The simplest, quickest and most effective method

Interval training is hard but it’s the simplest, quickest and most effective route to becoming a faster rider. Coach to the pros Alan Milway shows us how to incorporate sprints in your mountain bike fitness regime.

>>> Why is fitness such a taboo subject in mountain biking?

Improving fitness and performance is often a key motivation to train — maybe you’re racing and you want better results, perhaps you’re trying to complete a specific challenge, or simply working your way up the group pecking order. Interval training is one effective method that can significantly improve fitness, and really works well for mountain bikers — not only do we need good levels of fitness to simply complete hilly rides, we also need a burst of sustained acceleration on every ride to tackle changes in terrain and gradient.

What is interval training?

Interval training is an exercise structure that mixes periods of exercise at a set (generally quite high) intensity, with periods of recovery between them, thus allowing you to repeat these efforts multiple times. The intensity of these work efforts can vary, so too the duration of the efforts and the work to rest ratio – i.e you can reduce the recovery time between efforts to make the session harder.

How does it work?

As interval training makes us work at relatively high intensities but mixes this with periods of rest it increases the total time spent at these elevated efforts; thus allowing the body to adapt to them and increase the amount of time we can spend at higher intensities. It also raises the threshold at which fatigue occurs meaning that if we perform subsequent exercise that is under this threshold, we won’t fatigue as readily. Challenging the body to deal with increased lactate levels, and adapt to these is a key part in this process.

How can we incorporate this training onto our bike?

An interval training session is readily incorporated in to a mountain bike ride or a commute with just a little planning, and easily structured. They are generally shorter sessions than a normal ‘ride’ so work well during a commute, on the turbo trainer or during a quick blast off road.

For every session you do, have a gradual, progressive warm up for 10-15minutes at least, so by the end of the warm up period you have an elevated heart rate close to that at which you’d be at during a climb.

As an example session, plan for 3minutes of ‘hard’ effort, followed by 3minutes of recovery. Repeat this 4-6 times, and then cool down for 10minutes or so with an easy spin. The working efforts of 3minutes should be doable at a consistent pace, but by the end of the 3minutes you should feel like you could not continue that effort for another minute.

Recovery is best done ‘actively’, so with a light, easy spin effort, before repeating the working effort again. If you are off road, shift in to an easy gear and really take it easy.

As another, more intense but shorter session (more suited to an indoor trainer), try sprint efforts of 30seconds, followed by 90seconds of recovery. Repeat this 4 times, rest for 5minutes and then repeat this block. As you progress, drop the rest interval to 60seconds, then 30seconds if you dare!

Just do it right

Intervals don’t need to be all out maximum, but sustained and paced. If they are 3-5minutes long they work well as hill repeats.

Completing the full workout is much better than being a hero for the first two intervals and then collapsing and calling your friend for a lift home.

Heart rate monitors and power meters are ideal tools to monitor effort and gauge pacing. However if you are out on the bike, use one piece of trail and time your effort up it. This will set the pace for further efforts.

Interval sessions are shorter than normal rides — don’t worry if you have only exercised for 45-55minutes and the session is over. Quality over quantity.

Vary the duration of effort and duration of rest for best benefit — but only after you have completed a few weeks of one session, don’t jump from one to another.

Who is Alan Milway?

Alan is the best mountain bike coach in the business. He’s steered riders like the Athertons and Brendog to success, and helps regular riders like us get the most out of our riding.