HIIT for Cyclists and Runners Builds Endurance, Speed, and Power

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) receives a lot of attention from casual gym-goers to elite athletes.

And with good reason.

HIIT for runners and cyclists works — not only to build speed, power, and VO2max, but to build aerobic endurance and general fitness.

Yes, you can increase your aerobic capacity through really, really hard and short intervals.

For cyclists and runners, though, you have to be careful to do HIIT work in the right dose, otherwise, it’s easy to get overtrained!

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Short, intense HIIT for cyclists and runners

In terms of description, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and regular intervals can be different but mostly in duration and intensity.

What makes the common HIIT different is that your interval is really short (20 to 40 seconds) with a short recovery.

There are differences in adaptations with different intensities, and we’ll talk about that later, but generally, the short, intense intervals produce significant gains.

The main idea of HIIT for cyclists and runners is that we can work harder, for a longer period of time, and at a lower perceived exertion than doing longer intervals.

Alex Hutchinson, a writer who reviews current research in his Sweat Science column in Outside Magazine, wrote about the effectiveness of HIIT for runners and cyclists.

“The key result is that the short-interval group improved mean power in a 20-minute cycling test by 4.7 percent after three weeks of training, while the long-interval group improved by only 1.4 percent. They also had a 3-percent increase in power output at a blood lactate concentration of 4 mmol/L, which is a standard benchmark approximating lactate threshold; the long-interval group had a 3.5-percent decrease. Several other measures also suggested that the short-interval group had gotten fitter while the other group stagnated,” Hutchinson wrote.

Hutchinson did warn that these athletes were already well-trained, so they were more likely to respond to shorter efforts since they were typically already doing the longer efforts.

HIIT for cyclists and runners bring peak form

And this brings us to the crux of the issue with HIIT for runners and cyclists.

In well-trained athletes, HIIT work may bring about fitness and form only because of the intensity.

HIIT seems to work for everyone, but because the adaptations may not last as long.

In other words, doing HIIT for cyclists and runners at a really high intensity is a great way to bring about peak form.

We don’t know as much, though, about whether doing HIIT regularly produces the same kind of fitness.

I’ve tried reducing the intensity of 40/20 intervals, for example, to mimic longer threshold intervals with some success, but the research isn’t there (that I know of) to back this up.

The common interval sessions are 20/10, 30/15, 40/20, and 30/30s. The first number is the interval duration, the second is the recovery, in seconds.

HIIT intervals allow us to do more — and harder — work

In a study into the effectiveness of short versus long intervals, Ronnestad, et.al., showed that interval sessions with 30 seconds on and 15 seconds off were more effective than traditional longer intervals with the same amount of work time.

The difference is that the shorter intervals allow us to work at a higher power output for the same amount of work time, therefore accumulating more time at a higher work level.

“The present study demonstrates that performing the present SI (short interval) protocol, constituted by three series of 9.5 minutes with continuously 30-second work intervals separated by 15-second active recovery periods, induces superior training adaptations compared to performing HIT (high-intensity training) with a more classic LI (long interval) protocol.”

Moreover, the short intervals also teach our aerobic systems to better buffer the waste products that build in our system from overloading.

“Our series of studies showed that performing short intervals compared to long intervals for 2–3 times per week for 3–10 weeks resulted in superior performance adaptations in both well-trained and elite cyclists.”

Look at your perceived exertion and consistency over time

The key to HIIT for cyclists and runners is perceived exertion and staying consistent with the effort.

Just go as hard as you can, attempting to maintain a consistent effort.

Ronnestad recommends using your maximum power/speed over five minutes as a way to gauge your output for the work times.

He suggests you start a little lower than you might expect, then increase effort as you go.

Your power output capacity on any given day changes based on training load, fatigue, daily stress, and so on.

I start with one set of 13x30/15s, then gradually over time build up to three.

I stop HIIT for runners and cyclist intervals when I can’t maintain a similar power output for the 30 seconds.

Trust me, you’ll know when you’re done!

Your adaptation goals matter

In the book, Science and Application of High-Intensity Interval Training, the authors go deep into the the how and why of HIIT.

They break up HIIT for runners and cyclists work into five different kinds of intervals:

  • Long intervals: 2 to 5 minutes with 1 to 3 minutes recovery.
  • Short intervals: 10 to 60 seconds with less than a minute recovery.
  • Short sprints: 3 to 10 seconds with less than 45 seconds recovery.
  • Long sprints: 20 to 30 seconds all-out with 1 to 4 minutes passive rest.
  • Game-based high-intensity interval training (which is not really relevant to cyclists and runners)

While many of the adaptations are similar with different intervals, there are differences depending on how you do the interval and the recovery.

For most cyclists and runners, your goals, time of season, and “weaknesses” will determine the kind of intervals you’ll do.

And do only two or three sessions a week at the most!

If you do more, you’re risking overtraining and injury.

HIIT for cyclists and runners require several decisions

The first is to know your goal for the HIIT for cyclists and runners (aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, or neuromuscular capacity).

What do you primarily need to develop: the capacity to use your aerobic, anaerobic, or your muscular system?

While all three will be stressed in HIIT for runners and cyclists, longer intervals may be more aerobic while shorter intervals may be more anaerobic.

You then decide the type of interval based on duration and intensity.

Finally, you decide the specifics of the interval session. How many sets, what kind of recovery, etc.

Having a coach who knows the current research is helpful in creating a polarized or pyramidal training program that builds performance.

Also make sure you get the necessary protein and carbohydrate recovery fuel after your session.

HIIT is not the only answer…

While HIIT for runners and cyclist sessions may quickly bring form and may bring big adaptations, we aren’t sure how long these adaptations last.

If your goal is build race speed or FTP, however, doing the long intervals of at least 10 minutes at your threshold are your best bet for the long-term training adaptations.

Plus doing lots of volume at a steady pace being able to have a conversation with someone about everything but religion and politics builds massive adaptations.

The issue with HIIT for cyclists and runners and even the threshold intervals is the time for recovery.

The more intense the work, the more recovery you need. And therefore, your volume decreases.

And volume matters.

Slow volume should still make up the majority of your training time, with additional strength training and yoga with the intervals.

Want to know more about what you can achieve?

I help a limited number of cyclists and runners achieve their goals with more strength, endurance, and mobility.

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Paul Warloski is a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, RRCA Running Coach, Training Peaks Level 2 Coach, RYT-200 Yoga Instructor, Certified Personal Trainer



Paul Warloski, Simple Endurance Coaching

I help older cyclists reach their adventure and challenge goals through personalized, holistic training, strength work, and yoga.