The most effective intervals … ever?

I’m about to start Week 12 of a 12-week indoor training program. (Yes, it has sucked. Yes, it has been good for me.)

All this time pedaling in place has me wondering about how our bodies make energy for different length efforts — and, importantly, how busy people can make the most of their training time.

I’m sitting there developing aerobic fitness, which is great for hill climbing, but what about my sprint fu?

Physiology gets super complex. This is super simplified.

First a quick background

Our bodies make energy in two basic ways. Here is the traditional breakdown:

• Anaerobic. High intensity for a short time. To improve anaerobic fitness, you pin it super hard for a short period.

• Aerobic. Lower intensity for a longer time. To improve aerobic fitness, you ride easier for a longer period.

Depending on what you’re training for, your intervals might range from 5 seconds (BMX start power) to 20 minutes (climbing speed). The short intervals are very intense (~100% effort). The long intervals are less intense (~80% effort).

Training plans usually have you perform one type of interval in each workout. That helps you develop the targeted energy system as optimally as possible.

I was wondering …

I want to be solid in any riding situation: BMX, DS, DH, Super D, Pump Track Worlds, commuting, ‘cross adventures, XC rides, whatever.

According to the prevailing wisdom, that means performing intervals of 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 3 minutes, 20 minutes … all allocated into carefully crafted system-specific workouts. I don’t have time for all that.

The best all-around riders I know — guys like Brian Lopes, Curtis Keene, Mark Weir, Jon Watt and Brandon Sloan — don’t follow detailed training plans. They simply pin it when they feel strong, and they take it easy when they’re tired.

Question: If I want to be a strong all-around rider (aka “develop all of my energy systems”), do I have to perform all these different structured intervals, or can I simply pin it when I feel strong, and take it easy when I’m tired?

Or: If I’m doing a trainer workout, can I do one type of interval — as hard as I can for a few minutes — and cover everything?

The data I found has numbers showing the percentage of energy that comes from anaerobic and aerobic energy sources during max efforts from 10 seconds to four minutes long.

I used those numbers to make this chart:

The only thing chicks dig more than mountain bikes: infographics.

What it shows:

• If you pin it for a short time, most of the energy is anaerobic. We knew that. Dedicated gated/BMX racers focus on anaerobic training.

• The longer you keep going, the more important your aerobic fitness. We knew that. Dedicated road/XC racers focus on aerobic training.

• At these durations, there is always both an anaerobic and aerobic component. Both types of fitness are important.

• When you look at them this way, 4X/DS/BMX and DH races are opposites! No wonder so few athletes truly excel in both. The athletes who do kick butt at both — Jared Graves, Lopes, Watt, McCormack 🙂 — are well rounded riders.

• If you can hold max effort for four minutes, you’ll tax both your anaerobic and aerobic systems. That was my question.


• Yes! If you pin it as hard as you can for a few minutes, you’ll get a good all-around workout.

• I’m sure more specific workouts would make you strong in more specific ways, but this seems like a very efficient approach.

• This raises more questions than it answers, but I think it’s fun.

The 12-week program is almost over. I can’t wait to go outside and pin it!

— Lee

Know more. Have more fun!

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11 replies
  1. Pete says:

    Lee– really cool post, thanks! I was wondering about all this actually as I am wanting to learn more about how to train correctly for Super D’s. Any chance you could clue me into what you did for your 12 week program (if it is proprietary/secret information?). Also, whats your take on doing intervals- should I be out of the saddle or in the saddle or mixing it up?

  2. leelikesbikes says:

    Hey Pete,

    Thanks man.

    I purchased a plan, and it would be uncool to publish the central kung fu. That plan is designed for flat roads anyway.

    – Think about a typical Super D. Pin it as hard as you can, recover (sort of) in the tech sections, pin it, recover (sort of), repeat for the duration of the race. I hover right at red line most of the way, with forays into the red-hot pain zone. You can structure a workout the same way.

    – How do you pedal in a race? Probably a few cranks standing out of each turn, then settling into the saddle to make efficient power. Do the same in your workout.

    On my to-do wish list: a Super D training ebook.

    Wait, I almost forgot: MMBSii will have a section on Super D. It focuses on the start and race tactics.

  3. Chris Q says:

    Hey Lee,

    Cool post. This helps explain why 4X is such a specialist sport at world cup level. I miss the days when downhillers raced 4X as well.

    4X aside, the infographics clearly shows that DH is very similar to XC in terms of enrgy systems. I’ve had this idea for a while that if you can go really fast for a short time, you should be able to go pretty fast all afternoon. James Wilson reckons intervals are great too. Jarred Rando and Amiel Cavalier often turn up to the 24 hour races here in Australia on 4 man teams. Their lap times are always impressive, slower than the really quick pro xc riders, but faster than pretty much every one else on course. That shows that these guys are fast well rounded riders. Jarred and Amiel’s training would be focused on going fast over 3-5 minutes, yet they can really hurt people in endurance races.

    What do you think of intervals done on real terrain as opposed to trainer? I’ve sat in a shed and kept the needle above the line on an ergo before and it’s not very nice. I’ve started finding short sections of track (5ish minutes) and timing them with the moto trainer. I’m talking about XC and the sections I’d do intervals on aren’t very technical, but you do have to hit corners while going as fast as you can. This makes it fun. To compliment intervals on the XC bike, I can do intervals on the slalom bike: Start at the back fence, hit the flat turns on the slalom track, into the pump track for two laps, climb back up the the back fence (not super steep-but requires power). This is 1 minute, so I guess, you repeat as many times as necessary…

  4. leelikesbikes says:

    Ian: I’ve been dying to share with you guys, but would be uncool for me to post that plan. People steal my intellectual property all the time, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else.

    But I will, at some point, publish something similar — and more tuned to mountain bikers.

  5. scott says:

    Your graph oversimplifies which energy systems are involved. While it is true that a 4+ minute downhill will be more aerobic than a 40 second BMX, the DH is made up of varying efforts and will not perform like a uniform 4 minute exertion. You (should) have sprint efforts, pumping, sustained pedaling, hopefully even some coasting if you’re spun out (with predominantly isometric muscle contraction). Even if the total duration of exertion suggests that you’re “aerobic” it is much more likely that your profile is more consistent with multiple anaerobic or maximal aerobic exertions with some recovery component. Doesn’t mean that aerobic fitness isn’t important, just means that anaerobic fitness is even more important IMHO


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