Why Increasing Intensity is Good for All Road Cyclists

We are proud to offer an article by the highly regarded Coach John Hughes, who has written extensively about bicycle training including nutrition, conditioning, slowing the aging process and otherwise keeping fit.  Among his personal accomplishments in endurance racing,  John set the course records for the Furnace Creek 508 in 1989 and Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1992.  He has been a USA Cycling certified coach since ’96, and has lectured on endurance at numerous events.   John has coached CRW members and has earned high praise for increasing their fitness in preparing for ultra-endurance cycling events and facilitating recovery after major surgery.


Why Increasing Intensity is Good for All Road Cyclists

By Coach John Hughes


Every roadie – from health and fitness riders to high performance racers – can benefit from intensity exercise. Intensity exercise doesn’t mean “no pain, no gain.” It simply means riding harder than you usually ride.

Why does riding harder help? Your body has two different types of muscle fibers:

Slow-twitch fibers that contract slowly and generate relatively small forces but have great endurance. These fibers provide the power for activities that require sustained muscular contractions, such as an endurance ride. The harder you ride, the more slow-twitch fibers you activate and train. They are called slow-twitch fibers because of the relatively slow rate at which the fibers contract (not how fast you are spinning).

Fast-twitch fibers generate about twice the force of slow-twitch fibers; however, these fibers are more easily fatigued than slow-twitch fibers. Once you are using all of your slow-twitch fibers, your fast-twitch fibers also kick in. These fibers are especially important for exertions that require more force, such as a hard climb or riding into a stiff headwind. These are called fast-twitch fibers because of the relatively fast rate at which the fibers contract.

If you only do endurance riding, you’ll only train your slow-twitch fibers. By doing vigorous riding (riding harder), you’ll also train your fast-twitch fibers.

How is “hard” defined?

Most coaches describe intensities using a hierarchy of different zones. Here’s my system in terms of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), with the intensities ranging from an RPE of 1 up to 10. Your body doesn’t shift gears like a car or your bike, but rather increases power on a continuum, which is why the RPEs overlap.

  • Digestion pace: How you ride after a big meal, an RPE of 1-2. This is the pace for active recovery rides.
  • Conversation pace: You can easily carry on a conversation in full sentences, an RPE of 2-3. This pace builds endurance.
  • Hill climbing and headwind pace: You’re climbing a long, moderate grade or riding into sustained wind. You’re working hard enough that you can’t whistle but can still talk in short sentences, an RPE of 3-4. At this pace you’re improving your cruising speed.
  • Power pace: You are riding harder up a relatively short, steeper climb or into a stiff headwind but not yet sub-barf. You can talk in short phrases but not short sentences. An RPE of 4-5.
  • Sub-barf pace: You’re making a hard, sustained effort, an RPE of 5-6. This is the pace for a 20-40 km time trial or racing up a climb.
  • Barf pace: This is the classic hammering pace, a hard effort for 5 – 10 minutes — any longer and you’d barf — an RPE of 6-7.
  • Eyeballs out pace: Riding as hard as you can for only a few minutes with your eyes practically bugging out, an RPE of 8-9.
  • Ouch pace: Sprinting at maximum effort, an RPE of 10.

I also define these paces in terms of heart rate and power. You can download a spreadsheet with my training zones here <http://www.coach-hughes.com/resources/resources.html> You can enter your own lactate threshold or functional threshold power to calculate your personal training zones.

What’s Right for You?

What’s your normal riding pace? The next harder pace is the initial right pace for your intensity training. Intensity training does not mean no pain, no gain! You don’t have to kill yourself when adding intensity. It just requires stepping up the pace at which you normally ride.

If you currently ride on the flats at a conversational pace (RPE 2-3), then adding riding at the hill climbing/headwind pace (RPE 3-4) will improve your riding. If you can ride at an RPE of 3-4, then incorporating power pace riding (RPE 4-5) will improve your riding. If you normally include power pace riding (RPE 4-5), then stepping up to some sub-barf riding (RPE 5-6) will improve your riding.

Every intensity training ride should include a warm-up, a main set and a cool-down.

For the main set, some riders like unstructured intensity rides. I’m one of those riders. For example, ride a course with rolling hills. Ride to the first hill to warm up. As the main part of the workout, climb each hill at the planned intensity and recover until the next climb. After the climbs, then cool down by riding home.

Other riders like more defined, structured intervals. For example, warm up for at least 15 minutes. For the main set repeat 3 to 5 times [5 minutes at a heart rate of 135 - 145 and 3 minutes recovery]. Cool down for at least 15 minutes.

Both structured and unstructured workouts are effective.  I’ve coached many cyclists for the Race Across AMerica. One year one racer did unstructured workouts using RPE and another rider used a heart rate monitor and did intervals.  They finished fourth and fifth.

Here’s more information


Coach Hughes has written over 40 eBooks for RoadBikeRider.

We thank Bob Wolf who assisted in securing this article, and helped in its preparation.