Interval training tips

At this time of the year, quite a few people email me for tips for hill climb training / intervals. It is hard to reply:

  • Hill climb training is quite individual depending on general fitness / condition. For example, the training I do know is different to when I first started cycling. Years of training have enabled me to cope with a greater volume of training than in the early days.
  • It is not false modesty to say I have no particular qualifications or knowledge of training. I have accumulated bits of knowledge and tried to use what works for me, but it is somewhat ad-hoc and individual.
  • Occasionally, people ask if I would consider becoming a cycle coach. The honest answer is that the idea of becoming a cycle coach doesn’t appeal to me at all. There are certainly plenty of coaches to choose from though!

I found an article I published on an old cycling blog in 2010 – Called ‘interval training tips. The funny thing is that I ended up revising almost everything in the article! It would have been easier to write new article. It shows I’m always changing my mind about what is a good way to train. I suppose in the past few years  I’ve gained more experience, (e.g. using power meter and having coach in 2014)

It is hopefully a start for some interval training tips, though there is always more to add. See also similar article – Hill climb intervals.

Interval training tips

A basic principle of cycle training is that what you focus on you will improve.

Interval training is often seen as a time efficient way to increase your speed and power. At the moment I am doing a lot of interval training for the hill climb season that is starting soon. I do enjoy them in a way, which helps.

Base fitness

If you are new to cycling, especially if overweight or you haven’t done any exercise for a long time, it is not advisable to start off with high intensity intervals. It is vital to have a base level of aerobic fitness. If you are younger you may get away with less, but, you still need a certain base fitness before stretching your body to its limits.

The counter-point of intervals is to also train your aerobic base. Timewise, the classic pyramid of training suggests more time training at low intensity and relatively shorter times as intensity increases.

Turbo or road?

Some people swear by an indoor turbo trainer as a means to do intervals. It means you are:

  • Insulated from bad weather,
  • Protected from accidents.
  • Have greater control of your effort.
  • You don’t have to worry about stopping for traffic.
  • Don’t get punctures

However, despite these many advantages I have never seen the attraction of doing intervals on turbos. Usually when I get on a turbo, time seems to pass slowly and painfully. Somehow I prefer training on roads, even if it means getting wet. I will spend longer training up hills and on the road than on a turbo. It also means you replicate conditions of a race.

Hill intervals


I think hills make a great place to do intervals on. It is a definite target to aim for the top of the hill. During most of the year, I am doing intervals of duration 4-10 minutes. For these I tend to find long hills with a gradual gradient. My favourite hills are around the Chilterns. For the hill climb season I use a variety of hills to make training more varied. In Oxford, Whiteleaf, Brill hill, Boars hill, Chinnor hill are some of my favourite.

How long between intervals?

Some training manuals may suggest a 5 minute interval followed by a 5 minute rest. However, I often take a long break between intervals. This is partly out of necessity; e.g. it will take 20 minutes to cycle from hill to the next. However, my theory is that by giving a longer recovery period, the interval is of a higher quality because you can give it more effort. It depends on what you are training for. For time trials, you need the ability to cope with lactic acid, therefore, intervals close to each other will help develop this – even if they are more painful.

I have experimented with very short recovery between intervals. This makes training session more intense, I felt I did more muscle damage and was more fatigued. Perhaps there was  a greater training benefit, but also it took longer to recover.

How many intervals in one session?

I always look forward to the first interval. The body is fresh and it is possible to give it everything. However, by the second interval the legs can already feel dead. It is also psychologically more difficult to motivate yourself to give the same effort a second or third time. Generally, I don’t have any target for the number of intervals, I often do them until I can’t do any more at a good quality effort. You can always cycle up a hill; but, if you can’t get a certain effort level and heart rate, you know you are not doing high quality intervals any more.

The most likely number is between 5-10 intervals. But, it depends on the time of the season, and how I feel. Sometimes, I quit intervals before reaching exhaustion – because I’m thinking of the next interval session in 2 or 3 days time.

How many interval sessions in a week?

One important principle of training is the idea of stress and recovery. Therefore, it makes sense to do an interval session and then have a light day. Occassionally, I will do intervals on consecutive days. Perhaps on the first day, I will just sprint up one hill. The next day, the legs don’t feel too tired so you can do more. However, if it is a really intense interval session of 5-6 times @ 5 minutes, I will definitely have a recovery day or two. (BTW: gently recovery ride can be better than completely off bike)

When tapering for a big event, I can leave 2-4 days between interval sessions. It is this recovery of 3 days easy that really sees a big increase in power. But, the counter point of having big recovery periods, is that in previous month I have trained very hard.

It is a difficult balance. More intervals doesn’t necessarily mean higher fitness. You have to listen to your body and make sure you get enough rest as well stretching the body. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that to see biggest jump in power, take it easy for quite a few days.

Use of power meter

For many years, I’ve trained without using a power meter. I started in 2014. It was useful for measuring progress (or regression). In particular, it can show signs of over-training and fatigue.

In the first year of using power meter I used to look at power meter during interval (as much out of curiosity), but now only really look after the ride. It can be distracting (and discouraging) to look at power meter and see lower power than you would like.

However, it can be good to look at a power meter during some interval to improve your pacing – to make sure the effort is evenly spread out over 4-5 minutes. It’s easy to go out too hard.

Use of heart rate

I rarely use a heart rate monitor. Though a coach would want me to wear one, as it can give useful data. For example, lower max, can be sign of over-training. One thing about heart rate, is that it lags behind effort. So it’s not advisable to ride short intervals by heart rate alone.

How to motivate yourself?

I often feel with intervals, the intensity and focus you can maintain is more important than the quantity.

You have to be really motivated to do interval training. It is not something to be done half heartedly. If you heart isn’t in the interval training, don’t force it but try another day.

What intensity for intervals?

It will depend on the race you are focusing on. Firstly, it is good to have an idea what your FTP is – the simplest way to understand this is the maximum effort you can sustain for an hour, e.g. in a 25 mile TT, you may have an average power output of 310 watts. This forms the basis for gauging effort.

  • If training for a 10 mile TT, I will do intervals at an intensity of a 10 mile TT – or preferably just a little above, e.g 105-110 FTP
  • If training for hill climbs, I just do a lot of intervals as if it was a race – 100% effort to get to the top.
  • 90% intervals. However, even in the hill climb season, I still do some sessions where I don’t do 100% efforts. But, maybe 90% effort for a 5 minute. This will be at an intensity of around threshold level (FTP – maximum you can sustain for one hour)


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