Bicycling (South Africa)
Find Your Training Sweet Spot
Here’s how to get the right mix of endurance and intervals to turn you into an uber rider.
I“I haven’t felt this fast in years.” That was the happy conclusion of an email from a friend I’ve been talking through some performance (and weight) ups and downs this year. His new secret to collecting Strava bling: slowing down. As he started spending more training time in lower heart-rate zones, his overall speed went up when he put the hammer down.
This sounds totally counterintuitive to today’s ‘go hard or go home’ ethos. #BeastMode is now #EverydayMode for many riders thanks to the soaring popularity of HIIT (high-intensity interval training), which has been at the top of annual workout trend charts for the past 10 years.
Admittedly, HIIT was a necessary response to the popularity of the low-and-slow fat-burning philosophy from the opposite side of the training spectrum. A model popularised by pro roadies since around the late 1960s, low-intensity steady state (or LISS) training had riders avowing themselves to weeks – sometimes months – of inner-chainring base-building rides before letting their heart rate crack 70 per cent. The problem with these allor-nothing training trends is that they permeate cycling circles and dominate. In the real world, science backs a more
balanced approach to training.
In the high-intensity corner, research comparisons of HIIT with longer, lower-intensity endurance training report that HIIT yields greater improvements in VO2 max and lactate threshold, and works just as well, if not better, for increasing the size and number of your mitochondria – the building blocks of your energygenerating engine.
While low-intensity riding also builds mitochondria, it offers other unique physiological benefits that’ll get you fitter and faster as well. When you pedal along at conversational pace, your lower left heart chamber has time to fill fully between contractions, and over time, it increases its capacity to pump more blood per beat, lowering your heart rate. By chilling out, you also build so many oxygen- and nutrientdelivering capillaries in your legs that it looks like a string war was waged in your quads.
As beneficial as each is, leaning too hard in either direction doesn’t work. I’ve seen high-intensity junkies crash through their crumbling foundation 90 minutes into a long ride, and endurance-only riders burn out long before finding their spark. To be a successful cyclist, you need to work both ends of the spectrum, as well as that sweet spot in the centre, popularly known as ‘no man’s land’ or ‘junk miles’.
I like to call this the Goldilocks approach to training, in which you aim for three key rides a week: one highintensity interval ride, or “Oh man, I’m dying!”; one low-intensity endurance ride, or “Oy, this is too easy!”; and one somewhere right in the middle that leaves you thinking, “Ah, that feels just right.” This approach works wonders because it taps into all the muscle fibres and energy systems you use when you ride and compete. To do it: warm up for 10 to 15 minutes before and cool down after the workouts at right. Perform each once or twice a week.