Cycle training proper – Hello intervals

Cycle trainingA confession. I’ve been lying to you. To myself. All these years I’ve not been cycle training. I was just… riding. Riding hard for sure, too hard. Yet this is not training. This is idiocy. A recipe for burnout and overtraining.

Deep down I knew this, that’s why I used quote marks when using the word. ‘Training’, I wrote, trying to give my life rides definition, meaning. Not that I needed to. Fun and enjoyment are reasons enough yet the inner chimp does not understand such concepts.

Riding hard is not training

How I used to train
How I used to train

Regular readers will know I talk about being tired a fair bit. They knew before I knew that I was simply overtraining. It certainly wasn’t my hedonistic lifestyle.

With my leisure time limited, my rides had regressed from a couple of ‘training’ rides a week to one very hard ride every Sunday. Lots of miles, lots of all out efforts, riding until I could barely pedal any more. Training, I told myself. You must hurt to improve. Then I would rest for a week, for I knew the importance of rest and recovery (!), before repeating the process the following week. Burnout ensued.

Cycle training confused me

Cycle workout
Meaningful graph or drawing of a 4 year old?

Cycle training proper can be intimidating. Even the lingo is hard work. Never mind the intervals, just figuring out what the hell a training program is talking about is difficult enough. For example:

“Sample workout: BT: WU 20 min easy spinning at HRZ 1 Hungarian set 15 min HRZ 2 10 min HRZ 3 5 min HRZ 4 5 min HRZ 5a 10 min HRZ 3 15 in HRZ 2 in between intervals, ride 3-5 min in HRZ 1 CD 1h30 of easy riding in HRZ 1-2.”

Sure, I could furrow my brow and spend time figuring this out but is that really what I wanted to do? Bike riding is meant to be fun. Easy. So it was I eschewed jargon filled training plans in favour of doing what the hell I like doing. Which was fun until I rode myself into the ground. Riding with heavy legs is no fun at all.

Besides, with three straight years of the same pattern, I was beginning to get a little bored. Sure I rode and explored some wonderful places. Scotland. Wales. The French Alps. Surrey Hills. Yet I’d lost my zip, my panache. I was no longer dancing on the pedals but stamping on them in desperation.

Blame it on Strava

Back when I was riding twice a week, it was a simple combination of a short mid-week interval session followed by mild tempo ride on a Sunday. Then I found Strava and my inner chimp wanted to beat my PBs on every hill climb I came across. So it was my Sunday endurance rides began to include more and more hills that I would race up full gas. I had become a Strava slave.

To begin with my times improved but they soon stagnated. More worryingly I was no longer improving as a rider. Something had to be done. Something drastic. Cue melodramatic music.

Cycle training for real

Turbo trainer session
Is this even cycling?

When I’m not cycling, I’m usually thinking about cycling. So it was one rest day when I began looking for reasons why I was always tired. Mental stress was where I pointed the finger. Whilst this certainly has played a role in my fatigue, even then I knew there was something more fundamental happening.

Before I knew it I had returned to look at the confusing training plans once more. This time though I didn’t go cross-eyed when reading the lingo rather I dug deeper, searching for answers. This led me to Joe Friel’s blog and ultimately, to his highly acclaimed book, The Cyclist’s Training Bible.

The title of the first review on Amazon pretty much sums up this training book, as well as making me smile: “Not just for the scary people”. A brilliant critique.

The book encourages you to become your own cycling coach. Perfect for somebody like me who thinks he knows it all. Now, with the risk of this blog becoming a series of cycle workouts (it won’t, promise!), let me share with you some basics.

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.”
Erica Jong

The first few chapters of Friel’s training book focus on the basic foundations of training. Enter the words: form, fatigue, fitness and intensity. Perhaps the most illuminating for me was ‘workload’. How hard was I working each week?

Calculate your training workload

Numbers + Cycling = Heaven.
Numbers + Cycling = Heaven.

