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Which will make you faster: Sweet spot or threshold workouts?

Which training session gives the most bang for the buck for time-crunched endurance athletes? We dive in.

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Cyclists are always looking for a way to get faster. Whether it is a new pair of carbon wheels, losing five pounds, or adjusting our carbohydrate intake, we’re always looking for something new.

One of the best ways to get faster is to optimize your training plan. For endurance athletes, “the best training plan” seems to change every year. Back in the day, 6-7 hour endurance rides reigned supreme. Then, the focus switched to interval training. And over the years, as our lives have gotten busier and busier, cyclists are attempting to optimize their training plan in as little time as possible.

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In other words, most modern training focus on getting the biggest bang for your buck. How fit can I get with just a few hours of training per week?

High-intensity interval training

While the style of endurance training has changed over the past few years, there has been a crucial constant: high-intensity interval training. Also known as HIIT, high-intensity interval training helps you make big fitness gains in very little training time. In fact, one study showed that you could maintain a relatively high level of cycling fitness while training just 45 minutes per week.

HIIT training is how you improve your climbing, sprinting, punchiness, and FTP (functional threshold power). In all aspects of road cycling, cyclocross, and track racing, one or two HIIT training sessions per week are the best way to become a faster cyclist.

But then the question becomes, what kind of high-intensity intervals should I do?

Which is better – Sweet spot or threshold workouts?

Sweet spot or threshold training? Depends what you’re working toward. (Photo: Con Chronis/Getty Images)

All HIIT workouts will make you faster (when used in a properly structured training plan), but some are better than others. Two of the most popular types of HIIT sessions are sweet spot and threshold. Both will make you faster, but they will affect your body in very different ways.

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between sweet spot and threshold workouts, and help you determine which type of session is best for you.

Sweet spot training defined

The term “sweet spot” was coined by the founder of FasCat Coaching, Frank Overton, and it refers to 84–97% of your FTP (high Zone 3 and low Zone 4). In the classic five-zone training model used by most cyclists today, sweet spot is a sub-threshold effort just before your FTP, or the maximum average power that you could hold for an hour.

For example, if your FTP is 300w, your sweet spot intervals could be done at 252–291w.

  • FTP * 0.84 = 252
  • FTP * 0.97 = 291

If you’re not using a power meter, you can calculate your sweet spot using either heart rate or RPE (rate of perceived exertion). Sweet spot is 75-85% of your maximum heart rate, or a 6–7 out of 10 on the RPE scale. If you were describing sweet spot to someone who knew nothing about endurance training, you would say that sweet spot is an effort that feels “hard but sustainable.”

Sweet spot intervals are typically longer than threshold intervals, consisting of 12–60 minutes of total work at sweet spot with recovery periods that are 30–50% the length of the work interval.

Benefits of sweet spot training

Sweet spot training stimulates many physiological adaptations including:

  • Increased lactate threshold
  • Increased VO2max
  • Increased plasma volume
  • Increased stroke volume
  • Increased muscle glycogen storage
  • Hypertrophy of slow-twitch muscle fibers

Across the board, these adaptations will make you a faster cyclist. Specifically, sweet spot intervals will improve your long-duration power (5 to 60+ minutes) and resistance to fatigue. But you’ll also be missing out on sprint and anaerobic power gains by only training in your sweet spot – is threshold training the ultimate solution?

Threshold training defined

Threshold training is significantly harder than sweet spot training, despite its power targets being just a few percentage points higher. At 91–105% of your FTP (Zone 4), the threshold zone actually overlaps with the sweet spot zone. Here’s what the threshold zone would be for the same cyclists as described above with a 300w FTP:

  • FTP * 0.91 = 273
  • FTP * 1.05 = 315
  • Threshold zone = 273–315w

The reason that sweet spot and threshold zones overlap is because of the difference between beginners and experienced cyclists. Beginners in high-intensity interval training should start at the bottom of the training zones, and work their way up over time. Only the best-trained athletes can complete HIIT sessions at the upper end of these training zones, so don’t bite off more than you can chew in your first few sessions.

See our example sweet spot and threshold workouts below for more details.

Benefits of Threshold Training 

Threshold training stimulates all the same physiological adaptations that sweet spot training does, plus:

  • Increased neuromuscular power
  • Increased ATP/PCr stores (high energy muscle)
  • Increased anaerobic capacities
  • Hypertrophy of fast-twitch muscle fibers

HOWEVER – and this is a big however – threshold training is significantly harder than sweet spot training.

Despite their relative closeness, threshold training is substantially more damaging to your body and mind. So much so that you cannot fully recover from a threshold workout in less than 24 hours.

Sweet spot vs. threshold

Sweet spot or threshold? They’re both gonna hurt.  (: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

While threshold training has a longer list of benefits, we have to weigh the pros against the cons. There’s a reason that few cyclists include regular threshold workouts in their training plan – threshold intervals are really, really hard.

Even other endurance athletes – skiers, runners, and triathletes – stay away from threshold training. You can stack sweet spot workouts on back-to-back days, whereas you’ll need 2–3 days to recover from a threshold session.

At the end of a well-executed sweet spot session, you should feel fatigued but energized, like you could’ve pushed a little bit harder if you wanted to. In contrast, a threshold session will leave you feeling completely drained, like you were on your limit during the last few minutes of each interval.

How to choose between sweet spot and threshold

Racing ‘cross? Threshold workouts may be best.

When deciding between sweet spot or threshold workouts, it all comes down to this: what type of cyclist are you, and what are you training for?

Sweet spot training is for most road cyclists, those who are limited by their FTP and overall fitness rather than their sprint or punchiness.

Threshold training is for explosive cyclists who want to become even more explosive. This includes crit riders, cyclocrossers, track cyclists, and some time trialists.

As we’ve learned, threshold training has the added benefits of improving both your neuromuscular power and hypertrophy of your fast-twitch muscle fibers. In short races like a 30-minute crit or CX race, explosiveness is everything.

Lastly, remember that becoming a faster cyclist is about more than the type of intervals you do. It’s also about following a structured training plan, having proper rest and recovery, staying injury-free, and improving your bike handling skills as much as your FTP.

So try not to get lost in the numbers, and don’t be afraid to try out both sweet spot and threshold workouts. For many of my athletes, the difference is psychological. Some like the feeling of going fast and thus prefer threshold intervals. While others prefer the meditative state of a 20-minute sweet spot interval.

If you’re thinking about giving it a try, here are some sweet spot and threshold workouts for both beginner cyclists and experienced cyclists. Remember to rest and recover between each session so that you can get the most out of each and every workout.

Example sweet spot and threshold workouts for cyclists

Sweet spot for beginners:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×12 minutes sweet spot (84% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (50% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down

Threshold for beginners:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×8 minutes at threshold (91% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (50% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down

Sweet spot for experienced cyclists:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×20 minutes sweet spot (95% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (50% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down

Threshold for experienced cyclists:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×12 minutes at threshold (100% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (50% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down

Sources

  • “Influence of High-Intensity Interval Training on Adaptations in Well-Trained Cyclists” Coggan Ph.D., Andrew, Allen H, & McGregor S., Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 3rd Ed. Velopress, April 2019.
  • Seiler S., “What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?” Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010 Sep; 5(3):276-91.