How to Incorporate Long Intervals, Part 1: Why Longer Intervals Are Important

Short, high-intensity intervals are all the rage in fitness classes. They make for fun, engaging indoor cycling classes that keep riders’ interests and, when done at the proper intensity, can burn a lot of calories. Participants who are in classes for the music love it when instructors use the changing energy of verse and chorus in typical pop songs as built-in intervals—surging hard on the chorus, easing up on the verse, gearing up on the bridge, and then repeating the surge on the next chorus.

At ICA, we agree that you should include these types of HIT classes in your program, such as intervals ranging from 10 seconds on up to 3 minutes. In the ICA profile archives, we have many examples of HIT classes, including the following popular profiles: The Ultimate HIT profile, Lather, Rinse, Repeat, You Can Do Anything for a Minute, and Betwitched.  

Incorporating longer intervals of 5 to 20 minutes can be the key to a higher level of fitness, regardless of what your specific goals are. For some reason, however, there is a reticence to the idea of longer intervals. Over the years, in online forums and at conferences, I’ve seen instructors give these reasons for not wanting to do them:

  • They’re boring. My riders hate doing anything longer than 2 or 3 minutes. They have ADD and need constant change.
  • The music is boring. My class hates long songs.
  • They only like HIIT; if they aren’t breathless, they don’t think they got a good workout.
  • No one in my class is a cyclist, so there’s no reason to train like one; that includes longer periods in the saddle.

While I’m sure there are participants who do have these beliefs, that problem is easily resolved with well-delivered education and quality coaching. But I personally think it’s more than that. Instructors with these beliefs are not likely to admit it, but I would suggest this perception is mostly projection. It often seems like it’s the instructor who doesn’t want to do longer songs, who needs constant change, who is hesitant to learn the required coaching skills to guide riders through longer intervals.

Why? Well, frankly, it’s much easier to teach HIIT classes. There isn’t a lot of coaching required to yell out quick changes on the bike, using shorter popular songs to determine riding position (sit on the verse, stand and push on the chorus). It takes more work and more education to be a coach who employs longer intervals or steady-state efforts. It means you need to learn to inspire riders intrinsically instead of relying on extrinsic motivation such as the music, near-constant position changes, or haphazard drills. It means you need to engage riders on a more esoteric level and tap into their mental strength to endure an effort longer than a few minutes without changing what they are doing. It requires understanding more subtle delivery of coaching cues rather than shouting out a few words like “Go,” “Harder,” “Faster,” or “You’ve got this.”

And, it also means understanding exercise physiology more deeply, beyond what you learn in a Shape magazine treatise on why “HIT training” is all the rage.

From a physiological and fitness perspective, if all you ever do is HIIT training, you are missing out on essential elements of basic fitness. It’s like going into the gym and only ever working your arms. Sure, arms are important—especially from a visual perspective—but they shouldn’t be the foundational exercises in your training quivver. They are an important part of an overall training program. Depending on your goals, you will spend more or less time working arms, just like with cardiovascular training and HIT.

Here are six reasons why you should teach your riders to love longer intervals in high Zone 3 (also known as “tempo,” about 5–6 on the RPE scale ) to Zone 4 (threshold, or 7–8 on the RPE scale).

    2 Responses to “How to Incorporate Long Intervals, Part 1: Why Longer Intervals Are Important”

    1. Bill Pierce says:

      I do mostly long intervals and really long steady state work. My classes are probably 90% Zone 3, 4, and 5a, and 10% HIIT.

      I had a new rider attend one of my classes last week. She wasn’t new to indoor cycling but she was new to me. She stayed after the class to talk. She observed that I was different from the other instructors.

      First, I was male (I’m the only guy at this facility and one other gym). Second, since I was male I didn’t talk as much as the other instructors (her opinion, not mine), which she liked. And third, I did much longer intervals than the other instructors, which she really liked since she could settle in and focus.

      This wasn’t the first time that I had received positive feedback on performing long-ish intervals yet most of the classes that I take are 30/20/10, Tabatas, dirty thirties, and other short drills that appeal to those with exercise ADD.

    2. MelissaArps says:

      Great article on such an important topic! Question…we teach with Perfomance IQ and I’ve been researching the different zone percentages and we will soon transition to match Coggan’s Power training zones but the RPE on their chart is slightly different with 4-5 as LT instead of 7-8. Can anyone help me understand the discrepancy? Thanks!

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