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’ interest and, when done at the proper intensity, can yield a lot of results and 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.

I agree that you should include these types of HIT classes in your program, such as intervals ranging from 10 seconds up to 3 minutes. In the ICA profile archives, we have many examples of HIT classes, including the following popular profiles: Turbo-Charged Intervals, Encore IntervalsThe Ultimate HIT, Lather, Rinse, Repeat (3-minute HIT intervals), Lather, Rinse, Repeat Take 2 (4-minute intervals), Three-Peat Intervals (Rock ‘n’ Roll version), You Can Do Anything for a Minute, and Betwitched.  Many of these profiles are being updated and reposted with new music as well. 

Incorporating longer intervals of 6 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 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, not the participants.

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 while 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 a 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, you are missing out on essential elements of basic fitness. It’s like going into the gym and only ever working your arms. Sure, strong arms are important—especially from a visual perspective—but they shouldn’t be the foundational exercises in your training repertoire. They are just one part of an overall training program.  

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

  1. While Zone 2 steady-state work (RPE 2–3, somewhat easy) is important for endurance athletes and outdoor cyclists who ride for longer than an hour, the benefits of this intensity for indoor cycling participants who are riding for only 45–60 minutes a few times a week are few*. This is what many participants will deem as “boring.” But, workouts in Zones 3 and 4 are still “hard,” rewarding, and very productive from a training perspective, even though they don’t elicit a breathless response. What is important to remember, however, is that this range of intensities does not produce the desired physiological adaptations when only held for short periods; hence the need to spend longer intervals here.
  2. Even if you are an anaerobic athlete (e.g., a sprinter or participant in other high-intensity events lasting 3 minutes or less), or an indoor cycling student who thrives on high intensity, you still need a robust aerobic foundation. Everyone does. A healthy and trained aerobic system creates a “trickle-down” effect that can even help you in your higher-intensity intervals.
  3. Any effort that can be held longer than 3 minutes is going to be predominantly aerobic. Aerobic intervals develop the lactate system, which utilizes fat as well as glucose as a fuel source. As this metabolic system is improved, you can do what you’re doing for longer before fatigue sets in, ultimately burning more calories. You have more success all around. What’s not to like?
  4. A well-trained aerobic system will recover faster. Who doesn’t want that?
  5. If you teach with power and hope to be able to incorporate 20-minute FTP testing and other power training workouts into your program, your riders absolutely need to train to sustain a higher effort for longer periods. Not just the physiological ability to hold it, but also the mental ability to stay committed and the knowledge of how to pace such an effort so you don’t quit too early. Pacing properly is a skill that can take a while to master, and gradually teasing out intervals that are progressively longer and longer can help your riders build this ability.
  6. The accomplishment of sustaining longer intervals in an indoor cycling class unequivocally transfers to other activities in life. The mental strength your riders learn after a 10- or 15-minute threshold or sub-threshold interval is a serious and admirable accomplishment. You can be sure your participants will be telling you they heard your voice in their heads when they pushed themselves in other activities that require endurance and commitment. Now that kind of compliment is a good feeling that all cycling instructors can appreciate!

If you teach with power and plan on eventually offering a 20-minute FTP test for your riders, it’s important to gradually prepare them for the rigors of this test via longer and longer efforts at a sweet spot intensity and threshold intensity. “Sweet spot” is the name given to the intensity that overlaps upper Zone 3 and lower Zone 4, just below threshold. It’s called “sweet spot” because this intensity is an ideal balance of high intensity and the ability to cause some of the desired aerobic and threshold adaptations without needing a lot of recovery like a threshold workout would require. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, not at all! I promise, your riders will feel a challenge of a different kind. 

Even if you don’t plan on teaching a 20-minute FTP test in your classes, even if you don’t teach with power at all, I hope you will agree that longer aerobic intervals in Zones 3 and 4 are worth incorporating into your repertoire of class profiles for all the reasons outlined above. I have a feeling you may even have riders who prefer these types of workouts to the HIT style of classes with constant changes in position and intensity. This is why offering a wide variety of classes is so important—you will eventually please everyone!

This need to introduce longer intervals and provide variety can be highlighted in one of the comments on this post when it was first published. Bill Pierce (who is also one of the creators of numerous profiles on ICA, including several listed on this page) wrote that his longer intervals were very much appreciated by one of his new riders.

