Harder Not Longer: Why HIIT Is Better for Winter Cycling

Simon Kidd

Contributor - Cycling

United Kingdom


Winter in Northern England proves abominably cold and wet, making long outdoor endurance rides an unappealing prospect. The thought of long hours on the turbo trainer is equally as alluring, even with a stock of movies to hand and the heater on full.


Long rides can be bleak - especially in the depth of winter.

Cycling outdoors in the winter can be a miserable experience.



Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to spend long periods of time on the turbo or hours outside in the winter to boost your power and endurance on the bike. We can minimise training time in the cold and enter race season ready to dominate without completely demoralising ourselves in the process. Research has proven you can slash your training time whilst maximising your returns at the same time.


Mitochondrial Revelations in Rats

In 1992, a group of researchers examined the effect of different durations and intensities of exercise on the mitochondrial content of muscle cells in a sample of lab rats.1 For those who need a reminder, mitochondria are small, energy-producing powerhouses found in all of our cells. If you give the mitochondria in your muscle cells the enzymes they need, you produce a greater energy output. In this study, the researchers sought to investigate the most efficient way to facilitate this.


The results present a clear trend of diminishing returns.

Results in the mitochondria of rats on treadmills.

The mitochondrial content in rats tells us a lot about how long we need to be exercising for.


The study demonstrates there isn’t a huge training benefit in labouring for over an hour at a lower intensity, and higher intensity regimes actually produce a higher benefit in a shorter work period. With this in mind, we can understand the recent explosion in popularity for high intensity interval training: the work period is shorter, but the gains are greater.


Are These Findings True for Cycling?

But this study tested rats. How do these findings relate to humans, and cyclists specifcally?


A more recent study in 2006 compared a training group cycling 4-6 max effort intervals for 30 seconds with 4 minute recoveries to a group cycling for 90-120 minutes at 65% of their VO2 max.2 Both groups trained under their prescribed conditions for three sessions a week.


The recorded results echoed the lab rat study significantly. The interval group were found to have performed just as well with half the amount of training time. Both groups increased their average power output and lactate tolerance, and muscle biopsies showed they had a similar amount of increased enzyme activity. More than this, the interval group reduced their time for a calibrated time trial by 10.1%, whilst the endurance group saw an average reduction of just 7.5%.


"Consider shaving some time off of your training this winter and experiment with some shorter, sharper training styles to liven up your programme."


This is hugely significant. It suggests a prescription of 4-6 30 second intervals with 4 minutes recovery on your turbo three times per week will not only produce similar results to a few hours on there, but better ones - with far less time staring at the garage wall.



Less Time Working, Not Less Work

The gains to be made through HIIT training are substantial, but it’s key to note that high intensity intervals are a different kind of mental and physical challenge. Think carefully about the suitability of this type of training for you before you start. If you’re new to cycling, you may be more suited to a slower pace to start off with. Working at 250% of a VO2 max can be a real battle, and you have to dig deep. And if for some strange reason you feel the desire to skip the recovery times, don't. Your body will need the full four minutes to recharge to put in the amount of effort required over the sets.


With that said, the study results speak for themselves. Consider shaving some time off of your training this winter and experiment with some shorter, sharper training styles to liven up your programme. It beats picking icicles off your nose on the road or getting saddle sore on your turbo in the meantime.


More Like This:



1. G.A. Dudley, W.M. Abraham, R.L. Terjung. Influence of exercise intensity and duration on biochemical adaptations in skeletal muscle. Journal of Applied Physiology 1 Oct. 1982.

2. Martin J. Gibala et.al., Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. Journal of Physiology. Sept. 2006


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Graph courtesy of Simon Kidd.

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