No time for big base miles? Try these short, specific cardio and strength techniques to increase your endurance without logging long hours.
There's no bigger bummer than going out for your first big ride after the dark days of winter and coming home limping, beaten up, and hating life. I do brevets — 200k, 300k, 400k endurance rides — but I would always suffer like a dog on the first one of the year. That's because winter spin classes, trainer sessions and even most mountain bike rides are usually just too short to prep our cycling muscles for big long-distance efforts.
So I realised I had to think smarter. If there was no time to ride longer, there was only one option: go harder. Going harder means intervals, which most cyclists love to hate, and weight lifting, which we tend to avoid like the plague.
If you feel that way, it’s time to get over it; intervals and weights are well-documented and time-effective super-shortcuts for building cycling fitness and power. Here’s the case for trying either (or both together) to jump start your season, including an introduction to “Maximum Overload for Cyclists,” a ground-breaking weight workout used by cycling land-speed world record holder, Denise Mueller. First, intervals:
Intervals for Endurance
Nothing is a more effective time-saver for a cyclist than sprint intervals. These short, all-out, crazy-hard anaerobic efforts last just 15 to 30 seconds each. Six to eight of them (with 90 seconds or two minutes of rest in-between to bring your heart rate down), can be done in 20 minutes.
The key is that each interval has to be done to the point of exhaustion, which cues your body to get stronger and faster. “Omigod — I better upgrade myself in case this happens again!” it thinks, dispatching an army of hormones like HGH and testosterone to do build muscle.
Those upgrades — in speed, structural integrity, oxygen-processing capability (VO2 Max), lactic-acid buffering and overall endurance — have been well-documented in numerous studies. One from 2006 done by Canada’s McMaster University found that just 20 minutes of daily intervals gave riders the same fitness gains as those who rode steady for two hours - that’s six times as long!
And it’s not just for the Spring heroes: sprints work for high-level athletes in mid-season form as well. A 2005 New Zealand study found that 8 to 12 sessions of intervals increased speed an average of 8.1 per cent in a 40km time trial with a 8.1 per cent rise in power.
In short, a handful of intervals can give you gains in aerobic fitness that match longer, slower workouts, while also providing the anaerobic and health benefits that steady-state riding does not.
· Go all-out. You get the most benefit from going to “failure” or the point where you are so exhausted that you can no longer go hard or maintain good form.
· Start fresh: Come into an interval session fully rested. Pedal very lightly between intervals for 90 seconds to two minutes to bring your heart rate down.
· Do 6 to 8 15-30 second sprints per session: If you can’t do 6 all-out, work up to it. If you can do more than 8, it means you aren’t doing them hard enough.
· Do no more than 2 or 3 sessions per week: Although cycling intervals beat you up less than running, they’re still hard on your body. You’ll need 48 hours to recover from a session.