We’ve all heard of interval training. But do you really understand what it is, why we do it and how?
No..? Let Ben from MTBStrengthFactory explain and you’ll be strong, faster and tougher in no time.
Interval training is basically going fast for a bit followed by going slow for a bit.
It really is simple. The skill is in deciding how fast, how far, for how long and how many times per week.
By riding at a high intensity for a short period of time over repeated intervals it is possible to make improvements in your MTB fitness. That will help whether you race enduro, downhill, XC or just want to beat your mates.
Poor interval training will result in marginal improvements at best and fatigue from over-training at worst. It’s pretty important to get a good grip of this subject, but donʼt worry as it is actually pretty simple!
“but donʼt worry as it is actually pretty simple!”
How fast, how far, how long?
First you need some way of measuring the intensity of your training. If you are minted then a power meter is the best option, if you have a few quid then a heart rate monitor is really useful for longer intervals and if you are skint or a bit of a purist then it is possible to train by ʻfeel.ʼ
Each session should have a clear goal, like developing your anaerobic endurance for instance (training your muscles to perform at a high intensity without oxygen). That goal then leads you to design your training session to fit the time available, your ability, the stage of training you are at and so on.
“Each session should have a clear goal”
An example session…
Let us look at an example of an anaerobic interval session. The goal is to train your muscles to work at a high intensity without oxygen for longer periods of time. This allows you to work at higher outputs and faster speeds on the bike.
- A typical session would be 4 to 6 intervals of 3 to 5 minutes at a high intensity followed by the same amount of recovery time at a very low intensity.
- If you are new to interval training or at the start of a training period then you would likely just do 4 x 3 minutes, whereas a high-level rider nearing race readiness may do 6 x 5 minutes or even more.
- Be realistic about your abilities, and donʼt underestimate how much a session like this will take out of you physically and mentally.
“Be realistic … and donʼt underestimate how much this will take out of you”
The intensity of the intervals is key. We usually refer to training in different ʻzones.ʼ These training zones represent different training intensities, from Zone 1 and 2 for long, endurance rides at low intensity to Zone 4-5 for the anaerobic intervals mentioned earlier. Each zone refers to a range of heart rates or power outputs. For instance Zone 2 could be a heart rate of 126-145 beats per minute.
I use the zones recommended by Wattbike:
Zone 1: Establish base endurance
Zone 2: Improve efficiency
Zone 3: Improve sustainable power
Zone 4: Push threshold up
Zone 5: Sustain a high percentage of maximal aerobic power
Zone 6: Increase maximum power output
Supra-maximal: Increase sprint power output
What are your training zones?
How you calculate your training zones can vary a lot so I’m going to tell you how to train by ‘feel’.
Training by ‘feel’ means using a system called Rate of Perceived Exertion. It is a scale from 1-10 with 1 being really easy and 10 being the hardest that you could possibly work on the bike. Using the zones above, Zones 1 and 2 would be an rate of perceived exertion of only 2 or 3, whilst Zone 6 would be about a 9 out of 10. That is, hard as you can.
With practice and careful attention to your body it possible to train without expensive electronic kit. You could do a muscular endurance interval session where you work at RPE 5-6 for 8 minutes, recovering for 3 minutes at RPE 2 and repeating 3 times for instance. At first it will be hard to get right but over time you will become more effective at using this system. As a rule, the shorter the interval, the harder you should be working. As a guide, you shouldn’t able to have a conversation whilst working at RPE 7 or above!
“As a rule, the shorter the interval, the harder you should be working.”
The closer you get to an event, the more like the event the training should be. In the 2 weeks before an important DH race there is no need to be doing any long, muscular endurance intervals. Instead you could work on max power, and short, 30 second intervals and developing recovery in between as well as lots of technical riding so you are sharp on the bike.
Tell your legs to shut the hell up!
The final crucial benefit of interval training is mental toughness. Being able to suffer. Telling your legs to shut up. Learning to cope with discomfort and even enjoying it. This is really important if you want to be competitive. Nobody ever won a gold medal without pushing themselves mentally as well as physically; except Usain Bolt maybe!
“Nobody ever won a gold medal without pushing themselves mentally”
The rider who is willing to push their body hardest and suffer the most will always win. That is mental toughness. Intervals build mental toughness. If you donʼt suffer whilst doing intervals then you are wasting your time.