I recently got the opportunity to talk to Sky Barsch, Owner of Alepnglow Fitness, an amazing indoor cycling studio in Vermont's capitol city! I asked Sky three questions about speed interval training and her answers are SO helpful and definitely worth the read!
My First Question for Sky (my Q's in Bold) Can speed intervals REALLY make a difference in my riding & how?
YES. Think about NBA players. It would be unreasonable to expect them to get significantly faster and have more stamina if the only time they played basketball was during games. The same goes for mountain biking. Yes, you’ll improve by going out for rides on the trail. But if you want to see breakthroughs in strength, speed, and stamina, speed intervals can help.
I don’t have an exercise science background so I can only speak about my personal experience and feedback from clients. I have noticed a major difference in my fitness ability — how easy/hard it is to breathe, how long I can ride, my pace, my confidence — from consistently doing speed intervals, which get my heart rate in the anaerobic zone. I don’t have room here to get into the nitty gritty of heart rate training, but there’s plenty on the web and of course consult your doctor with any questions.
As a starting point, you subtract your age from 220 to find your max heart rate. I’m 40 so my max HR is 180. I try to get up into the low 170s for the hardest parts of my sprint drills. There are many benefits of adding anaerobic workouts into your routine, including being able to eliminate lactic acid more effectively (making you get tired less quickly) and increasing your power (more info here). There are also benefits to varying your heart rate (getting it up when you sprint and down when you rest), generally speaking you begin to recover more quickly, think sucking wind for a shorter period of time after you do something really hard (again don’t take my non-medical person explanation, you can find more here). I’ve definitely noticed these benefits personally.
When you do speed drills in a class or trainer vs on your bike outside, you can really dial it in and you’re eliminating a lot of factors that could impede your speed (cars, dogs, looking where you’re going, etc.). I like to close my eyes in class and dig as deep as I can to be as powerful and as fast as I can.
My thoughts: Ok, I really like that part about "recovering more quickly" ;)
Question 2) OK, Im in, what is the timing for a speed interval for someone who is just starting, and how can I progress them as I start to recover more quickly, and...uhhh...start sucking less wind?
If you’re just starting out with interval training, I recommend 30-20-10s (credit to The NY Times where I learned about these). This is one of my favorite drills and we do them a lot in my classes. In class we modify all kinds of ways to keep it interesting.
Here’s the basic concept:
30 seconds easy pace (you could carry on a conversation if you were riding with someone)
20 seconds moderate pace (I always say, the pace like you have somewhere to be!) You could get 2 or so words out in between breaths.
10 seconds, all out sprint. As fast as you can go. It’s only 10 seconds, give it your ALL. You should be OUT OF BREATH at the end of this 10 seconds.
The plan for this interval workout is this:
5-10 minute warm up
30-20-10, 5 times
2 minute break. Keep a light resistance on your bike and pedal like you’re cruising on the bike path.
30-20-10, 5 more times
5-10 minute cool down. Again, some light resistance, easy pedaling, stretching.
If you’re just starting out, keep your resistance light to moderate, as you progress, make your resistance harder. If you come to my classes (in person and virtual!) you don’t even have to think. I call out our drills and you just have to pedal!
Question 3) How can I translate this to my riding? (I'm personally not a huge fan of doing structured workouts while I'm riding my bike, I like gyms for that, so it's hard sometimes to know if what I have been doing is paying off!)
I’m with you, I don’t do any kind of drills on my bike outside. I try to be conscious about keeping mountain biking as a source of fun. In that vein, a test of whether your interval training is paying off could be, are you having more fun?
Another non-techy way. Ride a climb that takes it out of you. When you get to the top, stop, and count how many seconds it takes until your breathing is back to normal. With more interval training, does this length of time reduce?
If you wanted to get techy about it, Apple Watches (and I’m sure other devices) can measure your VO2 max. Maybe ride the same trail three times on three different days before doing speed training work, and logging it on something like Strava. Check your VO2 Max and note it each time. Get a month of interval training under your belt, and go ride that same trail on three different days again and notice if it’s improving. I suggest riding it three times because there are so many variables in performance—heat/humidity, to what you ate, how you slept, what’s your stress level—just a one time before and one time after test would not likely give you enough data.
Anecdotally, I’ve had many clients tell me that as a result of attending classes, they feel better on their bikes, that they’ve done long tours they never thought possible, that they notice they’re getting up over stuff they hadn’t been able to in the past. Speed intervals over the winter can help you feel in much better shape come spring riding.
Sky knows her stuff!! If you're lucky enough to be located near her I would HIGHLY suggest getting after it in her class!! If not, you can join Sky virtually! Sign up at alpenglowfitness.com