Interval training: HIIT workouts for cyclists

High intensity interval training is all the rage, but is it any good for cyclists?

Winter training

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has swept the fitness world in recent years and the workouts are now a staple of gym classes and home training routines.

Advertisement

HIIT workouts are recognised as a way of burning a lot of calories in a short amount of time, so it’s easy to see why they are a favourite of time-poor gym-goers looking to squeeze the most out of their training.

But HIIT needn’t be limited to weight-based activities and gym sessions, the benefits can be felt for time-crunched cyclists, too.

Here’s everything you need to know about high intensity interval training, the benefits and how you can include HIIT in your training plan.

What is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?

A HIIT workout intersperses short intervals of exercise at an effort level close to maximum with periods of recovery. When applied to cycling, there is no one set way to perform a HIIT workout, with different routines offering different benefits.

“The duration of efforts could be from a couple of seconds up to a minute or more,” explains Matt Rowe of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching. “There’s no real hard or fast definition of it other than you’ve got to be cycling hard and with great intensity on and off. 

“You can make it as structured or unstructured as you like. Fartlek training is seemingly random efforts, and that’s a form of HIIT training.”

Saris M2 smart turbo trainer
High intensity interval training has become extremely popular in recent years.
Simon Bromley

What are the benefits of HIIT?

One of the biggest benefits of a HIIT workout is the short amount of time it takes. “It allows you to accumulate a lot of high quality work at that top end and really maximises the bang for your buck from any training session,” says Dr David Nichols, cycle training consultant for Wattbike.

Most sessions can be done in an hour or less and are easy to do on the turbo trainer, so you can squeeze a ride in with long-lasting benefits from the comfort of your own home.

“If you’re time poor, you’ve got to be smart with what you do have,” says Matt Bottrill of Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching.

It’s possible to see a tangible training benefit from a session as short as 30 or 40 minutes, according to Bottrill, but he warns against over-reliance on HIIT workouts. “You can’t do it every day,” he says. “It’s not feasibly possible because you can’t hit that high intensity.”

HIIT workouts can also help you to better target the top-end training that might otherwise be missing from your rides.

“When you go out cycling, most people ride steady and they think they’re going quite hard,” says Rowe. “But you’re not really engaging your fast twitch muscle fibres that much. 

“The fast twitch fibres can make all the difference in cycling. If you need to get up a climb and use a big surge in effort, that’s your fast twitch fibres that you’re relying on. HIIT training does that perfectly.”

Because HIIT intervals are short, they enable you to accumulate a lot of time at an intensity above what you’d otherwise be able to sustain in continuous blocks. That, in turn, helps improve your VO2 max and threshold power, according to Nichols.

“Say you do four blocks of five minute intervals, you could be doing 20 minutes well above what you could do in a straight 20-minute block,” he says.

What are the drawbacks of HIIT?

While high intensity interval training is time-efficient and provides plenty of bang for your buck, it isn’t a miracle session that can simply replace all of the other workouts in your training plan.

Due to the nature of HIIT workouts, you need to be able to train at extremely high intensities during each session, and therefore need to recover properly between workouts. 

“There’s no point in doing a top end training session if you go into it so fatigued that you can’t reach the top end – you just end up training in that middle ground,” explains Nichols. 

“By incorporating HIIT, you’ve got to be a bit smarter – are you going to have a rest day before it? What is your training session going to look like after that? You can’t just keep periodically smashing yourself.”

Nichols recommends a maximum of three HIIT sessions a week – ideally two – otherwise you risk overtraining. “You can have too much of a good thing,” he adds.

If you do decide to add HIIT workouts to your training, Rowe says it’s important to not neglect the rest of your riding. “If you purely do HIIT training, you’re going to struggle with your endurance because it’s all about short, sharp efforts,” he says.

Bottrill agrees, adding that you still need to be logging the miles to see the true benefits of HIIT workouts translated on the road. “You’ve still got to do that endurance base,” he says.

He also recommends keeping HIIT to a limited phase of a training block because of how mentally challenging sessions can be. “The hardest bit is your head,” he says. 

