How and why to do your intervals outside

Do you struggle to execute intervals or even stick to your endurance zone while riding outside? If so, you’re not alone. As stationary trainers have become ‘smart’ and the roads have gotten busier, cyclists have resolved to stay inside for their workouts more and more. The trainer is a great tool and doing workouts on one can be really effective but something gets lost. This article will discuss why you should be doing more of your workouts outside (you'll make more watts!), why you may be struggling to execute those outside workouts and how to fix it. 

Doing structured workouts on the trainer is great for a bunch of reasons — family schedule, darkness, traffic, etc. — so why do workouts outside anyway? The answer is because your races and your goals are outside!

As coaches, we want to ensure our athletes are ready to meet the demands of their goal events and you can't be prepared to race outside unless you practice there.

Here’s a short list of benefits to training outside:

  • Bike handling and a better understanding of tire pressure
  • Pack riding skills
  • Improved pacing
  • Feedback on your bike fit: handling and aerodynamics 
  • Better tolerance of high and low cadences
  • You can generate higher power
  • You get to be outside
  • It's more fun!

Athletes who do more workouts outside show up to race day better prepared. They are more easily able to stick to a pacing plan or even go with the flow, without blowing up; pacing and tactics are more intuitive, they’re more comfortable on the course and they ride it faster with less effort.

Critically, you can generate more watts outside. And when you make more watts, you get a better training adaptation and get faster. More watts for field tests, more watts for VO2s intervals, more watts for threshold intervals... it's just easier to make more watts outdoors with the wind in your face than when stationary on the trainer.

The sum total of this is better performance, which is what we all want. 

Why targets are harder to hit outdoors — and how to fix that

Many riders struggle to execute a workouts outside. Why is that? First, there’s hills, wind, traffic and all sorts of things that make it harder to ride at an exact wattage. Second, many riders in the ‘Zwift era’ have lost their internal sense of pacing. That is, cyclists have become less aware of the sensations associated with a given zone and have lost track of how hard they’re riding when we introduce external forces or they aren’t staring at a screen displaying their wattage.

We can get over these things, though! And the best athletes can not only stick to z2, for example, over rolling hills and winds blowing every which way, but they can likely also do it without staring at their head unit. 

Related reading:

Performing intervals outside, manually, with Optimize

Cyclocross Intervals - Six-Week Training Plan 

Top tips to improve your workouts outside:

  1. Use your gears! If you live somewhere hilly, make sure your bike has wide-range gearing. With the right gearing you should be able to ride uphill at 150 watts as well as downhill, all relatively close to your preferred cadence. If it gets REALLY steep, maybe you have to get out of the saddle to keep the wattage down but you should probably practice that!
  2. Match your route to the workout. Pick a route with an elevation profile that best fits your intervals. For instance, if you have 3 x 12 minutes of Sweet Spot, try to find a 12-minute hill or a flatish stretch you can do these on. The higher the intensity, the more specific you’ll have to be.
  3. For endurance rides, be prepared to ride uphill slow and downhill FAST. This is likely going to be the opposite of how your group ride paces a route so don’t try to do endurance riding on a group ride.
  4. Work on interoception! Try to associate your breathing, neural-drive and other internal sensations with each zone. Once you establish these sensations, work on being able to control your effort regardless of external forces, i.e. when climbing, you’re fighting gravity, while when descending you’ll have to work harder to stay on the gear.

All this said, be safe out there and have fun!



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