Friday, July 9, 2010

Triathlon Cycling Interval Workouts

By: Chris Carmichael

You've been racing for months now, but it's likely that your big race is fast approaching. Whether that race is a local sprint-distance race or an Ironman event, you should be looking for one last jump in fitness to get you peaked for your best race of the season.

What areas can you improve upon in order to finish the season strong? The following four workouts will help you light up the bike course and have energy left over for the run.

Improve your maximum sustainable power. This intensity level is key for triathletes of all distances. Your lactate threshold (LT) is the intensity level at which lactic acid accumulation in your blood exceeds your body’s ability to remove it. Studies have shown that trained athletes can race at their LT for about an hour. By training at or just below your LT, you are training your body to work hard and to remove the lactic acid from your blood, effectively increasing your LT. After training at this intensity level, you will be able to produce more power, and therefore speed, at any given intensity below your LT.

1. SteadyState intervals are the ideal workout for triathletes who are trying to increase their lactate threshold. These intervals should be done at a perceived exertion of about 8 out of 10, and will be difficult, but not maximal, efforts. Pedal cadence should be roughly the same as your racing cadence, optimally in the 85-95 RPM range. Ideally, you will work up to a total of about 60 minutes of these threshold intervals by the time of your goal race. They can be divided into 6 x 10, 4 x 15, or 3 x 20 minute intervals and recovery should be nearly equivalent to the length of the interval. Short-course racers should focus on the shorter length intervals, while long-course racers should strive to complete the 60 minutes in 1 to 2 intervals.

Increase your VO2max. While training at or below your LT is great for increasing the amount of time you can race at that intensity, if you can raise your maximal power production and aerobic capacity, it will allow your LT room to improve as well.

2. PowerIntervals are short, maximal efforts that are designed to improve your maximal aerobic capacity or VO2 max. The goal is to increase your top end speed and power. Pedal cadence should be higher than you would normally maintain in a race; above 110 RPM is ideal. Typically, the total amount of time spent performing PowerIntervals will amount to about 20-30 minutes by the time you begin tapering for your goal event. These intervals can be divided into 8 x 2, 6 x 3, 5 x 4, or 4 x 5 minute intervals and recovery should be equivalent to the length of the interval. As interval duration increases, the intensity must decrease in order to complete each interval. Racers of all distances should start their intervals at 1 to 2 minutes in length and strive to complete intervals 4 to 5 minutes in length in the month leading up to their goal race.

Build power above lactate threshold. The weeks leading up to your goal event is the perfect time to focus on increasing power at intensities that are just above LT. These workouts will be crucial for short-course racers, as well as long-course racers whose goal events have many turns, short hills, or turn-arounds. These intervals are also useful for improving lactate buffering ability, or lactate tolerance, which allows you to surge above your LT, accumulate large quantities of lactic acid, and recover faster.

3. DescendingIntervals are again, short, maximal efforts. This workout is performed much like a swimming or running ladder, with recovery intervals equal to the length of the previous interval. DescendingIntervals are usually best performed on an indoor trainer or flat section of road to allow for high cadences (110 rpm or greater) and therefore high heart rates. Descending refers to the fact that a set of DescendingIntervals begins with a 2 to 3 minute max effort and each subsequent interval is 10 to 30 seconds shorter. For example, one set of DescendingIntervals may consist of:

2:00 max effort, 2:00 recovery spin
1:30 max effort, 1:30 recovery spin
1:00 max effort, 1:00 recovery spin
:30 max effort, :30 recovery spin

Within a few weeks of beginning this workout you should be able to complete 2 to 3 sets of intervals with 5 to 10 minutes of recovery between each.

4. OverUnder Intervals are another workout that will train your body to recover from high levels of accumulated lactic acid and increase power just above LT. Over and under refers to the zones just above and below your lactate threshold. You will spend an amount of time just below your LT at the SteadyState level, and then immediately increase the intensity to the level just above LT for a brief amount of time before returning to the SteadyState level. This pattern of under and over (one under and one over is considered one interval) is repeated for 1 to 4 intervals. The under portions of the interval should be 2 to 10 minutes in length and the over portions should be 1 to 3 minutes in duration. One set will consist of 1 to 4 intervals, and you should strive to accomplish 3 to 4 sets by the arrival of your goal race.

Recover, recover, recover. During this time of slightly less volume and increased intensity, rest between workouts is very important. While you’re performing intervals at and above your lactate threshold, it’s possible to wear yourself out easily without proper rest and recovery. Be sure to allow 24 to 36 hours of recovery between lactate threshold interval sessions and 24 to 48 hours of recovery between sessions above lactate threshold. This will allow your body to replenish its carbohydrate stores, eliminate lactic acid and other metabolites from the blood and muscles and your mind to get mentally prepared for another session.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, the Official Coaching Partner of Ironman and Ironman 70.3. Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and co-author of seven books with Chris Carmichael, including the NYT bestseller, Chris Carmichael’s Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right and The Time-Crunched Triathlete (November 2010). For information on coaching, training camps, bike fits, and performance testing from CTS, visit or call 866-355-0645.

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