The 5 min interval, more accurately the 5 min effort - the interval refers to the rest period – has currency in the cycling world with good reason. They are a mental and physical journey as those familiar with the experience will attest to. Painful, grim, soul sucking, the list of descriptors is endless and yes, all true, but oh so very useful.
To put them in context, we’re talking about bloody hard multiple over FTP kick ass high Zone 4/low Zone 5 efforts. Individually they represent the kick you find at the end of a race or when trying to establish or get across to a break. In time trial parlance, they can be used in multiples for training – 4 of them if you’re superhuman and can break 20 mins for 10 mile TT, 6 if you’re a beginner trying to hold 20 mph for 30 mins or 5 if you’re a mid-marking improver looking to get under 25 mins. More broadly, they are used to induce an element of overload and, applied judiciously, are effective in increasing FTP.
So, shall we see if we can sneak up behind one, tap it on the back of the head and get in on the bench for a figurative dissection?
The first minute
What’s happening inside – if you’re reasonably fit, you carry enough ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) in your muscles to produce something like a 45 second to 1 min hard effort meaning you’re get the first part of this for ‘free’. Flat out, your ATP will go in less than 10 seconds but at a (high Z4, low Z5 power) or 10 mile TT pace, you’re going to be able to eek it out a bit longer. The ATP systems is handy from an evolutionary perspective when you’re escaping a sabre tooth tiger attack. You won’t be able to outrun the tiger but you might be quicker than your hunter gatherer mate who’s overdone it on the nuts and berries.
How it feels – cadence up, power up, relaxed but pumping legs. Heart rate low but starting to react to the effort. Breathing easy, no real noticeable strain in the legs.
What you’re thinking – this is a piece of piss, I’ve probably undercut the power target I was aiming for by 30w or more. There are a few pro teams out there who are going to be mighty sorry they missed out on signing me I can tell you. Sub 20 minutes for a club 10 this season and no mistake. I’m a Legend me.
1 minute – 2 mins 30 seconds
What’s happening inside – you’ve burned through most of your immediately available ATP and you’re having to synthesise it for which you need oxygen and as much of it as you can get. Your body doesn’t know what you’re doing because it can’t see a tiger but it will put up with it because your mind is telling you it’s important and it probably knows best.
How it feels – BIIIIGGGG intake of breath after 45 secs to 1 minute, rapidly rising heart rate, legs slowing a little under the resistance, noticeable strain in the legs.
What you’re thinking – Right, let’s just try to hold the original power target. I can do this; I know it’s going to be tough but I CAN and WILL push through this. I’ll he halfway through in a minute. Oh Christ, I’m only halfway through but I'll hang on.
2 mins 30 secs to 4 mins
What’s happening inside – heart rate well over what is sustainable for anything more than an emergency, your synthesising ATP as fast as you possible can and your body is pulling in oxygen and using water like it’s going out of fashion. Your blood lactate levels are rising rapidly and you’re unable to clear it as fast as you’re making it so you’re over your lactate threshold. Somebody will have told you that lactate makes your legs burn, slows you down and gives you that dead feeling. It doesn’t, but that what’s people say sometimes.
How it feels – Hard to know as your teeth are now biting down hard on the handlebars. Your breathing is noisy and laboured and you’re looking for new holes to breathe through. Heart rate revving like an F1 car but starting to drift and you sound like a Astramax diesel van with 250,000 miles on the clock.
What you’re thinking – This is unpleasantly difficult and you’d very much like to stop. However, you’ve invested in getting this far and even though your cadence and power is dropping, you're not going to blow it by giving in now. You're thinking you might have to knock this down a gear and pick the cadence up – this might Sting a bit.
4 mins – 5 mins
What’s happening inside – your systems are becoming overloaded and staring to get fatigued. You’ll be running on fumes and your engine management chip (your mind) is going to be balancing the need to achieve your objective of finishing this effort against the significant physical cost. It will probably be breaking down fibres in your muscles and stretching your aerobic capacity to the maximum. Arguably, this is the most important part of the effort if you’re striving for performance improvements.
