High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT as its known, is big news at present with all sorts of fitness types singing its praises, and one particular word is bandied about more than most – Tabata. It promises the shortcut to fitness that could reduce your training time and see you fresher and faster on race day. But can it really work for the endurance racing cyclist?
The increasing popularity of cycling among time poor amateur athletes has lead to coaches promoting training programmes with names such as the ‘time crunched cyclist’ or ‘time effective training’, which focus on interval training above all else. This makes good sense, as with intervals you can work harder than by doing steady state training, so the overall training effect of the workout is increased.
Interval training also prepares you much more thoroughly for the rigours of competition, encouraging you to work faster at higher cadences and to exert more force, which when combined adds up to increased power output.
You’ve probably heard of Tabata intervals, named after the Japanese Professor Izumi Tabata. He trained speed skaters but, as the muscles involved in skating are very similar to cycling, used exercise bikes for their training, which consisted of just 8 repeats of 20 seconds ‘on’ (i.e. hard effort) followed by 10 seconds of recovery (i.e. low effort, spinning). It sounds simple…
But there is an issue: Tabata intervals have to be performed maximally, which means as near as you can get to maximal in reality. It hurts. At the end of a set of 8 Tabata intervals, if you have done them correctly, you will feel in pretty poor shape, your legs burning and your chest on fire; you may even feel sick…
It takes a certain type of person to do that to themselves, and if you can, then this training does allow you to do just 8 intervals and then climb off you bike; after a warm up and cool down, that’s maybe just 30-minutes of training tops – and you’ll have worked near maximally 8 times! That will have a big impact on you fitness, both aerobic and anaerobic, as well as helping to supercharge your metabolism.
Being loyal to the original Tabata study, repeat this just 4 times a week, throwing in one endurance ride a week for good measure, and you will get very fit, very fast. What’s not to like? Hence, Tabata intervals are a real headline grabber. But there are some other issues with these intervals.
Firstly Tabata and HIIT intervals generally seem to work better for some than others. Sprinter types, probably because of their predominance of faster twitch muscle fibres, and experienced trackies, used to repeated all out efforts, tend to revel with these sessions. Some others may struggle; but we really recommend that you persevere – like anything, its just practice.
Secondly, its really hard to perform these out on the road. It can be done but its tough to push yourself that hard on your own. It is actually easier to do it with someone else and we have a group that like to do this sort of session occasionally. It takes a bit of organising and you need to find a pretty good stretch of quiet, level road that’s about 2 or 3 miles long to give you room for your 8 efforts and recoveries. Synchronise your watches and start together but avoid drafting. On our own we find it much easier using the turbo trainer.
Thirdly, the Tabata protocol is not specific for racing cyclists and in no event that we can think of, even the track sprint, are you going to be doing just 8 stop-start 20-second efforts. It will get you fit but it can be made better for the hard training cyclist. If you want these HIIT sessions to work for your racing you need to upgrade them to be more specific and better reflect the typical race scenario.
Before we go into that though, to get used to Tabata we recommend just doing one set to start with. Get a handle on how it feels to go all out; to really go all out. Its not easy. Its the only session we ever do that can bring on the ‘shiver’ that you may have experienced mid-race before, when really going for it…
So do a set of 8 Tabata style intervals, 20-seconds hard interspersed with 10-seconds recovery spinning in an easier gear, and see how you go. It may take a few sessions before you feel as if you are really committing to it and getting the most out of yourself.
Above is a Tabata workout. Note how the heart rate climbs steadily as speed and power fall. Just 8 intervals performed in less than half an hour, even when adding on a 15 minute warm up and 5 minute cool down, can have a profound effect on your fitness.
One tip we have is start off in a small gear. If you are not very fit or can spin readily, then start in 39×15 or similar. This will force you to spin like mad and concentrate your effort on cadence and being fast. It also develops muscle memory and thereby seems to make it easier when you start using bigger gears and will help you generate more power.
Those bigger gears could be anything, depending upon how fit you are, but we have found that 53×15 or 53×14 is pretty much spot on. Any bigger and its hard to change gear, to and from a suitably small one, such as 53×19, in just 10-seconds of recovery, and you never really feel that you are ‘on top’ of a bigger gear fully in the relatively short 20-second interval… but have a play around and see what works for you.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that these are a sprint interval. They are definitely power intervals and the training effect is brought on by the cumulative intervals being so closely stacked with barely enough recovery time between each one. In true sprint intervals you’d expect to see much higher power output and you’d want much longer recovery periods.
Having got used to the Tabata style interval, its time to make it more specific to your racing. Most cycle races are endurance events consisting of repeated hard efforts interspersed with steady state riding. In training for them the more quality intervals you can pack into a session the better.
If you’ve ever raced an endurance event on the track, such as the points race, madison, or devil, then you know that multiple hard, fast efforts are possible. So logically more than one set of Tabata style intervals makes it more specific to a racing cyclist and its often the digging deep in the later sets that can make all the difference to your fitness.
The other benefit is psychological as you know when racing that you can go that deep, push yourself that bit further and it gives you a sense of confidence that will allow you to perform better.
Our favourite session is to do 4 sets of Tabata style intervals, consisting of 8 x 20-seconds at max effort (53×14), interspersed with 10-seconds easy pedaling as recovery (53×19), and with 6-minutes of easy spinning recovery (39×19) between each set. Its hard but 6-minutes between sets should give you enough recovery time to get yourself in a fit state for the next set. Each set should still be performed full bore.
Here’s the Tabata principle extended into an hour session (15 minute warm-up and 5 minute cool down are not shown) to make it more relevant for racing cyclists as performed on a Bkool trainer.
As always make sure you are already reasonably fit before attempting these intervals, always warm-up and cool down properly, if you feel at all odd then discontinue the session in favour of an easy spin. If you try them, let us know how you get on.