How to use interval workouts for off-road endurance cycling training

Jennys backpacking setup in Scotland - photo by Jenny Graham

Jennys backpacking setup in Scotland - photo by Jenny Graham

Interval training is an essential part of becoming a fitter and faster cyclist but what should you do, how much and how often should you do it? Racing off-road adds complication with the skills element and what aspects of training should be on technical terrain and what should be on the road or perhaps even an indoor trainer.

So, how do you use interval training for off-road ultra-endurance bike packing races? 

  • A combination of different workouts will be most effective. 

  • Do some workouts that are designed purely to improve your fitness and some that are designed to improve your performance on technical terrain. 

  • The fitness workouts should be non-technical, on the indoor trainer, road or very well graded tracks. 

  • The technical workouts should start at low intensity before building up to your race pace or above. 

  • Trying to do your physiological workouts on difficult terrain will not work as effectively as focusing on your fitness and technical skills separately before bringing them together in final preparation.

Training doesn’t have to be complicated but it is worth spending some time thinking about your needs and how to best apportion your time. Getting your training right will help you ride faster and have more fun, whether that is on or off-road. 

Building your fitness

There is increasing evidence that suggests a polarised approach to training for endurance sports is most effective. This means doing lots of training at an easy pace and two or three hard interval workouts each week. Polarised refers to the hard/easy principle, when compared to spending time at a medium pace that could be termed Tempo or Sweetspot training.

The easy rides are below what is known as your aerobic threshold, normally your training zones 1 and 2 if you use heart rate or power based training zones. These are generally named ‘recovery’ and ‘endurance’ zones.

The harder efforts have been shown to be most effective at an effort a little above the anaerobic threshold, often known as Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or anaerobic threshold heart rate. 

Build your endurance first

This polarised theory is good but only after you have achieved a certain level of fitness. When you start cycling you will get fitter and faster by just cycling regularly and if you work at too high an intensity for too long, you will be unable to recover properly before your next ride. 

If you are relatively new to cycling or new to structured training, it is a good idea to focus on the easier training in your Endurance Training Zone before moving on to harder, interval type training. 

As a guide, your Endurance pace is a pace that you can hold a conversation at, or talk to yourself out loud. If you are going faster than this, you are moving into the Tempo training zone and you will need longer to recover or you may become over tired.

It is best to do most of your riding in your Endurance zone until you are able to do the number of training hours that you expect to form your usual training, or if you aren’t limited by time, 3 or 4 rides of 1 to 2 hours and one longer ride of 3 or 6 hours each week.

This Endurance, or Base, period will build your stamina as well as your pace at your aerobic threshold, which is the most important thing to develop for endurance cycling events.

You can do this training on any bike and any terrain, just get out and ride your bike and have fun but don’t go too hard.

Build intensity next

Once you have a base you can start to add in some faster workouts. To do this, choose 2 days each week when you will do your interval sessions. Ideally have two clear days and definitely at least one day between the hard days to allow recovery.

At first, it is best to do your interval workouts at a relatively low intensity, so at what is known at your Tempo pace. This pace is where you have to concentrate to keep in the zone but you feel you can continue for quite a long time, you wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation but you can talk in single words or very short phrases.

The aim here is to build up the amount of time you can spend in your Tempo zone, so that when you move to higher intensities you can do meaningful amounts of work and also recover adequately to do it again.

If you dive straight into higher intensity, Threshold or VO2max Power workouts you are likely to get over tired and have to back off. The gradual approach is safest and almost always quickest and most effective. 

There is also no rush to do higher intensity workouts because by gradually working harder you are still building your fitness and speed. You should definitely notice you are getting much faster after a few weeks of Tempo intervals.

Build up the volume gradually by starting with 2 x 10 minutes at Tempo pace with 5 minutes easy riding between the 10 minute efforts for your two hard workouts in the first week, then try 3 x 10 minutes with 5 minutes recovery and gradually build up of around 6 weeks. Remember to do some endurance riding before and after the harder sections to warm up and cool down afterwards.

How you split up the Tempo intervals isn’t particularly critical so just do things that make it interesting. At the end of a 6 week block of two Tempo workouts a week, you could have built up to a total of around 90 minutes of Tempo pace during each workout. This might be 40 minutes, 30 minutes and 20 minutes with 5 minutes recoveries, or similar.