What you’re thinking - More hallucination than thinking. Superman zooms past. His warp speed passage has instigated time going backwards. You are now sitting in HG Wells time machine as the world ages around you, the sun sets a few thousand times and you’re surrounded by a heard of triceratops. A diplodocus moos plaintively in the background whilst munching on giant fauna. You see God.
How it feels – Like the Ninth Circle on Dante’s Hell. Your body is screaming at you to stop and but you’re telling it you don’t want to yet. Muscle pain, gasping for breath, sweating profusely on to your headset. A sense of elation at the completion of the effort is marred by an instantaneous sense of dread at the approach of the next one. Time accelerates forward as you sling shot around the moon…
Rich Smith loves prescribing sessions that include 5 min efforts - his riders have invented new words for their coach. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun
Ride – Yep, there’s a pattern developing here isn’t there? Assuming we’re heading for a normal season (racing from when the clocks go forwards in late March), December is a good time to continue building endurance with a focus on volume rather than intensity but introducing some polarised sessions could be an idea. January is likely to see the start of gradual reduction of volume and an increase in intensity so reminding the body of what this feels like pre-Christmas may make January a little more palatable.
'...Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, pissed up drivers psychopathically inclined…’ as Cliff once sang.
A straw poll of some club mates indicates many have taken increasingly to Zwift or similar indoor tortures. Of course, much of this is enforced by work patterns meaning mid-week day light road rides are out but also weekends can become problematical because of weather that, in meteorological terms, is mostly shit. Just a word of caution, 2 hours on the turbo is physiologically (and psychologically) different from 2 hours on the road. I try not to prescribe anything over an hour on the turbo but this does mean dialling up the intensity sometimes. Make sure you build some balance in, nothing but virtual riding is a bit like eating a pot of strawberry jam: the first spoonful is nice but it gets sickly pretty quickly when you see how much more you’ve got to eat. Spring is still a long way off.
Weight – Tricky. Personally I only have to look at a mince pie (with cream, obvs) to put weight on. At this time of year and at a time of Covid-19 induced isolation, stress and boredom, those of us with a propensity to seek refuge in the biscuit barrel are at risk of putting on a bit of timber. Weight is such a personal thing and it’s essential you find a balance that suits you as a person and as an athlete. My own experience is that in the past I’ve often relied on shedding excess weight post-Christmas meaning sometimes my training is compromised by having one eye on calorie deficit and the other on performance. They are not always compatible.
Weight is a minefield. There are lots unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders out there and all of us have our own relationship (good or bad) with food. The assumption that to be great on a bike means being rake-thin is wrong but it’s an unavoidable truth that too much excess chub is unhealthy and will slow you down – we need to find a healthy balance.
Head – Remember those goals you set a few weeks back? The targets that will map out what you’d like to achieve next season? Give them a shake and see if they’re still appropriate and will motivate you to press on purposefully with your training during the winter months. If they don’t fulfil this critical role, adjust them so they do. Training is most effective when it’s performed with meaningful intent and a clear-eyed view of relevant goals is a vital part of this.
'...all I want for Christmas is some new front forks, new front forks, new front forks...' as Spike Jones & his City Slickers once sang.
Variety - If you have been training during autumn, give yourself a pat on the back because you’re going to be much better prepared for 2021 that those that haven’t. If you’ve careful built up a sustainable, durable base at the right level you’re going to be able to push on harder and faster in the new year. If things are starting to feel a bit ‘samey’ go for a spin on the mountain bike, walk, rest, mix things up a little bit. You can afford to do this because you’ve built up resilience in your fitness and a week off the bike is likely to consolidate, not damage, those hard earned gains.
Reflect – Cycling is a rich, complex and involved sport, it’s one of the reasons why it's so enriching to be involved in but it risks becoming obsessive. It’s easy to get bogged down in numbers, FTPs, CdAs, TSS etc, sometimes it’s important for our broader relationships and our own mental health to ensure our beloved sport has it’s proper place in our life and is not overstepping the boundaries.
It’s important but it’s not that important - we ride for fun, nobody is forcing us to do this.
'Ooooooo baby baby, ooo baby BABY...' Hang on, that's Salt and Pepper...
Rich Smith's favourite Christmas song is Greg Lake's 'I believe in Father Christmas'. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...