In part 1 of this series, I suggested that integrating Sprint Interval Training into your training programme, based on the results of a study by a team including Dr. Martin Gibala, could be a good idea. Perhaps more compelling for many of us is the fact that professional riders appear to be on the SIT ‘band-wagon’. A few months ago,Team Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke tweeted a photo of his hand taken just before a training sesssion, on which he’d scrawled a list of short, sprint interval efforts between 30 and 60 seconds in length.

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke's Training

‘JTL’ is just one of many professional riders who uses some form of SIT. British Cycling’s track squads are also known to use the approach to stimulate adaptation and improvement for some of their team pursuit riders. However, single studies and anecdotes are not sufficient evidence to stake next season’s training and performance on.

Fortunately, in 2013, Sloth M, et al. conducted a systematic review of 19 studies which evaluated the effects of Sprint Interval Training. Following this thorough assessment, Sloth and the team concluded that:

“Strong evidence support[s] improvement of aerobic exercise performance and VO2max following Sprint Interval Training.”

Based on 19 studies and N=1 stories from numerous riders, I’m confident that a few eye-ball poppingly hard intervals are effective in boosting endurance performance and that they can compliment and even replace some of the long-rides I no longer have time for.

How Can We Apply Sprint Interval Training To Every Day Riding & Racing?

In 2010 in the Journal Of Physiology, Gibala continued his research in Sprint Interval Training, publishing an article with the catchy title: “A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms.” This paper came partly as a response to the fact that many studies evaluating Sprint Interval Training required the subjects to perform repeated, maximal 30 second sprint efforts. Riding at maximal intensities requires a huge amount of motivation, a fairly good level of basic conditioning and some experience. Consequently, it may not be practical for many cyclists to carry out as part of their ‘normal’ training. Recognising this limitation, the research team designed a similar protocol to Gibala (six training sessions over 2 weeks). However, this time the researchers reduced the intensity of the prescribed efforts, but increased the number of repetitions.

Gibala 2006

4 to 6 repetitions of 30second maximal sprints.

6 sessions, spread over 14 days.

2010 Practical Model

8 to 12 repetitions of 60 seconds efforts at 100% peak power*.

6 sessions, spread over 14 days.

*Peak power: During a ramp-test, where the intensity is gradually increased until the rider can’t continue, peak power is sometimes described as the power that’s maintained in the final minute of the test.

The Results

100% peak power represents a significantly lower intensity than a maximal sprint and is easier to attain, but despite this ‘easier’ protocol, both approaches increased exercise capacity in the subjects, with both groups recording significant improvements in both shorter (50kj) and longer (750kj) time trial tests. The findings supported previous research and went on to demonstrate that SIT is a powerful tool to improve exercise performance, even if the intensity of the efforts is less than maximal.

Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?

So if SIT is so effective, with such a strong evidence base, then why isn’t everyone doing it? Cruising through winter doing long steady rides can actually be quite enjoyable, compared with SIT training which is very hard work and creates an uncomfortable accumulation of blood lactate. The problem is, the discomfort of high intensity riding and the misplaced belief that high levels of blood lactate should be avoided in the off-season, often results in riders getting caught in a moderate intensity no-man’s land, becoming very good at performing at moderate intensities but failing to provide their body with sufficient training stimulus to adapt and improve.

Time In Power ZonesLong, low-intensity rides still play an important role in the training diet of road cyclists, but analysing the training of world-class endurance athletes provides an insight into how conventional long-hours in the saddle may be integrated with SIT. A study by Kjerland, in 2006, reveals a stark polarisation in their approach. World-class training programmes still include large volumes, but the time spent during this training is split between very easy and very hard, with very little time spent at moderate intensities. In the example in the image, left, the rider could polarize their training by reducing time spent at zone 3 and 4 and increasing at zone 6. If you’re interested in analysing how your training compares, you can use TrainingPeaks to plot a chart showing the time that you’ve spent at various intensities.

What Could A SIT Session Look Like?

If you’re interested in polarising your training and integrating some SIT sessions, you can find an example workout below. One of the great features of the SIT is the fact that the short efforts and recovery intervals can be mixed up in almost endless variety, to provide plenty of new stimulus and keep training entertaining, so you may wish to add your own twist to the template.

– 10 minutes at 50-65% 60 min Critical Power

– 5 minute ‘blow-out’ effort at 100% 60 min Critical Power

– 5 minutes at 50-65% 60 min Critical Power

– 8-12 x 60 second efforts at 140% 60 min Critical Power with 75 seconds recovery

– 10 minute cool-down at 50-65% 60 min Critical Power

Take-Home Points

In summary, my ‘take-home points’ on the subject are: 

  • You can use different types of training to achieve the same result – integrating SIT could be beneficial to your endurance performance.
  • Try polarizing your training – make easy rides really easy (zones 1-2 max) and hard rides very hard.
  • Keep your body guessing: try out different types of training, durations and intensities and see how your body responds.
  • Don’t be afraid to do intense sessions in winter.
  • A power meter will help you to measure pace and intensity much more accurately.
  • Most of us need to push harder on the pedals in the off-season!

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