Take recovery weeks

Take your time and be careful not to over do it. It is a good idea to have a very easy week every 3 or 4 weeks to let your body recover and build the fitness from the hard work you have done. It is during recovery that your body adapts and builds back stronger, getting you ready for the next block of harder work.

Time for some harder work

After your block of Tempo training you will be pretty fit and able to execute and recover from harder workouts.

Sticking with your two hard workouts each week, you can start to do higher intensity interval sessions. You can learn more about interval training in my article ‘Why do I need Interval Training to Get Faster’.

If you haven’t done so recently, it is a good idea to check your training zones before you start this block of harder training. The linked article refers to power based zones but it is equally applicable to heart rate and has equivalent zones for both as well as percieved exertion. If you are training without a heart rate monitor or power meter, going by feel can be almost as effective so don’t worry, you can use the guidelines in the chart. 

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In this block of training, it is good to mix things up a bit and I think a good split of intensities is doing 3 workouts at a bit above your FTP/anaerobic threshold to one at a higher power, around your VO2max power. 

If you are using a 5 zone model, such as the Andrew Coggan Classic Zones shown in the chart, this would be 3 workouts in zone 4 to one workout in zone 5. This would give you two weeks of workouts after which you could do another hard week or have a recovery week.

As a rule of thumb, your Threshold workouts should be around 20 to 40 minutes of hard work using efforts of 4 to 10 minutes with recoveries of about 1/4 of the duration of the hard work.

Good workouts to start with are 6 x 4 minutes with 1 minute recoveries at an easy pace or 3 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes recoveries. You can build these up to 10 x 4 minutes and 4 x 8 minutes.

For your VO2max Power workout, you can do efforts of 2 to 5 minutes with the same duration recovery as the effort. 

Good workouts are 4 x 5 minutes with 5 minutes recoveries, which you could build up to 6 x 5 minutes over time. 

A good way to treat these workouts is to adjust them to suit the area you have available to train, maybe doing them as a hill workout by riding hard up the hill and rolling back down for the recoveries.

Don’t neglect your endurance training

During all this interval training, make sure you don’t lose focus on your endurance miles. You need to continue to build your endurance and your aerobic threshold, which is the pace you will be riding at during your event. If you are doing 2 hard workouts a week, you should be doing at least 2 or 3 endurance rides each week and one of these should be a long ride that you use to build your stamina towards the duration you will be riding for your event, or one day of your event if it will take several days. 

If you are doing a multi-day event you should schedule some multi-day endurance blocks but not too many because they take a lot of time to recovery. Treat these as practice events, ride to a schedule of time and test everything out. Give yourself a very easy week after these practice events before getting back into your interval training.

Getting faster off-road on technical terrain

I have talked a lot about building fitness, which is going to be important for your event but for any event and more so for off-road events, riding skills help you ride faster and avoid wasting energy.

Spending time developing appropriate skills will make a big difference to your race performance.

Use some of your endurance rides and focused skills workouts at first

Keep skills and fitness workouts separate at first. 

Schedule some of your longer rides to include elements of the terrain you will be riding in your event, or as similar as possible to it. 

It is also worth including some sessions that are focused purely on basic skills. 

As you ride on different types of terrain, make a note of your strengths and weaknesses so that you know what to work on. 

Also, make notes of your times on representative sections so that you can monitor your improvement. 

I like to use Strava for this because it automatically tracks your times. You don’t have to compare your times with other people, the important and useful part of this is how your times are improving and learning what things make a difference. Combining your times with average heart rate and/or power for given sections may give more insight into your improvements and efficiency changes.

These timed sections can be uphills, downhills or flat sections, because everything is important. You can save a lot of energy by improving your skills and learning to carry speed on downhills, and flatter sections so that they can be used for recovery when needed. This is particularly the case on hilly routes, where you need your energy for climbs.

As your fitness develops, start riding some of your harder efforts on off-road climbs

As you start to get fitter, start to incorporate the occasional interval workout onto looser uphills where you have to control your power to maintain efficiency. 

