Coach November 2020: The Spice of Life

Words by: Benoit Capostagno


Cyclists will incorporate a variety of training sessions into their training plans to assist them in achieving peak performance. The evidence supporting the inclusion of highintensity interval training (HIIT) into a training programme in order to improve performance is well-established. HIIT is characterised by bouts of high-intensity work separated by periods of low-intensity exercise or complete rest. HIIT allows cyclists to accumulate more time at a high-intensity thereby providing a larger training stimulus or training stress to the body. Some cyclists may be hesitant to perform HIIT, due to the increased levels of physical discomfort, fatigue and high perception of effort. However, a short period of two to four weeks of training which includes two HIIT sessions per week can result in large improvements in performance compared to a similar amount of low-intensity training, high volume training.

Optimising Interval Training 

The intensity of the HIIT training sessions is an important consideration when designing a programme. It is recommended that athletes try and accumulate as much time as possible at intensities close to their VO2max. Type II muscle fibres appear to be recruited at intensities above 90% of VO2max and the intensity of the session should produce a high cardiac output in order to appropriately tax the cardiovascular system.

HIIT intervals do not need to always be of a long duration. Supramaximal sprint intervals can also results in significant increases in endurance performance. Intervals as short as 30 seconds have been shown to be effective in improving endurance performance. These intervals require longer rest periods (4.5 minutes) to allow the athletes to recover and ensure that they can reach the target intensity during the next interval. The adaptations that result from low volume sprint training appear to occur on the cellular level with increases in mitochondria and enzyme activity, rather than in the cardiovascular system.

Manipulating the duration and intensity of the work and rest periods alter the stimulus of the training session. Longer intervals of between three to five minutes appear to be most appropriate for endurance athletes, as these intervals promote both cardiovascular and muscular adaptations. Sprint interval training can still be prescribed to well-trained endurance athletes, after they have done a few weeks of longer duration intervals to alter the training stress.

Rest intervals are another important consideration when designing HIIT programmes. The goal of a HIIT session is to accumulate a larger amount of work at a high intensity compared to one long continuous effort. It is critical that the rest intervals are sufficient to allow the cyclist to repeatedly reach their target intensities of the subsequent intervals. If the intensity of the recovery period is too high, or the duration is too short, the accumulated fatigue from the previous interval(s) will prevent the cyclist from adequately performing in the subsequent intervals. Typical work to rest ratios (work:rest) are 2:1, 1:1 or 1:2. The intensity and duration of the intervals will influence the amount of rest required, but the session should be designed to allow the athlete to reach the target intensity in all the intervals.


When designing a high-intensity interval training session, the following factors should be considered:

  • The intensity of each interval
  • The duration of each interval
  • The intensity of each rest period
  • The duration of each rest period
  • Total work completed {number of intervals x duration of intervals)


Exercise caution when adding HIIT sessions to your training, because more is not always better. Increasing the number of HIIT sessions won’t always benefit endurance performance and you should aim to include –two to three HIIT sessions per week into your training during the relevant training blocks.

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