Trying to squeeze cycling into a packed schedule leaves many of us feeling ‘time-poor’. It’s a great source of frustration for many road cyclists as we attempt to make time for the long, relatively low-intensity rides that we believe are necessary improve cycling endurance. However, as an increasingly time-poor cyclist myself, I’ve often questioned whether long rides are the only way to develop your aerobic endurance. Could the application of cycling science help us achieve similar results in less time?

Reality & Responsibilities

I’ve recently returned to more focussed training after an 8 year hiatus, and have found myself in a very different life stage. I’ve replaced riding full-time in France, where my biggest off-season concern was whether the hotel for our training camp had drinkable coffee, for more responsibilities and much less time to pedal.

25-30 hour training weeks are a distant memory. Today, I can’t commit half of that time to riding my bike. A couple of months ago, when I found myself gripped by the urge to improve my cycling specific fitness once again, I called on my interest in Sports Science to challenge the received wisdom that long-hours in the saddle are the only way to improve aerobic performance and find out what it’s possible to achieve on 8ish hours of training a week.

 Sprint Training

In an article I wrote about Chris Froome and Team Sky’s approach to training, I mentioned that specific training creates specific ‘tools’. Specificity is essential, but it’s often assumed that the only way to develop a particular energy system is to use that system predominantly.

For example, many many of us believe that the most effective may to build endurance is to do long, relatively low intensity rides. This approach works, but these rides take a long time! What do you do if you only have 45 minutes, on the turbo-trainer, before the kids wake up? Fortunately, for the time poor cyclist, a growing body of evidence suggests that improvements to aerobic endurance performance can be made through anaerobic sprint training.

Is It Relevant To Me & You?

This is of particular interest to me, because sessions involving predominantly anaerobic efforts generally don’t take as long to complete – perfect for quick pre-breakfast turbo-trainer sessions.

Turbo Trainer Session

The idea that short, intense sprint based workouts could elicit some of the same benefits to performance as long, steady aerobic endurance training is attractive, but potentially controversial. Studies exploring the benefits of High-Intensity-Training (SIT) have raised some good questions. In 2005, a study by Burgomaster et al. concluded that SIT training could be effective in improving endurance performance. Initially, the subjects carried out a test, riding to exhaustion at 80% of their peak power output. Following this, they carried out a 14 day sprint interval training programme which involved a mere 2.5 hours training in total, before completing a second test to exhaustion, also at 80% of peak power. Despite this tiny volume of training, which involved 30 second efforts well over 100% peak power (a completely different intensity to the test) the subject’s time to exhaustion increased from 26 minutes to 51 minutes – a 96% improvement!

Burgomaster 2005 Study SIT protocol

– 6 training sessions, spread over 14 days, following the same structure:

– 30 second maximal sprint effort

– 4 minutes recovery

– Repeat 4-7 times 

But How effective is Sprint Interval Training compared with ‘conventional’ endurance training?

Until 2006, little evidence existed to compare the effects of Sprint Interval Training with conventional, moderate intensity endurance training. Consequently, whilst the researchers had evidence to demonstrate that SIT training was effective in improving aerobic performance, they could not say whether SIT training was more or less effective than conventional endurance training in improving aerobic endurance performance.

What Does This Mean For Me?

If I was going to write myself a new training programme based on the Burgomaster study, I could be relatively confident that I would experience some benefits from carrying out just 4 to 7 x 30second sprints, 3 times a week. However, I’d like to know how these incredibly short, sprint interval training sessions, whirring away on the turbo and worrying about waking up everyone in the house, compare to the endurance training in the country-lanes that I’d really like to be doing! In 2006, a team including Dr. Martin Gibala set out to investigate this question. They set up a study with two groups:

 Group 1:

– Followed the Burgomaster protocol.

– 4 to 6 repetitions of 30second sprints with 4 minutes of recovery.

– 6 SIT sessions, spread over 14 days.

– 630kj total work.

Group 2:

– More traditional endurance programme.

– Continuous, moderate intensity.

– 90-120 minutes, spread over 14 days.

– 6500kj total work.

At the end of the study, Gibala and his team tested both groups in 2 time-trial efforts – a short 50kj TT and a longer 750kj TT effort. There was not difference between the groups.

Similar Adaptations

Gibala also assessed molecular and cellular adaptations in the subject’s skeletal muscle: markers of adaptation to endurance training. Muscle biopsies revealed similar adaptations in both groups, even though the two types of training were vastly different: 

  • Increases in the muscle’s capacity to use oxygen.
  • Increases in buffering capacity – the muscle’s ability to neutralise acid and delay the onset of fatigue.
  • Similar resting muscle glycogen levels in both groups. 

The study demonstrated that short, sprint interval efforts could be as effective at improving aerobic performance as conventional endurance training involving moderate intensity cycling, even though the total volume of training amongst the ‘sprint’ group was more than 10 times lower that in the conventionally endurance trained group (6500kj vs 630kj over 2 weeks of training).

So maybe you should try it? In part 2 of this blog, we’ll explore whether other studies support these results and how we could integrate Sprint Interval Training into our own riding.

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