Intervals on real terrain?

In Chris Q’s comment on The most effective intervals … ever?, he asked, “What do you think of intervals done on real terrain as opposed to trainer?”

Awesome question.

Hey Chris,

I’ve been mulling this over for the past few days, and it gave me some big ideas that I’ll pursue later. For now, here’s my basic take:

Caught in the act: Riding the Tricross on dirt roads isn’t as “real” as ripping the Stumpy on trail, but it’s a lot less fake than riding the trainer. I can focus on pedaling — and still rip me some turns. Photo by Dylan Patterson.

An interval is a repeated effort of a defined intensity and duration performed to enhance a certain aspect of your performance.

Examples of intervals: 10 seconds max effort to improve explosive power, 30 seconds pinned to improve speed endurance, 20 minutes at threshold to help you climb better

Overall, real terrain is best. If you want to be a great rider, you must develop your skills, fitness and confidence — and learn to fully apply them to real riding situations. There’s no better way to replicate real terrain than … well … real terrain.

Using the above examples, you might sprint 10 seconds out of each corner, pin full laps at a BMX track or a hammer a technical climb on your local trail.

But there are exceptions. I can think of a couple situations when you’d want to do your intervals on fake terrain. Luckily, these cases support each other.

You don’t have access to real terrain. It’s late, snowy or you just don’t have time to ride real terrain. That’s OK. Ride the trainer. Ride the road. Hit some turns in your driveway. Lift some weights. As long as you’re working at the right intensity AND focusing on good form, this is time well spent.

You want to enhance a certain aspect of your performance. While you definitely need to put it all together on real terrain, you can get better/faster/stronger by stripping away variables and focusing on one thing at a time.

Examples of “fake” intervals: Pedal so hard on the trainer that you black out; that raises the bar for pedaling on trail. Rip figure eights until your corner knobs are gone; that helps you carve tighter and faster on trail. Pull some one-legged deadlifts; that adds power to everything you do.

These fake intervals should target your weaknesses. Your performance and fun are limited by your weakest area. By enhancing that, you elevate the rest of your game.

My current weak point is sustained seated pedaling. Spending the winter on the trainer has been great for me, not just from a fitness standpoint, but also in terms of skills and confidence. My pedaling form is now more dialed, and I know I can hammer to the point of dizziness and feel fine a minute later.

Besides: It’s late, snowy and I don’t have time to ride real terrain.

— Lee

Know more. Have more fun!

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