Home Triathlon The Sufferfest Ask The Experts: High Intensity Cycling Workouts for Triathletes

Ask The Experts: High Intensity Cycling Workouts for Triathletes

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High-intensity interval training has become an increasingly popular training regimen due to its high cardiovascular effects coupled with low time requirements. What many people may not know is that HIIT is not just for CrossFit athletes or power athletes.

What is HIIT? HIIT is a form of high-intensity cardiovascular training modality that alternates between short periods of anaerobic exercise with short recovery sections. There are no specified requirements of workout interval durations for HIIT sessions, but it is typical that the full session is usually under 30 minutes. Most of the exercises are performed to exhaustion or to a set amount of reps. One of the most notable HIIT sessions is known as Tabata intervals. Made famous by University Professor Izumi Tabata, these sessions involve 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of recovery periods repeated for 4 minutes or 8 sets. These types of sessions leave an athlete exhausted and on the edge of not completing the last rep.

When people hear the term “Ironman,” they may immediately associate this training with long base hours grinding away in the saddle, in the pool, or on the roads.  From Ironman to Sprint distance triathlons, triathletes across the board can benefit from HIIT workouts to improve their strength and cardiovascular systems across the board. Most athletes, even professionals will have limitations on the amount of volume they can complete. Increasing volume alone can lead to an increase in risk for injury and can result in overuse fatigue. HIIT applies a different level of stress to our systems and allows for change to occur to our tissues. These types of workouts can be included throughout all phases of training and varying levels of ability to improve performance in triathletes.

Different event distances in triathlon require different levels of effort. For example, Sprint distance triathlons will require higher levels of intensity consistently throughout the race, this is a full gas effort! Olympic distance events are similar, though twice the distance of a sprint. When you get to the bike it will not just be a steady effort, depending upon terrain, corners, and competition, you will find yourself up and out of the saddle more often than you’d think. This same logic will apply to Half-Ironman and Full Ironman distance. There will be an immediate spike in power when you mount the bike to either create separation from competitors out of the water or to catch a long train of athletes that were only a few seconds ahead of you! Yes, 112-mile cycling distance will highlight more steady efforts across the board, but spikes in power will come at different moments on the course and it is best to be prepared!

This is where HIIT workouts can benefit triathletes across the board, and not just in cycling. The swim portion of any triathlon begins with an initial sprint surge into the water that will spike your heart rate immediately, then add in the fact that your face will be in the water while your body is trying to recover from the effort. If not prepared for this, it can be overwhelming and daunting for any athlete. HIIT intervals also can help your body to learn and adapt to recovering from these hard efforts quicker! The same applies to the bike and the run portions. You will inevitably experience repeated high-intensity efforts throughout your race and your ability to recover and attack the next effort can make your outcome all the better. 

If looking for some cycling high-intensity cycling workouts to perform on your own, try the following MAP/VO2 target intensity micro interval sets to maximize time spent at VO2 max:

  1. 3 sets of 8 x 40 seconds at 110% MAP (Max Aerobic Power) with 20 seconds recovery between efforts. Perform 5-6 minutes of recovery between sets.
  2. 3 sets of 10 x 30 seconds at 110% MAP with 30 seconds recovery between efforts. Perform 5-6 minutes of recovery between sets. 

If using The Sufferfest training app we suggest the following workouts to kick up the power for some high-intensity interval sessions: Attacker, Defender, The Chores, The Bat, Team Scream, Blender, Omnium, and Nine Hammers. All of these sessions will require you to go into VO2 effort and then settle at threshold or just below threshold for varying lengths of time. Some of these workouts will give you a race simulation effort where you will feel on the edge of cracking for a majority of the time, that’s sure to get the heart rate up!


Start training with purpose and proven workouts that help you reach your goals with The Sufferfest Training App.


Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training.  While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships and World Cups on both the road and track.

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