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Road Training

Training Center: Can intensity substitute for training volume?

A reader asks if time-sensitive athletes can substitute high-intensity workouts for high volume.

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Q.Dear BCSM,
Can you explain the difference (physiologically) between high-intensity-interval training and endurance miles? I’ve heard that intervals can increase endurance almost as much as doing long rides. I am very busy and don’t have a ton of training time each week, but still want to hit some local races occasionally. Can I get away with one or two long rides a week if I couple them with two days of intervals? What’s a good program for those of us who only have about 10 hours a week to train? Help!
— Scott

A. Scott,

There have been several research studies (see below for references) performed in the past five years that show similar training responses for individuals engaged in very short workouts consisting of several short maximal sprint efforts (4-6 X 30-second maximum sprints) versus a control group performing several hours of endurance training. One danger in extrapolating the results of many of these studies to an already trained athlete is that many of the studies involved very minimally trained individuals, and very low overall training volume (less than four hours per week for the endurance-trained subjects). I have not seen any studies that use already well trained subjects or higher overall training volume training typical of cyclists, though it is possible that such a study exists.

With respect to the amount of training necessary to be competitive, you might find that lower training volumes than typically recommended can be quite effective. I coach many elite junior and master’s cyclists who only train 6-12 hours per week but are competitive in Colorado and even nationally and internationally. I typically recommend two weekly high-intensity training sessions, typically with just one longer ride per weekend (2 to 4 hours of endurance) — occasionally two longer rides per week. On other shorter endurance days, I do suggest including some very short (5-15 second) maximal sprints every 5-10 minutes to get a better training effect than just riding steady base/endurance miles, possibly for the reasons indicated by the studies below.

— Neal Henderson

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Boulder Center for Sports Medicine was founded by Andrew Pruitt, EdD, PA-C, in 1998. For the past 12 years BCSM has been providing athletes from around the world with the highest possible level of care. BCSM offers a wide range of services, including Orthopedic Clinics, Physical Therapy, Expert 3D Bike Fitting, Running Gait Analysis, Coaching & Training, Nutrition Services, Performance Testing, and more. For more information, visit, or call (303) 544-5700.


Gibala, M.J., McGee, S.L., Garnham, A.P., Howlett, K.F., Snow, R.J., and Hargreaves, M. 2009. Brief intense interval exercise activates AMPK and p38 MAPK signaling and increases the expression of PGC-1α in human skeletal muscle. J. Appl. Physiol. 106: 929-934.

Burgomaster, K.A., Howarth, K.R., Phillips, S.M., Rakobowchuk, M., Macdonald, M.J., McGee, S.L., and Gibala, M.J. 2008. Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. J. Physiol. 586: 151-160.

Gibala, M.J., and McGee, S. 2008. Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: a little pain for a lot of gain? Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev. 36: 58-63.

Gibala, M.J., Little, J.P., van Essen, M., Wilkin, G.P., Burgomaster, K.A., Safdar, A., et al. 2006. Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J. Physiol. 575: 901-911.

Burgomaster, K.A., Hughes, S.C., Heigenhauser, G.J.F., Bradwell, S.N., and Gibala, M.J. 2005. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J. Appl. Physiol. 98: 1985-1990.

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