The Five Components of Any Workout

When you throw your leg over your saddle and hit the road, you can use the following five variables to vary your workout:

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Frequency and repetition
  4. Ground
  5. Cadence

You can completely change the goal of a workout by changing one of its components. For example, 10-minute climbing intervals can target two completely different energy systems if you just change the cadence. Climbing at a cadence of 70 revolutions per minute (rpm) will tend to push an athlete to their uphill lactate threshold, which is slightly higher than the lactate threshold on flat ground due to increased muscle recruitment. I prescribe such workouts to develop an athlete’s ability to sustain prolonged climbing efforts in races. But if the same climbing training is performed at a cadence of 50 rpm, the tension applied to the leg muscles increases significantly and the stress on the cardiovascular system decreases. I use slow paced climbing efforts to increase muscle fiber recruitment and muscle power development. In this case, varying the cadence of an effort transforms lactate threshold training into neuromuscular training.


Intensity is a measure of the intensity of your work. Because you don’t have time to ride moderately hard for 2 hours, you will need to achieve the necessary training stimulus within 1 hour. The impact of a workout is directly related to the intensity you are working at, and over the years we have become more and more precise in the methods we use to measure intensity.

Accuracy is important to the success of many training plans, which is why I strongly encourage you to use a power meter or, at the very least, a heart rate monitor that records average heart rates for individual intervals.


Volume is the total amount of exercise you do in a single workout, training week, month, year, or career. By definition, lack of time means low volume, at least in terms of the hours you spend training. But there’s another concept here that offsets some of that volume reduction, called Intensity Volume. Typical endurance training programs contain many hours of moderate-intensity training but relatively little higher-intensity training time. A time-pressed training program removes most of the moderate-intensity volume from these programs, but retains—and may even increase—intensity volume, especially high-intensity volume. In any given week in this type of program, you will likely spend more time riding at and above your lactate production threshold than in any part of your previous training programs.

Frequency and repetition

Frequency is the number of times a workout is performed in a given workout period, while repetition is the number of times an exercise is repeated in a single session. Doing 3 interval training per week is a frequency; performing 12 intervals in one workout is one repetition.

Frequency and repetition are used to ensure the quality of your workouts. For a time-pressed cyclist, your goal is to rack up time at high workloads, because that’s the driving force behind the adaptations you seek. PowerIntervals are maximum intensity intervals and their effectiveness is based on maintaining your highest possible power output for a given period of time.

Let’s say you have a lactate threshold power of 250 watts and you can sustain that output for 20 minutes. You may be able to average 300 watts for 3 minutes during a PowerInterval. There’s no point in trying to complete a 20 minute PowerInterval, because your output will drop so dramatically after the first 3-5 minutes that the rest of the effort will no longer be useful as a PowerInterval. It would seem ridiculously difficult and your heart rate would stay elevated, but once your power output drops, that effort no longer meets the target of a PowerInterval. On the other hand, if you do seven PowerIntervals of 3 minutes at 300 watts each, separated by recovery periods, you will accumulate 21 minutes at 300 watts. This is why interval training is so effective at improving performance (and burning calories) compared to exercising at a steady pace or level of effort.

Frequency gives you another way to build up workload, by repeating individual interval sessions over a given week, month, or even year. For example, a week with two PowerInterval workouts like the one just mentioned means 42 minutes at 300 watts. The harder the intervals, the more recovery you need before you’re ready to complete another high-quality workout. Fortunately, this works in favor of the time-pressed cyclist, as your relative lack of training time leaves plenty of time to recover during the week.

This program has 4 workouts per week, and ideally you will be able to complete them on the days and in the order they are prescribed. However, because the workouts are so short and the overall volume is so low, you have plenty of leeway to move workouts around without risking too much of a decrease in the quality of your workout. In other words, if you have to stack 3 consecutive hard days of intervals into 1 week, that’s not ideal, but it’s probably better than skipping them because you couldn’t do them on the days they did. were originally planned.


Workload is most accurately expressed in kilojoules, which is the amount of mechanical work you produce during a workout. (How quickly you produce those kilojoules determines your power output.) You can use the terrain to manipulate your workload, which is especially useful for time-pressed athletes who need to do the most they can in 60 to 90 minutes. Riding uphill and straining into hills can significantly increase your overall interval workload, although it can sometimes decrease your overall workout workload (depending on the difference between time spent at higher powers high in ascent and the time spent in descent at much lower powers).

Hill intervals can also be helpful in overcoming a lagging motivation. Sometimes it can be hard to push yourself through peak intensity intervals on flat ground, but a hill adds resistance and a visible challenge, and sometimes it’s that little extra something you need to make your workout more effective.

Of course, hill training is important from a specific point of view. If you want to go faster on the climbs, it is useful to practice on them. But if you live in Kansas or some other pancake flat place, increasing your sustainable lactate threshold power is the number one thing you can do to help you get on a faster ride (when you finally meet one). Riding into the wind can be a useful strategy for flatlanders training for hills; your power and effort level will be high when pushing against significant resistance, which will likely bring your cadence back to the level you would use on a climb (80-85 rpm instead of 90-100).


I’ve long been a proponent of high cadence cycling because it improves your ability to sustain high power efforts longer by pedaling faster in a lighter gear. You can produce 250 watts at 80 RPM or 100 RPM, but your leg muscles will tire faster with a higher speed at 80 RPM than with a speed lower than 100 RPM, even if the output power (wattage) is the same.

Power is a measure of how quickly you can work. Think in terms of moving a pile of 250 bricks in one minute. When you break the job into smaller portions but do it in the same amount of time, each load is lighter and you can move faster. If you double the number of bricks you carry in each charge, you’ll move the stack in half as many charges, but you’ll have to work harder to move each charge, and each trip will take longer.

As an endurance athlete, your training optimizes your muscles’ ability to work continuously and contract frequently. High cadence cycling takes advantage of the adaptations already provided by aerobic training, not only muscular adaptations but also cardiovascular adaptations. Your heart and lungs don’t fatigue the way skeletal muscles do, and maintaining higher cadences helps shift stress from easily fatigued skeletal muscles to the fatigue-resistant cardiovascular system.

Learning to produce a lot of power while pedaling fast is also helpful when it’s time to pick up the pace. You will improve aerobic power, lactate threshold power and VO power2maximum of the intensity of the efforts. Maintaining a higher cadence during efforts will also give you the snap needed to accelerate hard when it’s time to attack, cover an attack, close a gap, or simply get out of the saddle to take a small climb with the group. .

Keep in mind, however, that there is no magic cadence everyone should be aiming for. Rather than aiming for a specific number, I recommend athletes try to increase their normal cruising cadence and climbing cadence by 10% in a year (recognizing that very few cyclists can ride effectively at sustained cadences above at 120 to 125 rpm on flat ground) .

Adapted from The time-pressed cyclist3rd edition, by Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg, courtesy of VeloPress.

The time-pressed cyclist, 3rd ed.

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