What are HiiT workouts and how will they benefit me?

For when you cannot commit to hours in the saddle

This piece has been made in association with Zwift.

HiiT is an acronym for High Intensity Interval Training, and workouts that come under the acronym are shortened (between 30 and 60 minutes) but very hard training sessions that allow the cyclist to become fitter, stronger and faster when they can’t commit to riding for three or more hours every day.

HiiT sessions are hard. As the name alludes to, they involve high intensity where the rider is performing close to, at or above functional threshold power (FTP) for sustained periods of time. 

It can involve repeated sprints lasting as short as 10 to 15 seconds or instead longer blocks of intense riding in the upper training zones for up to 10 minutes. The aim is to be working close to or at anaerobic capacity. 

Recovery time is limited to permit increased intensity efforts, and most spins in the recovery phase while preparing for another intense hit are ridden at a minimum 50% of one’s FTP power

Read more: What is FTP cycling and how do I use it? 

The reason HiiT workouts are so popular is because the athlete sees substantial metabolic and aerobic gains despite not being able to exercise for long periods of time; it’s entirely possible and likely that a rider doing a couple of HiiT sessions a week will become fitter than someone riding at zone two for two to three hours multiple days a week.

(Image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

Even if a rider can afford to hit the lanes and the hills for a few hours at a time every other day, all cyclists should be looking to include at least one HiiT workout in their weekly training as the benefits are proven to be significant to one’s performance.

Because of the nature of the workouts that often see the head looking down in a sprint, Zwift is without doubt the best place to undertake HiiT workouts because of the regulated and safer conditions. 

What type of workouts are there?

Zwift has thousands of workouts available to follow, many of which are tailored for those wanting a high intensity session. 

As you would expect, there is a big range in the types of workouts, with some involving more frequent high-intensity efforts, some efforts more spaced out, and some moments of intensity lasting for longer.

It’s common to find a workout that slowly builds up the intensity for around 10 minutes, rising from 50% to around 70% of one’s FTP, before getting into a block of 5 to 10 intense efforts over the following 15 to 20 minutes. These intense efforts can range anywhere from 10 seconds to 40 seconds. After that, there is a gradual warm down, replicating the same zones as the warm-up.

Additionally, some workouts include intense efforts with a higher intensity recovery rate, meaning that recovery spins in between efforts can demand pedalling at 85% of the rider’s FTP.

Other workouts include gradually increasing the length of the HiIT effort; for example, the first effort will be 15 seconds at 120% of FTP, and then the third will be 25 seconds at the same percentage of FTP. 

(Image by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Of course, not all HiiT sessions are just repeats of 20 seconds on and 40 seconds off; out there on the open road we can be sprinting for a lot longer or battling ourselves up a hill at maximum effort for five or six minutes. This type of riding is replicated on Zwift, with four- or five-minute blocks at 100% of or above FTP.  It’s even possible to find workouts that require the rider to ride multiple blocks of intensity above FTP for five minutes at a time.

Read more: How to become a better sprinter on Zwift

In an era of gravel riding becoming ever more popular, there are workouts specifically designed for those hitting the looser and dustier surfaces, sessions that are intended to replicate seated sprinting without changing gearing; elsewhere, the more traditional form of competition is criterium racing, and some workouts have the cyclist riding at 85% of their FTP for three minutes followed by a gradual, full-out sprint for 40 seconds trying to reach 300% of one’s FTP.

How to get through the pain

Fighting through the pain is a struggle and can be burdensome. When your heart rate is at its upper limit, the mat beneath the bike is slippery with sweat and your clothes are rinsed wet through, the easy solution is to reign in the furious pedalling and quit the session.

But the endorphins released from the HiiT workout, coupled with the knowledge that the workout will make you fitter, means that you just have to keep on pushing. It will be worth the short term pain for undeniable long term gain.

If finding motivation is difficult for a HiiT session, consider joining a group workout; you might not be in the same literal room as your fellow athletes, but the psychological power of knowing you’re in it together can often be the perfect push to keep you stimulated and fighting on.

Cover image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com

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