Breaking Through a Training Plateau – Intensity

By Jiri Kaloc

Training intensity has a big impact on how fast you improve as a cyclist. If you hit a plateau and can’t seem to improve, maybe it’s time to look at how you use intensity in your training. Do you spend enough time at the threshold and are you doing enough speed work? Let’s take a look at how to improve your time concerning intensity.

In the previous article, we looked at volume and how adding an hour or two to your weekly training schedule can be the cure to a plateau. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of adding more cycling time. This is exactly where improving how you use intensity can help. Let’s look at how to increase the lactate threshold and VO2 max intervals.

Increase time at the threshold by 25%

Threshold power is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance – that’s where most of your focus should be. The average cycling enthusiast spends around 10% of their training time at this intensity. If we continue with the example of 8 hours of riding per week, that’s about 48 minutes per week. Increasing that by 25% means adding only 12 minutes to make it 1 hour in total.

Road cycling
Working on the lactate threshold is especially important for cyclists focusing on shorter races where it is important to sustain high intensity for extended periods of time. © Profimedia, Alamy

Sweet-spot training

To get the best results, this extra time at the threshold should be consecutive. It might seem easy adding just 12 minutes per week but proper threshold work can be very taxing in terms of recovery. That’s where the sweet-spot training can help.

Sweet-spot training gives you most of the benefits of pure threshold work with a lot less fatigue, so you can do more in a week or month. Sweet spot means extended intervals ranging from 15-60 minutes of riding at about 90% of your lactate threshold. You can implement these by doing 2 x 20-minute intervals, 3 x 15 minutes or 4 x 15 minutes. An hour of this type of training in a single workout is a good goal to work towards.

Sweet-spot training is especially valuable in the early base-building phase of training. When you do it for a few months, it’s good to progress to true threshold work (around 100% of your lactate threshold) towards the late stages of base building. Here are two examples of threshold training to get you inspired.

Road cyclists
The main point of threshold workouts is to improve the maximum sustainable 1-hour steady-state power, or the functional threshold power (FTP). © Profimedia

Focus on speed intervals

Another way to include more intensity is to include speed intervals. A typical interval set might look something like this: sprint for 30 seconds, recover for 30 seconds, repeat for 6 minutes. This means you should initiate it after being warm and cruising at an easy speed for you, using moderate gear. The 30-second recovery in between sprints doesn’t mean stopping. You should gradually slow back down to an easy cruising speed. For moderately fit cyclists, it’s a good target to do two of these sets in one ride with at least 5 minutes of easy spinning in between. Advanced riders can do 3 or 4 sets.

With volume and intensity sorted out, there’s only one thing that could be standing in the way of your improvement – and that’s recovery.