Before I knew it, a spreadsheet (I love spreadsheets!) was open and I was entering the time I had spent riding in each heart rate zone on my weekly rides. With no money to lavish on a power meter to measure wattage, heart rate (HR) is the next best training indicator albeit not perfect as your HR will lag behind effort and be influenced by tiredness, the weather, time of day and so forth.

A pattern soon emerged and confirmed what I already knew. Not only was I overworking on each ride, I was doing so on a grand scale. On average, 40% of my ride time was spent in either zone 4 or 5. A staggering 70% of each and every ride was spent in zone 3 or above.

This startled me, even though my legs had been trying to tell me as much for many a month. Most training plans recommend a maximum of 20-25% of your ride is spent at high intensity levels, with perhaps one big effort a month. Yet here I was at almost double that. Every week. In one ride.

I’m still reading the earlier chapters of Friel’s book, not because they are difficult to understand but because I’m applying the knowledge as I go and also reading around the subject elsewhere. At times it’s like being back at school and learning a new language yet it’s a good education for the cyclist who rides to go faster.

Strava Premium fitness, freshness and form

After calculating the workload for all of my rides since January, I was keen to get some extra validation and so I signed up to become a Strava premium member, enabling me to compare my calculations for workload with those from Stava’s useful premium tools.

My numbers, as with Strava’s, were also broken down into form, freshness and fitness. Were the calculations the same? No. Did they follow the same pattern? Yes. This is the important thing to note – the patterns not the absolute numbers, for the latter mean nothing. The numbers are merely an index, showing you when you are tired, fit and ‘on form’.

Even then they are a guide and should never be taken as absolutes, for you know your body better than any spreadsheet ever can. Yet these lines have given me structure and perspective, they’ve caused me to take a step back and look at myself from the outside-in, as you would another person. And so it was I bought myself a t-shirt with the word ‘Coach’ emblazoned across the chest.

A different way to cycle

Stay motivated
Stay motivated

So where does all of this self-assessment leave me? It means change, great change. New challenges and a very different way of riding. The big Sunday rides are no more (for now) and instead I’ve taken on a training plan full of the exotic with rides such as endurance miles, power intervals, sprints intervals, climbing intervals and rest days.

Two weeks in and I’ve logged ten rides (compared to the usual two!), building up more miles, more time and more climbing than the majority of my big Sunday rides. Thanks coach! This is all well and good but how do I feel?

The first week I felt amazing. A little tired, sure, as the training program said I would be, but my fatigue was nowhere near the levels I usually experience following a big Sunday ride. With my workload spread out over the week my body has been recovering better and dead legs has become a thing of the past.

The structured training means I’m also happy to spend more time cycling at lower intensities because my inner chimp is satisfied with the many intervals I’ve already completed. As the intervals are also spread across the week, they are also of a better quality, meaning more time spent at the highest intensities without dead legs the next day (or the rest of the week!).

Everything in moderation

Yet old habits die hard. A training plan cannot quell my inner chimp within the space of just a week. Week two and illness has struck. A mild cold, my first in two years. A sure sign of overdoing things, of my body not being used to this sudden explosion of effort. Whilst the training plan spreads the workload over the week, it does mean extra effort to be cycling five days out of seven (in addition to the cycle commute).

With the temperatures turning this week and plenty of rain, I have been overexposed to bad weather whilst still dressed in my thin summer layers. Illness was an inevitability. I have also realised pretty quickly that my training program is unsustainable. I cycle in London, so finding quiet roads suitable for intervals is just as much a challenge as the intervals themselves. This means I need to turn to the dark side. Yes, that’s right, I need to purchase an evil turbo trainer. Wish me luck.

