Don’t look for your intervals to feel easier

I was talking with one of the local riders who trains at my facility after training last night and he was talking about his perception of how his interval workouts were going. He had built up to doing 40 second intervals and said that they were not getting any easier. To him this meant that something wasn’t right and he wasn’t getting fitter.

I told him that 40 second sprints will always suck and if he is looking for the day when they would be easy, it wasn’t coming. You get fitter and push yourself harder – it will always feel relatively hard.

He said that his idea was that he was supposed to start with the 30 second intervals and then they would get easy and then that would mean he was ready for the 35 second intervals. After they felt “easy” he was ready for the 40 seconds intervals and so on. I realized that he was applying a volume based progression mindset to an intensity based exercise.

Most riders will judge their relative fitness levels to how long they can ride. When you first started out an hour long ride would kill you. Eventually that became easy and you were able to ride longer. When that become easier you could ride longer again. Basically, you looked for your current volume of riding to get easier, that told you that you were fitter and you then looked to start riding longer.

However, with sprint type intervals this is not the right way to look at it. It isn’t about making how long you are going feel easier, it is about being able to cram more power into that time frame. Without objectively looking at your performance this can be tough to do.

The best way to check is with a power meter. If you can get more average power into your intervals then you are obviously heading in the right direction. If your last interval is close to being as powerful as your first interval you are heading in the right direction. How you “feel” is irrelevant, how much power you are producing is what you look at.

The second best way is to use a cyclo-computer on your trainer bike to measure your speed and distance. If you are able to higher speeds and/ or cover more distance during your intervals then you are improving. If your last interval is covering almost as much distance as your first you are improving. Again, looking at something objective like speed or distance helps keep how you feel in perspective.

The last method is the least effective but still offers some objective look at your fitness. Looking at how long it takes to complete your intervals and trying to get them done in less time is also an indicator of improvement. I suggest using a heart rate based recovery method where you either set a heart rate to drop back down to (like 120 bpm) or set a number of beats for your heart to drop (like 50 bpm) before starting your next interval if you are going to use this method. That way you can be sure that your heart rate is recovering faster, which is why you can complete the intervals quicker, rather than you just cutting your rest short to beat the clock.

Combining all 3 methods produces the best overall look at how your intervals are looking and progressing. The overriding message here is that you will have to invest in something that will let you objectively look at some marker other than feel. The rider who is laying down more power, covering more distance and/ or recovering his heart rate faster is getting more out of intervals than the rider who doesn’t improve in those areas but says that feel “easier”.

Just remember that intervals are not about making the same old effort feel easier, they are about tapping into more effort during the given time frame. You need to bring a different mindset to intervals – if you get done and think you could have done more than you did not push yourself hard enough.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Simon says:

    Great insight. I was doing that HRM method but stopped. I’ll go back to it.

    Reply • February 19 at 3:23 pm
  2. wari says:

    Now, if only power meters are cheaper than the whole cost of my 2 bikes.

    As for hard sprinting efforts, I don’t think you can last very long (possibly 15 – 20 secs for me at the moment), as you’ve got your heart/body all working against you. But with all that exercise, like what James mention, you’ll see other metrics improve for the same amount of time put in a particular effort.

    Maybe the goals would be different than mine, but I do find minor improvements in anything to be a huge motivation for everything.

    Reply • March 1 at 9:20 pm
  3. Jakub says:

    Sorry for the comment on such an old post, but I think it fits here perfectly. And this article confused me a bit (or rather – confused my look on interval training)

    My aim is to be able to sprint 30 seconds with maximal power. By now my limiting factor is lack of “endurance” (burning legs after 15s of flat out sprint etc.).

    What kind of interval training approach would you suggest me doing?
    #1 – volume based, I start doing 10s sprints with max power and try to build up to 30s long ones during consecutive trainings, or
    #2 – intensity based, I start doing 30s intervals with the power I’m able to sustain for that period of time and try to increase intensity with each training session

    I was going to take the first approach, but after reading the article – maybe it’s not about sustaining the sprint for the given time, but about cramming more power during that?

    Reply • February 3 at 3:21 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The article was saying that intervals will always suck so if you are looking for them to start feeling “easy” as a sign of improvement then you are looking at the wrong thing. That is why I have stated including space to record max heart rate, recovery heart rate and power level/ RPMs so you can see objectively how you are progressing instead of relying on how they feel.

      As far as you question, you need both approaches but you have to ask yourself a question to which is more important – can you even go as hard as you need to in the first place. If you can achieve the power level you are looking for then the longer intervals are better, if you need to work on even going that hard in the first place then the shorter intervals are better.

      The important thing is to have some objective way to measure progress. You will never be able to go all out for 30 seconds so if that ismyour goal it won’t happen. You have to know how hard you want to go for 30 seconds and work on that specific goal.

      Reply • February 5 at 8:12 am

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