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.