The five components of any workout

How intensity, volume, frequency, terrain, and cadence affect your training.

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When you throw your leg over your saddle and head out on the road, you can use the following five variables to vary your training:

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Frequency and repetition
  4. Terrain
  5. Cadence

You can completely change the goal of a workout by changing one of its components. For instance, climbing intervals that are 10 minutes long can target two completely different energy systems if you simply change the cadence. Climbing at a cadence of 70 revolutions per minute (rpm) will tend to push an athlete to his or her climbing lactate threshold, which is slightly higher than the flat-ground lactate threshold due to an increase in muscle recruitment. I prescribe such workouts to develop an athlete’s ability to sustain prolonged climbing efforts in races. But if the same climbing workout is done at a cadence of 50 rpm, the tension applied to the leg muscles increases greatly, and the stress on the cardiovascular system decreases. I use slow cadence climbing efforts to increase muscle fiber recruitment and muscular power development. In this case, varying the cadence of an effort transforms a lactate threshold workout into a neuromuscular workout.


Intensity is a measure of how hard you are working. Because you don’t have the time to ride moderately hard for 2 hours, you’ll have to achieve the necessary training stimulus in 1 hour. The impact of a workout is directly related to the intensity at which you are working, and over the years we have become increasingly precise in the methods we use to measure intensity.

Precision is important for success with many training plans, so I strongly encourage you to use a power meter, or at the very least a heart-rate monitor that records average heart rates for individual intervals.


Volume is the total amount of exercise you’re doing in a single workout, a week of training, a month, a year, or a career. By definition, time-crunched means low volume, at least in terms of the hours you spend training. But there’s another concept here that makes up for some of that reduction in volume, called volume-at-intensity. Classic endurance training programs contain a lot of hours riding at moderate intensity but relatively little time training at higher intensity. A time-crunched training program strips out most of the moderate-intensity volume of those programs but retains—and may even increase—the volume-at-intensity, especially volume-at-high-intensity. In a given week in this type of program, you’re most likely going to spend more time riding at and above your lactate threshold power output than you have during any portion of your previous training programs.

Frequency and Repetition

Frequency is the number of times a workout is performed in a given period of training, whereas repetition is the number of times an exercise is repeated in a single session. Riding 3 interval workouts in a week is frequency; performing 12 intervals in a single workout is repetition.

Frequency and repetition are used to ensure the quality of your training sessions. For a time-crunched cyclist your goal is to accumulate time at high workloads, because that’s the driving force behind the adaptations you’re seeking. PowerIntervals are maximum-intensity intervals, and their effectiveness is based on sustaining your highest possible power output for a given period of time.

Let’s say you have a lactate threshold power of 250 watts and can sustain that output for 20 minutes. You might be able to average 300 watts for 3 minutes during a PowerInterval. There’s no point in trying to complete a 20-minute PowerInterval, because your output will fall so dramatically after the first 3 to 5 minutes that the rest of the effort will no longer be useful as a PowerInterval. It would feel ridiculously hard, and your heart rate would stay elevated, but once your power output drops that effort is no longer addressing the goal of a PowerInterval. On the other hand, if you do seven 3-minute PowerIntervals at 300 watts each, separated by recovery periods, you’ll accumulate 21 minutes at 300 watts. That’s why interval training is so effective for improving performance (and burning calories) compared to exercising at a steady pace or level of effort.

Frequency gives you another way to accumulate workload, by repeating individual interval sessions during a given week, month, or even year. For instance, a week with two PowerInterval workouts like the one just mentioned means 42 minutes at 300 watts. The harder the intervals, the more recovery you need before you’ll be ready to complete another high-quality training session. Fortunately, this works in favor of the time-crunched cyclist, because your relative lack of training time leaves plenty of time for recovery during the week.

This program has 4 workouts per week, and ideally you’ll be able to complete them on the days and in the order they are prescribed. However, because the workouts are so short and the overall volume is so low, you have a lot of latitude to move the workouts around without much risk of diminishing the quality of your training. In other words, if you have to pile 3 hard days of intervals back-to-back in 1 week, that’s not ideal, but it’s probably better than skipping them because you couldn’t do them on the days they were originally planned.


Workload is most accurately expressed as the number of kilojoules—the amount of mechanical work—you produce during a training session. (How rapidly you produce those kilojoules determines your power output.) You can use terrain to manipulate your workload, and this is especially useful for time-crunched athletes, who need to get as much as possible done in 60 to 90 minutes. Riding uphill and performing efforts on hills can significantly increase the overall workload for your intervals, even though it can sometimes decrease the overall workload for the session (depending on the difference between the time spent at higher power outputs going uphill and the time spent going downhill at much lower power outputs).

Intervals on hills can also be useful for overcoming lagging motivation. Sometimes it can be difficult to push yourself through maximum-intensity intervals on flat ground, but a hill adds resistance and a visible challenge, and sometimes that’s the little something extra you need to make your workout more effective.

Of course, training on hills is important from a specificity standpoint. If you want to go faster on climbs, it helps to train on them. But if you live in Kansas or some other pancake-flat location, increasing your sustainable power at lactate threshold is the number-one thing you can do to help you go faster uphill (when you finally encounter one). Riding into the wind can be a useful strategy for flatlanders who are training for hills; your power output and effort level will be high as you push against a significant resistance, which will likely bring your cadence down to the sort of levels you would use on a climb (80 to 85 rpm instead of 90 to 100).


I have long been a proponent of high-cadence cycling because it improves your ability to maintain high-power efforts longer by pedaling faster in a lighter gear. You can produce 250 watts at 80 rpm or 100 rpm, but your leg muscles will fatigue faster riding a bigger gear at 80 rpm than a lower gear at 100 rpm, even though the power output (wattage) is the same.

Power is a measure of how rapidly you can do work. Think in terms of moving a pile of 250 bricks in a minute. When you divide the work into smaller portions but get it done in the same amount of time, each load is lighter and you can move faster. If you double the number of bricks you carry in each load, you’ll move the pile in half as many loads, but you’ll have to work harder to move each load, and each trip will take longer.

As an endurance athlete, your training optimizes your muscles’ ability to work continuously and contract frequently. High-cadence cycling takes advantage of the adaptations already provided by aerobic training—not only muscular adaptations but also cardiovascular ones. Your heart and lungs don’t fatigue the same way skeletal muscles do, and maintaining higher cadences helps shift stress from easily fatigued skeletal muscles to the fatigue-resistant cardiovascular system.

Learning to produce a lot of power while pedaling fast is also helpful when it’s time to accelerate. You’ll improve in aerobic power, power at lactate threshold, and power at VO2max from the intensity of the efforts. Maintaining a higher cadence during the efforts will also give you the snap necessary to accelerate hard when it’s time to attack, cover an attack, bridge a gap, or just lift out of the saddle to get over a small climb with the group.

Keep in mind, however, that there’s no magical cadence everyone should shoot for. Rather than aim for a specific number, I recommend athletes try to increase their normal cruising cadence and climbing cadence by 10 percent in a year (with the understanding that very few cyclists can ride effectively at sustained cadences above 120 to 125 rpm on flat ground).

Adapted from The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 3rd edition, by Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg, with permission of VeloPress.

The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 3rd Ed.