“The sessions take a lot out of you. You can find it very hard to then complete the next session. If you’re going to do that type of training, you’d probably want to build a six week phase of it. Any more and you can’t go as deep mentally.”

Cyclist sprinting on a road bike in winter
HIIT workouts can take place indoors or outdoors, though the turbo trainer is most convenient.
Robert Smith/Immediate Media

Indoors or outdoors?

While HIIT training can be done both indoors or outdoors on the open road, all the coaches we spoke to leaned towards an indoor setting on a turbo trainer or smart bike.

“I personally prefer to do it indoors,” says Nichols. “It’s convenient, setup ready to go and there’s no time wasting. Doing it outdoors can negate the time effectiveness of HIIT.”

If you do opt to train outside though, Bottrill recommends planning a circuit that is either flat or uphill.

“You don’t want it to be too undulating and you want to control the environment,” he says. “That’s where a hill comes good – you can ascend a climb that’s 3-4 minutes and then recover on the descent.”

Rowe adds that it’s also possible to turn your commute into a HIIT workout, albeit an unstructured fartlek-style session: “Maybe as part of your commute, you could sprint to a sign post and do seemingly random efforts like that.”

How can I include HIIT in my training plan?

As we’ve already covered, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing with high intensity interval training, so it’s recommended to have a maximum of two sessions per week interspersed with longer endurance rides to really see the benefits. 

However, for riders who can only squeeze in a short session around other commitments, Rowe would always recommend a HIIT workout.

“A well-rounded training plan touches on all different attributes,” he says. Sweetspot sessions are great, but at least once a week you should be doing some top-end work. The frequency at which you do it is very personal, but in the winter you have to do whatever you can in the amount of time you’ve got.

“If you’ve only got 40 minutes to train, in that 40 minutes you might as well ride hard so HIIT works for that.”

The fatigue-inducing nature of HIIT workouts makes it advisable to plan your sessions in advance to avoid overtraining. Nichols recommends scheduling your HIIT sessions around easy or rest days, and using a weekend ride to work on your endurance.

“A ride at the weekend is going to be your long endurance ride, maybe a club run,” he says. “Outside of that, you can do two midweek interval sessions. These are your absolute high effort, high intensity training sessions.

“If that’s Tuesday and Thursday, you’re going to have Monday and Wednesday easy because you’ve got to schedule that recovery in. There’s no point in doing those HIIT workouts fatigued.”

Two example HIIT workouts for cyclists

Matt Rowe’s HIIT pyramid

Each ‘on’ interval should be in zone five if you train with a power meter. Rowe recommends doing 1, 1.5 or 2 pyramids, depending on how much time you have.

10-minute warm up

10 seconds on (zone 5)
50 seconds off (zone 1)

20 seconds on (zone 5)
40 seconds off (zone 1)

30 seconds on (zone 5)
30 seconds off (zone 1)

40 seconds on (zone 5)
20 seconds off (zone 1)

50 seconds on (zone 5)
10 seconds off (zone 1)

60 seconds on (zone 5)
60 seconds off (zone 1)

50 seconds on (zone 5)
10 seconds off (zone 1)

40 seconds on (zone 5)
20 seconds off (zone 1)

30 seconds on (zone 5)
30 seconds off (zone 1)

20 seconds on (zone 5)
40 seconds off (zone 1)

10 seconds on (zone 5)
50 seconds off (zone 1)

5-minute cool down

Dr David Nichols’ 5×5

While the intervals here are longer than a typical HIIT session, Nichols describes this workout as “an absolute classic that all WorldTour riders are doing”. If you want to increase the difficulty further, he recommends ‘preloading’ the VO2 intervals. 

“Rather than doing a consistent five-minute interval at VO2 max, you could start the first minute exceptionally hard – harder than you want to be going,” he says.

“Digging really deep at the start and almost hanging on is a really great way of getting you up to VO2 max sooner.”

Advertisement

10-minute warm-up
5 minutes at VO2 max power (110–120% of FTP)
5-minute recovery (zone one, total recovery)
(repeat five times)
5-minute cool down