Tempo sessions are a great way to learn to control your bike on loose uphills surfaces. Keep it relatively easy at first and gradually increase the difficulty.

For very steep or tricky sections, it can better to focus purely on learning to ride the section in a skills session and then incorporate the sections into specific interval sessions. 

If you have to ride particularly hard to complete the section, you will need to take time to recover and therefore the workout should substitute for one of your hard days. 

Think about the work that you would normally do in the equivalent interval workout and do something similar in the technical workout. In this way you will be making similar gains in fitness in combination with improving your skills.

If you can do interval workouts off-road, why not do this all the time?

The reason we split skills and fitness is that you can work harder on fitness goals and control your efforts much more effectively on good surfaces such as an indoor trainer or on the road. For this reason, you can focus purely on your fitness goals and more effectively make the gains you need.

Without the stress of having to do an interval workout or even ride hard at all, you can focus purely on developing your riding skills at a pace that is appropriate to learning and practicing. You can take the time you need to ride difficult sections repeatedly until you have the skills to ride fast and efficiently before building in the harder work.

Learning technical skills that allow you to ride on difficult terrain with less effort will result in huge gains in your performance in off-road endurance cycling events, irrespective of fitness gains, so don’t neglect these workouts. 

People with a strong work ethic sometimes feel they have to be riding hard to get better but in off-road events you can get better by just getting better at it, similar to improving your bike setup or being more aerodynamic, you don’t have to get fitter to get faster.

When you are fitter and faster, technical stuff is easier

Once you have developed your fitness and you are riding faster, learning technical skills will be easier. You can push harder on the pedals for short steep sections, to lift your wheels over obstacles or to pump through sections where pedalling is less efficient or not practical.

You will also be riding faster and speed is often your friend on technical terrain as your momentum carries you over obstacles that slower riders would stall on.

Summary

In summary the best way to incorporate interval workouts into your off-road endurance cycling training is to:

  1. Keep fitness and skills separate at first;

  2. Focus on your fitness by 

    1. building a base with lots of endurance pace riding;

    2. Incorporate 2 harder workouts each week, initially with Tempo training and then with harder, Threshold and VO2max Power workouts;

  3. Focus on building your technical skills by gently pushing your abilities to ride more difficult sections of some, not all, of your endurance rides and doing specific skills workouts on your easy/recovery days;

  4. Bring it together by riding some, but not all (no more than one workout each week), of your hard workouts on technical sections to learn to ride fast over difficult terrain.

  5. Remember to focus on learning skills as well as fitness so that you can make downhills recoveries as you relax more and negotiate obstacles with ease.

Keep it fun and don’t get hung up on the details

Remember to have fun and don’t get hung up on the details. 

This article has given some quite specific guidelines but remember you are in it to have fun so remember to chill a bit, enjoy your riding and make sure you incorporate enough recovery into your training. 

Recovery is when your body adapts and builds fitness to come back stronger and faster.

Related questions:

Does it matter what bike I use for interval training? No, in general, it doesn’t matter what bike you use for your interval workouts. If you are training for an off-road event, using the same bike you plan to race on will mean that you get used to producing power on that bike. Different setups and bikes behave differently, so you should do at least some riding on your race bike but if you enjoy riding different bikes, don’t worry about it too much. You will do more and get better if you enjoy what you are doing.

Should I have a bike fit? If you haven’t had a bike fit and are unsure of how to setup your bike most effectively, a bike fit can be a good idea. If you decide to go ahead, get recommendations from people you know or look at reviews before committing to a particular fitter because there is skill and art in the process that go along with the harder data and measurements. Having a bike fit is unlikely to be wasted money because even a small change can make a big difference to your performance and enjoyment. Even if you are setup perfectly, it is nice to know and remove any worries. I like to work with a weekly routine that has similar workouts on the same days of each week. I like this because routines and consistency are good for getting better at things, particularly endurance sports, but also because by doing the same thing each week it is possible to quickly spot trends and make adjustments for optimal gains and performance.

We hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. 

Please get in touch if you feel we can help further and check out our other articles and YouTube channels ‘JHCoaching Bike’ and ‘JHCoaching Run’. If there is something else you would like us to write about or discuss on YouTube, please let us know.

Good luck and have fun!

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