Coach Hughes: Benefits of Training by Intensity
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Intelligent Training—Training

Guidelines for Training by Intensity for Cycling

How to do cycling workouts at different intensities.

by Coach John Hughes

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging: 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process and of the book Distance Cycling. He has written 40 articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for More about Coach Hughes.
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

The difference between top bike racers and us mortals is that they vary the intensity while we ride at about the same level of effort most of the time. Varying the intensity of workouts is the fastest way to improve.

Guidelines for Training by Intensity
Some riders like unstructured intensity rides—I do. For example, ride a course with three to five rolling hills. Ride to the first hill to warm up. As the main part of the workout climb each hill at the planned intensity and recover until the next climb. After the climbs then cool down by riding home. Other riders like more defined structured intervals. For example, warm up for at least 15 minutes in zones 2 and 3. For the main set repeat 3 to 5 times [5 minutes in the sweet spot and 3 minutes recovery]. Cool down for at least 15 minutes. Both unstructured and structured intensity workouts work. Whether you do unstructured or structured intensity, follow these rules:

  • Always warm up before a main set of intensity and always cool down after.
  • Mix hard and easy riding during each main set. Ride at the target intensity. You’ve planned a workout to have a certain training effect. If you go harder or easier your efforts won’t bring about the specific physiological adaptations you are trying to achieve.
  • Start timing the interval when you start riding hard. RPE and power respond immediately to an increase in effort; however, your heart rate may lag the increase in intensity. Stop timing the interval when you stop pedaling hard; your heart rate may not fall immediately
  • Always recover fully before the next hard effort unless you are training to hammer club rides or race.
  • Don’t struggle to maintain intensity. If you can’t stay in the intensity zone planned for the main set of a workout then just cool down and go home. Riding below the target intensity will just fatigue you without the intended training benefit. If you continue below the planned intensity, then you’ll just need more recovery time before an effective training session.
  • Build intensity appropriately during the main set rather than peaking early and then fading. For example, if you’re riding in the sweet spot up five hills try to pace yourself so that you’re putting in your best effort on the fourth or fifth hill rather than on the first and second.
  • Plan a range of efforts, for example, three to six repeats. The number you actually do should depend on how many quality repeats you can do at the planned intensity. Stop with one more hard effort still in your legs. Always end the main set feeling like you could have done one more good effort.
  • Master the starting range of efforts before increasing the overload. For example, the starting range is 3 - 5 repeats of [6 - 8 minutes hard with 3 - 4 minutes of recovery between each hard effort]. Start with 3 repeats of 6 minutes hard with 3 minutes of recovery between each. Build up to doing 5 repeats of 8 minutes hard with 4 minutes recovery between each. Only then increase the overload.
  • Master the finishing range of efforts before stepping up to the next level of intensity. For example, by the end of your sweet spot training you should be able to do a total of 20 - 40 minutes (plus recovery) in the sweet spot. When you can do 20 minutes, then you may step up to sub-threshold training depending on your goals.
  • Increase overload by increasing just one of the following at a time:
    • Increase the number of repeats
    • Increase duration of the hard efforts
    • Reduce the recovery between hard efforts
    • Increase the intensity of the recovery breaks between hard efforts, still staying below the intensity of the hard efforts
    • Step up to the next level of intensity. When you increase the intensity, start with shorter and / or fewer intensity efforts and build back up
  • The harder the effort, the shorter the duration. Sweet spot efforts are the longest, sub-threshold are shorter, super-threshold are even shorter, VO2 max are very short and sprints are the shortest.
  • The harder the intensity, the more days of recovery you need between sessions. You may do two days of tempo workouts in a row if you can do a quality workout the second day. Allow at least one recovery day between sweet spot workouts and at least two days between sub-threshold, super-threshold, VO2 max and sprint workouts.

Download Training Zones—Spreadsheet of training zones by perceived exertion, heart rate and power. Download to calculate your zones.

More Information

Intensity Training 2016: Using a Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor and a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness. A 39 page eArticle packed with current information about intensity that discusses further:

  1. The benefits of varying the intensity.
  2. How to get the most out of limited training time by varying the intensity.
  3. How to gauge intensity using perceived exertion, a heart-rate monitor and a power meter and the pros and cons of each method
  4. How to vary the intensities in your workouts depending on:
    • Your type of riding: health and fitness, club and endurance rider or performance cyclist.
    • The time of year: preseason, base period, build period and main season.
  5. 10 different sets of workouts for 10 different training objectives
  6. 5 to 10 workouts within each set including both structured interval-type workouts and unstructured free-form workouts.
  7. The importance of balancing overload and recovery
The 39 page eArticle is $4.99 from

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