The Perks of Riding Intervals

How Intervals Can Boost Your Fitness, Fat-Burning, and Fun on the Bike

Attending spinning class
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Ah, intervals: People tend to either love them or hate them. The lovers like the variety and the intensity of the challenges, which can build strength, stamina, speed, and power on the bike. The haters think they’d prefer to ride at a steady state for long stretches, which is great for building endurance but that’s about all. The truth is, there are several misconceptions about interval rides, among indoor cyclists. These mistaken beliefs are largely related to the goals behind interval training, the format of intervals, and the benefits they bring. Let’s look at these one by one.

The Goals

For starters, people are often unclear about what the goals are behind interval training. The main one is to include periods of intense cycling (with heavy gear or a fast pace) that increase riders’ heart rates, followed by periods of active recovery (to decrease their heart rates).

Another misconception is that intervals are always aerobic when, in fact, the rides can include a combination of aerobic and anaerobic intervals.

Remember: During an aerobic interval, your target zone is 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) and the goal is to build cardiovascular fitness and endurance; by contrast, during an anaerobic interval, your heart rate will push to 80 to 92 percent of your maximum heart rate, to help you build muscle strength and endurance.

The Format

There are also variations with the lengths and ratios of intervals with interval training. In other words, the ratio of work effort to recovery time isn’t always consistent. While there’s often a 2:1 ratio of work to recovery—such as 90 seconds of hard effort followed by 45 seconds of recovery—other formats have a 1:1 ratio or even a 1:2 ratio or a 1:3 ratio of high-intensity bouts to recovery periods. Aerobic intervals are typically longer and performed at a lower intensity, with a 1:1 ratio of work to recovery, whereas anaerobic intervals tend to be shorter because they’re performed at a full-bore intensity (which is why they’re followed by longer recovery periods).

Here's what this might look like in a 45-minute workout: 

  • Start with a five-minute warm-up (pedaling at a moderate pace on a flat road).
  • 3 minutes: Add resistance and do a moderately heavy seated climb at maximum effort (or pace).
  • 3 minutes: Drop your resistance to a flat road and pedal steadily.
    Repeat two times.
  • 30 seconds: Engage in a speed interval (reaching 110 RPMs) against moderate resistance.
  • 30 seconds: Pedal at a comfortable pace (active recovery).
    Repeat two more times.
  • 2 minutes: Add resistance and do a heavy standing climb at maximum effort.
  • 2 minutes: Drop your resistance to a flat road and pedal steadily while seated.
    Repeat two more times.
  • 30 seconds: Sit and engage in a speed interval (110 RPMs) against moderate resistance.
  • 30 seconds: Pedal at a comfortable pace (active recovery).
    Repeat once.
  • End with a five-minute cool down.

With high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in indoor cycling, the intense periods tend to be very intense (peak power output), followed by active recovery intervals in a 1:1 ratio. With Tabata-style training, the work and recovery intervals are shorter and the ratio is different, too: An all-out effort might last 20 seconds, followed by a 10-second recovery (a 2:1 ratio). These types of interval workouts tend to be shorter—on the order of 20 to 25 minutes, instead of 45 to 60 minutes.

The Perks

Not only does interval training allow you to improve your aerobic and anaerobic strength and conditioning, but it also enhances your stamina—and it does all this more quickly than other types of training do. In a sense, interval training tricks your body into getting fitter faster: By challenging your heart, lungs, muscles, and mind with intense intervals, followed by recovery periods, this type of training helps you burn calories faster and become more resistant to fatigue than you would if you rode at a steady, moderate pace.

But different types of intervals can bring slightly different benefits. For example, a 2016 study from California State University-San Marcos found that people burn significantly more calories and report lower levels of perceived exertion during high-intensity interval training (performing 8 one-minute bouts of cycling at 85 percent maximum watts) than during sprint interval training (8 bouts of 30 seconds of cycling at maximum effort). Meanwhile, a 2011 review of the research even found that high-intensity intermittent exercise leads to significantly greater reductions in abdominal fat, as well as subcutaneous fat, than other forms of aerobic exercise do.

Consider these excellent reasons to incorporate interval training into your indoor cycling workouts, especially if you’re trying to slim down, boost your stamina, or improve your cardiovascular fitness. Your body will benefit in all kinds of ways.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cycling Weekly. Cycling training zones: Power and heart rate zones explained.

  3. CTS. Best cycling workouts for developing anaerobic capacity for winning accelerations.

  4. American Heart Association. Target heart rates chart.

  5. Polar. A breakdown of running heart rate - here's what really matters.

  6. The Gains Lab. Interval training overview.

  7. Grokker. Tabata vs. HIIT: 3 main differences.

  8. Wood KM, Olive B, Lavalle K, Thompson H, Greer K, Astorino TA. Dissimilar physiological and perceptual responses between sprint interval training and high-intensity interval training. J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(1):244-50. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001042

  9. Boutcher SH. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. J Obes. 2011;2011:868305. doi:10.1155/2011/868305

By Stacey Colino, AFAA-GFI
Stacey Colino is a certified spinning instructor and group exercise instructor through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).