High Intensity Intervals: Too Much of a Good Thing?
“Cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it, you will win nothing.” – Eddy Merckx
Cycling is synonymous with pain. Professional riders from the past have become legendary because of their efforts during the most brutal races. Paris-Roubaix, racing over the Gavia and the Stelvio in the snow, 7 hours of relentless attacking at the world championships. PAIN, PAIN, PAIN.
Eddy Merckx had it right, you can’t win a race unless you’re ready to put yourself in a dark place. Racing is hard. Racing hurts. In order to prepare for success at these races you need to be ready to put in hard work and be willing to suffer from time to time.
Many a rider, in an attempt to vicariously experience some of this glorious pain, love to hurt themselves day in and day out. The “no pain, no gain” mantra doesn’t ring any truer than with cyclists. We often feel as if we will only get stronger if we ride hard all the time. We think we can only improve our top end fitness if we suffer as we do in a race. If you don’t feel tired when you get home, did you really even train?
This is a pitfall that many riders fall into. These riders think they will only get stronger if they are suffering. These same riders usually end up riding themselves into the ground. They have ceased improving and often show up to their races fatigued.
This should not be. Can you actually improve your top-end fitness by riding easier? Can you make gains without pain? Their answer is a resounding yes.
In pursuit of improving their “top end,” a rider may pound themselves with hard intervals day in and day out thinking that this is the only way to improve. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work too well for a few reasons.
1. Quality goes down. High intensity intervals are very demanding on the body. If these are performed too often with inadequate recovery between sessions, the quality of these intervals will suffer. High levels of fatigue will inhibit one’s ability to hit maximal power numbers. When it comes to high intensity, quality is almost always better than quantity. Studies have shown quite conclusively that performing more than 2 high intensity sessions per week will not have any added benefits for your fitness and will simply cause undue fatigue. For maximal adaptations to occur, the hard efforts should be HARD, and if these are performed too often it will be hard to reach the intensity that will stimulate these gains.
2. Endurance and Fat Oxidation Suffer. High intensity uses up large amounts of stored muscle glycogen. When this muscle glycogen is all used up. . . the dreaded BONK. One of the most important aspects to improving your racing capacity is the ability to preserve this muscle glycogen for when it’s most needed, like when the winning break goes on the final climb or in the sprint for the line. Even if you have a killer VO2 max, if you come into the final of a race with low energy stores you will quickly be spit out the back. Those who are more efficient at burning fat will be able to spare this muscle glycogen. If you ride hard all the time, you will be very good at burning glycogen but not so good at burning fat. The only way to improve your body’s ability to burn fat is to ride in your lower aerobic zones. By training this ability, you will be able to put out peak power numbers at the end of a race. By riding “easy” you are in fact improving your ability to ride hard
3. High risk of overtraining. Hard intervals are extremely effective at improving your top end fitness, but they are also very stressful for your body and should be used wisely. Like any good hot sauce, a little bit can make a dish better—but pouring the whole bottle out won’t taste very good. Likewise, high intensity is an excellent way to augment an already well-established aerobic base, but there is a fine tipping point. If performed too often, high intensity intervals will leave you over trained and feeling “flat.”
How can you know whether it is better to ride hard or ride easy? As athletes, the tendency is to always do more than we should. This is why many coaches have coaches. They themselves know how training should be done, but they need someone else to objectively make decisions for what is best for them. If you find it hard to hold yourself back or struggle to put together the pieces of a training plan, a coach may be right for you.
There are a few general guidelines that can help you determine whether you should do a high intensity interval session or not.
The Rule of Two: In most scenarios (with some exceptions) it is optimal to perform no more than two high intensity sessions per week. Any more will result in a reduced training quality. The rest of your sessions should be aerobically focused
Listen to Your Body: Our bodies our incredibly intricate and fascinating. Learn to listen to your body. If you feel tired or unmotivated for a planned interval session, it may be best to skip it and ride easy instead. When in Doubt Leave it Out.
Watch the Numbers: If you start a session and find you are unable to hit the expected power output, pull the plug. Another indication is a suppressed heart rate. If you find that it is difficult to get your heart rate up and your legs feel heavy, pull the plug. It is best to perform high intensity when you are super-motivated and feeling rested, so assess how you feel if before you start a workout.
The most successful athletes are those who listen to their bodies. Learn to pick up on the signals that your body is giving you. Remember that just because it doesn’t feel hard does not mean that it isn’t going to help you. There are many different mechanisms in our bodies that all interplay, and the “face value” of a ride is not necessarily the best indicator of its effectiveness.
Like yin and yang, you hard and easy sessions go hand in hand. Both are essential to a successful training program. Go hard—but definitely go easy too!