This very same thing happened to me this week after I did a series of 5-minute intervals at threshold (orange) and 7- to 8-minute intervals at sub-threshold (yellow). A rider came up to me after class and expressed how much he appreciated longer “blocks” of work without constant changes. At my club, we project our profiles on the screen using the Stages Studio system. My profile on that day looked like this (the maroon block near the front is a 3-minute FTP test. More on that in a later part of this series when I talk about FTP tests): 

My rider is from the UK and took classes there for many years. He said the following to me after this class: “You know what I love about your classes? You give us blocks of work and you just let us do our thing. We have time to focus. Maybe I’m old-school, but I miss that! So many instructors are just up and down and up and down and it’s constant changes from green to red to blue to maroon to orange to green…argh! BLOCKS! We need more blocks like this!” (Emphasis on “blocks” was his! He was quite animated!)

Parts 2 and 3: Progression, Coaching and Cueing, and Music Choices for Longer Intervals

In part 2 of this series I will dive into how to progressively prepare your riders for longer and longer intervals. This is especially important if you are preparing for 20-minute FTP tests but is certainly not the only reason. Longer intervals require mental strength skills that are different than high-intensity ones; the next article will provide you with tips and tricks for keeping your riders committed to steady-state work. Music choice is also crucial for longer intervals. You will find tips on how to choose music in part 3 of this series. ICA has numerous bucket playlists with hundreds of longer songs to share with you.

A subsequent follow-up series will take the information from these articles and provide the specifics of conducting a 20-minute FTP test. It will also look at the different types of FTP tests and examine how to determine who should and shouldn’t do a 20-minute assessment. If you teach with power, or hope to teach with power soon, you are not going to want to miss this!

Download these longer tempo, sweet-spot, and threshold interval profiles

ICA has a wide variety of aerobic profiles at tempo, sweet-spot, and threshold intensity; some of the most popular are listed below. These and many more are available for all ICA members.

First, one of the most valuable and important offerings here at the Indoor Cycling Association is this template for creating your own progressively longer interval profiles at threshold and sub-threshold intensity. There are 50 options! 

Second, it’s important to understand the exercise science behind a threshold level of intensity. What is happening metabolically and why is it important? You’ll find that in this series on lactate threshold training

Next, these 10 profiles with accompanying playlists will get you started on your longer interval quest.

The Sweetest Sweet Spot. Long intervals with a musical theme—all songs are based on the themes of “sweet” or “candy”! The warm-up song is “The Sweetest Taboo,” by Sade. Hence, the name of the profile.

3 X 15 Sweet-Spot Intervals. This profile keeps your riders’ interest by varying the cadence and resistance every few minutes. 

That Sweet Spot. This profile also varies cadence and resistance, but in a structured way through each interval. 

Sweet-Spot Threshold Ladder. This profile is extremely flexible, enabling instructors to make it harder or easier for their participants, depending on their current level of fitness and goals.

Negative Split Threshold Intervals. A negative split is the concept of pacing yourself so that you perform the second half of the interval at a slightly higher intensity. 

Negative Split Intervals. Set a baseline effort for the first song then beat it in the second song.

Over/Under Intervals. These are hard. Long and hard. And very, very effective!

Ebb and Flow. Not an interval ride, unless you consider it as one long interval for the duration of the whole class! The ebbs are slower cadence, the flows are higher cadence. You’ll use these cues in all your endurance and tempo rides.

Reverie, Aerobic Intervals. This tempo profile of three 12-minute intervals provides you with plenty of mental training cues with the goal of easing your riders into a reverie.

The Delicious Ride. A tempo ride. One of the original foundational rides on ICA (from 2012). These cues will help you master teaching at this intensity and for longer-duration efforts. 

 

*There are many wellness and cardiovascular benefits of low intensity (Zones 1 and 2) workouts that are 60 minutes or less, especially for beginners, those rehabbing an injury, the elderly, and more. For general fitness and higher performance, however, if you only have an hour or less, it’s better to raise the intensity level of the work efforts above Zone 2. 

 

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

  1. Leslie Glover says:

    This is very helpful. As we get into this years training, I plan on increasing the length of the intervals. Thanks.

  2. 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.

    • Nhi says:

      One of my instructors, about 9-10 yrs back, did long intervals, about 10-20’, which was the best work out of all. My endurance, strength & fitness levels increased “ten-fold” then. His classes were always packed, though there were, of course, naysayers. I do semi-long 6-12’ intervals on my own. Hate those bouncing around, but it has its own purpose, & fits most people.
      Thx

  3. 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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