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How to do Intervals: A Beginner’s Guide

By Sarah Bonner

How to do interval training on a bicycleIf you want to cycle faster, climb stronger, go farther, or burn more calories, intervals are the way to go. Intervals are timed efforts done at a specific intensity to improve strength, endurance, or threshold levels. Just like weight training makes you stronger, intervals trigger your body to adapt to hard efforts making them an integral training tool to improve performance. Whether you want to lose weight or avoid being dropped on climbs, consistently including intervals (1-2 times per week) can help you achieve your goals,.

There is a lot of information on what intervals to do but not how to do them. Looking back at my first interval sessions, I’m grateful I had an experienced rider tell me what exactly to do. I might not have been doing intervals wrong, but the tips and tricks I’ve learned have helped me to perform intervals better.

    • Proper Terrain

Selecting the stretch of road where you perform intervals is crucial. Scope out locations for up-coming sessions on endurance rides or ask other riders where they do intervals. For threshold or tempo intervals, a flat will work but a false flat— a gentle uphill gradient—is ideal because it will ensure you keep the power going. For strength and intensity intervals, look for a gradient of 6-8%.

    • 90 RPM Cadence

Instead of focusing on what gear you are in focus on keeping your cadence at around 90 rpm, unless your program states otherwise. Ninety rpm is the cadence “sweet spot” that activates your fatigue-resistant slow-twitch muscle fibres which allow you to perform for longer.

  • First 30 seconds on Effort

Heart rate monitors are best to monitor the intensity of an interval but you will probably notice your heart rate doesn’t respond right away. “Heart rate lag” is perfectly normal so to avoid under or overcompensation, perform the first 30 seconds of the interval based on your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), or how hard you think you are going if 100% is maximum effort (see chart below).  After 30 seconds your heart rate should respond and you can adjust appropriately from there.  If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can do the whole interval session based on RPE.  If you are going by RPE, or to figure out your zones, first calculate your maximum heart rate (roughly 220- your age) and then use the general guide below to get started.

Heart Rate Zone

RPE/ % max heart rate

Feels like…

Zone 1 50%- 60% Very, very easy.
Zone 2  (Recovery and fat burning) 60%-70% Easy spinning, normal breathing.
Zone 3  (Aerobic conditioning) 70%-80% Pedalling is now an effort and breathing increases.
Zone 4  (Threshold training) 80%-90% Hard work. Legs burn, breathing is heavy.
Zone 5  (High intensity) 90%+ Extremely hard work with laboured breathing.  Only able to maintain this level for short periods of time.
  • Terrain Changes

Finding the perfect road is impossible and terrain changes can throw you off your game. If you encounter a less than ideal hill or decline, the important thing is to maintain the same amount of effort or power output. For example, if you encounter a small decline or run out of hill and the road flattens, change gears to make it harder so you maintain the same amount of effort on the pedals.

  • Standing Out of the Saddle

Unless otherwise stated, feel free to stand out of the saddle if you need a boost in power or speed to stay on target. If you do stand for a boost, try to maintain the speed when you sit again so you don’t yo-yo your power, consistency is better. Also, remember you are more efficient when you are sitting.

  • Landmark

When you do your first interval, landmark your achieved distance (tree, telephone pole, rock, sign, etc.) and aim to cover the same distance or surpass it each time. A landmark will help motivate you each interval session, and it will give you a benchmark from which to measure progress in the future.

  • Rest Period

Between intervals you will have a rest period. Unless you are instructed to do something specific, go ahead and shift right down to first gear and spin easily. Keeping your legs spinning will help keep them going into the next effort, but there is no need to expend energy that is better spent during the next interval so keep it easy. Just before the next effort starts, change gears so you can rocket-off as soon as the rest period is over.

  • Suffering

Intervals are supposed to be hard. If you are suffering, keep going. Intervals are designed to stress your body so it adapts to the effort, increasing your strength and fitness. However, if you are feeling faint or experience any abnormal pain then rest or stop the session. Injury will only slow you down. It’s important to push your body, but it’s equally important to know when to stop.

  • Troubleshooting

At one point or another you might be interrupted during your session by traffic, a puncture, another rider, or weather. Try to avoid interruptions but if they happen, don’t worry. Just continue the session where you left off. If something disrupts you during a threshold or tempo session, once you are back on track, start timing again when you return to the target heart rate or power zone. If you need to abandon the session, continue with your training plan and don’t try to make-up the lost session.

Want to start now?  Here is a beginner’s interval session to build strength that can be performed once a week, specifically during base training. To increase difficulty, increase the amount of intervals slowly up to 6.

Warm up for 20 minutes in Zone 2 and 3 and then perform 4 (intervals) x 4 (minutes) in a high/hard gear and low cadence (50 rpm). Keep the intensity below Zone 4 and rest for 5 minutes in Zone 2 between each effort. Perform on a gentle uphill, keep speed steady, and remain seated.  Focus on having a smooth pedal stroke, stable hips, and a relaxed­ upper body. Cool down for 20 min in zone 2.

Sarah Bonner


Sarah Bonner has lived and cycled in Canada, Africa, and Europe. Currently, she splits her time between the Netherlands and South Africa where she trains and competes at an amateur level. With a Masters in English and a Diploma in Sports Management, Sarah combines her love of writing and passion for cycling to share honest advice and inspiring stories.  



2 comments to How to do Intervals: A Beginner’s Guide

  • Hi Susen-Marie,

    I’m so sorry for the huge delay in following up!

    Yes, do a 4 minute interval and then rest for 5. The type of intervals you were doing are high intensity intervals that target anaerobic power. The intervals I suggested are for strength building. I usually don’t get cold in between because the interval is long enough that your body temperature increases. If it is colder than normal I usually ride in a wind vest that is easy to zip and unzip I between. The same goes for arm warmers, you can roll them up easily and then push them down when you’re ready to go again!

    I hope that helps!

  • susen-marie

    i like this article and i like doing intervals. when i was in my younger years and racing, the club i raced with was 98% men. when i did my first intervals ever one of the guys said they are easy…you just pedal till you puke! YUCK! we did 45 second with 15 second intervals. i would usually catch up to them just as they were counting down to start the next sprint. i got alot better from this experience.(never puked) question…are you saying to do 4 intervals each one being 4 minutes long? and then 5 minutes in between? i would freeze my butt off if i went that slow for that long after such an effort, but i use the 90 rpm. i really appreciate these articles.

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