Cycle workouts pros and cons

The good

  • Structure. No more smashing up every hill or racing every rider who rides past for you are riding to a plan
  • A balanced plan. Intervals, endurance and rest help balance your week, your fitness and most importantly, your fatigue
  • Variety. There comes a limit to how many times you can plod around the same country lanes at the same speeds every week. The same can be said of intervals but it’s great to mix it all up with different intensities and durations
  • Improvement. I have little doubt I will be a better rider in four weeks time. If only briefly
  • Ride hard, rest hard. I love cycling at speed. I love resting. What’s not to like?
  • Spreadsheets. Data is one of the reasons I love cycling. The numbers behind the rides fascinate me. Many training software programs will do the hard work for you nowadays, such as Strava Premium or Training Peaks or Golden Cheetah. This leaves you with a few line charts to understand!

The not so good

  • Time. Finding the time to get out five a days a week has been challenging, especially as the nights get darker, colder and wetter. The initial effort to go out for a ride after a long day at work is tough but always rewarding. The plan also takes up a little off the bike time too as you need to program your workouts and plan your week.
  • Weather dependent. It’s no secret I don’t like riding in the rain, so maintaining a training plan in inclement weather will be difficult without some dreaded indoor cycling
  • Your definition of fun may not be riding as fast and as hard as you can for 2 minutes followed by 2 minutes of rest. Repeated seven times! Hell, it even stretches the very definition of cycling! I think you either love intervals or hate them.
  • City streets and intervals don’t mix too well. My training plan says find a quiet five minute climb for some hill climb intervals. After work. In rush hour. London laughs in your face.
  • Turbo training. You either love it or hate it apparently. I’m yet to find out but watch this space!
  • More clothes! I don’t own too many pieces of cycling kit so found myself running short when needing to cycle 5 days out of 7. Recycling cycling kit after intervals ain’t pretty.
  • The spreadsheets. What on earth have they got to do with cycling?!
  • Sustainability. There is no way I can keep up high intensity training plans like the one I’m on now for longer than a month. Plan to peak, rest and build endurance accordingly.
  • Discipline. Bucket loads of the stuff. Not only to do the ride but to do it properly and resist the temptation to overdo it, to not commit to it, or to get distracted by other cyclists and go chasing after them like a dog chasing after a ball. Let them overtake you, you are doing your thing remember!
  • Fitness first. I wouldn’t recommend a high intensity training plan to somebody just beginning cycling. Without base fitness, intervals can cause injury. Improvement as a beginner cyclist is easy to come by without all this mumbo jumbo. That will come later. It has taken me over three years to get to this point!

Final thoughts

De-training impact
I recognise only the couch

What a revelation! Sure, it’s early days and I’ve still a lot to learn with just two weeks under my belt. A structured training plan has certainly made a difference. It’s a month long plan so we’ll see how I get on, watch out for an update here in a few weeks time.

The blog may go a little training focused in the meantime, with a brief look at training plans, turbo riding and anything else that excites me in this new world of discovery. Or I’ll burnout and return to the good old Sunday rides!

Some of you will be reading this with a smile, thinking, ha, how long did it take him to get to grips with the basic fundamentals of cycle training?! Others will be thinking, ha, good luck mate, not for me. And the final group may just be thinking, why not? As I always say, ride whichever way you want, because life is too short not to have fun. For me right now, intervals are fun. How long it lasts, who knows, but I’m going to enjoy it whilst I can.

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20 thoughts on “Cycle training proper – Hello intervals

    1. I am, or rather, I was. Was there on Wednesday night. Nice and quiet. Was there today, not so good! A turbo was unboxed yesterday. Let’s see how long it stays out of the box!


  1. Inspiring…..actually I was overdoing it HARD…. need to find a Training Program….will read the books…

    How was this 1 1/2 years?! (i’m reading the blog, but….)


    1. Thanks Yuri. I’m still following a structured plan, one I’ve created myself but inspired by the books I’ve read. I’ve learnt a lot, most importantly my riding is more balanced now, with fewer really hard rides and a rest week every fourth week. The results? I’m a stronger, quicker rider and no longer do I feel tired all of the time. Plus it’s been fun learning what does and doesn’t work, and finding the training sessions you enjoy too.


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