your breathing is entirely back to normal, usually about five minutes. This is a very important point - you want to be fully recovered before you start the next interval. The secret to a good interval workout, I've found, is deciding how many intervals you want to do in advance. Stick to your goal but don't go over it; that way you'll be able to stay motivated and on target throughout your workout - when you get tired it's nice to know exactly how many efforts you have left.

After your workout, make sure to do a good cool-down spin, and stretch when you get home. Only do high-speed interval training once a week, you need to let your high-end system recover for that long. This workout, with warm-up, cool-down and recovery lasts about 1.5 hours.

Although interval training is best done alone, so you can focus on your own effort, training with a friend can produce a better workout by motivating you to go harder - and it brings back memories of racing cruisers down the block on a hot summer night.


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