Get ready to suffer: Over-unders with a twist

Coach Deena Blacking talks us through one of the Zwift workouts from the Ineos Grenadiers Virtual Training Camp

This article is produced in association with Zwift

It’s barely February, but the road racing season is upon us. It’s time to start tuning up the body and mind for working longer and harder around threshold. In other words, it’s time to get used to suffering.

Interval sessions are often disliked for the pain that they bring, but they also give you focused fitness gains like no other... the question you have to ask yourself is, how badly do you want the gains?

In the third of this series of articles looking at the best structured workouts on Zwift, Coach Deena Blacking of turns our attention to the unpleasant but efficient threshold classic – the over-under workout. This workout type is available in several forms on Zwift but Deena put Rouleur staffer Ben Bathurst to task on one of the more interesting versions – a 40-minute interval session called ‘The Bernal’ from the Ineos Grenadiers Virtual Training Camp.

Before we take a closer look at the workout, here’s a quick reminder for your own workout selection process – every time you are searching for a training session, ask yourself four key questions:

(1) What is the fitness goal?
(2) How much time do you have?
(3) How much variety do you need in a workout to stay motivated?
(4) How difficult do you want it to be?

What is the workout? In detail

An over-under workout is an interval session which keeps you working hard around your functional threshold power (FTP) for reasonably long intervals, either ‘over’ FTP or ‘under’ FTP. ‘The Bernal’ is an excellent over-under workout because it develops your ability to suffer around FTP as well as improving your leg strength with some low cadence work.

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

After a 12-minute warm-up, you are tasked with two 9-minute blocks of over-unders. Each 9-minute block is broken into 3 sets of 2 minutes under and 1 minute over FTP. Each 1 minute is a double whammy – as well as over FTP, it’s also at a lower cadence (75 rpm). Don’t be fooled – 3 x 1 minute might not sound like a lot but over the course of the 9-minute block, but your legs will be saying
otherwise as the pain accumulates. According to Ben: "It was a tough workout, particularly having not done many intervals this year. You certainly need a sweat towel to hand!"

If you choose to try out this workout, you can be guaranteed these three benefits:

  1. Increased ability to sustain threshold efforts – good for racing
  2. High force production – good for climbing, attacks, time trials, and off road
  3. Excellent return on investment for your effort – good if you don’t have the time of a pro

Increased ability to sustain threshold efforts

When you do the Zwift FTP ramp test, it uses your best one-minute power to calculate your theoretical FTP. Theory is one thing – unfortunately, reality is another. You need to spend time working around this uncomfortable zone – your anaerobic threshold – in order to be able to sustain that sort of effort.

Over-under intervals are an excellent method of developing this. They pull and push your body around the limits of its ability, giving you just a little bit of ‘under’ threshold relief when you’re starting to think that the ‘over’ threshold interval is unsustainable. This sort of training is fatiguing and should be saved for a maximum of one or two days in a week when you are feeling fresher. Ben learned this the hard way, having to DNF his first attempt. "I tried to do this workout last week," explained Ben. "But I was at the end of several says of training and it was the day after a night out…I barely made it through the first set!"

High force production – good for climbing, attacks, time trials, and off road

The power that you produce is the product of two key inputs – how hard you press on the pedals (force), and how fast you turn the pedals (cadence). This means that you can often increase your cadence to increase your power output. Easy! Except when it’s not. When you are climbing in cycling, for example, increasing your cadence can only get you so far. This is where having strong legs is crucial to your cycling fitness. Therefore it’s important to ensure that some aspect of your training addresses leg strength. The Bernal gives you exactly this.

The over-geared parts of this work also take place at a high intensity (‘over’ FTP), which means that a larger proportion of your leg muscles will be switched to deliver the power required than if it was at a lower effort level.

Excellent return on investment for your effort – good if you don’t have the time of a pro

The Bernal is a great workout because it incorporates high torque efforts into am already demanding over-under session. the do this, while also working on threshold at the same time. It is only 40 minutes long, but you are pushing the pedals the entire time, and working hard and with specificity for more than half the workout. For anyone who isn’t a pro, time-efficiency needs to be a key consideration in your plans to improve your endurance fitness. In addition, the specific power levels of an over-under interval workout are much easier to hit in the controllable environment of an indoor training session. The additional twist of the low cadence work is the cherry on top of an already excellent workout.

A final pro-tip – stretching and strengthening to avoid knee pain

Low cadence work is effective for developing strong legs but it can also lead to knee pain if your body is not robust enough to tolerate the higher forces. As a conscientious coach, I gave Ben a health warning – "The Bernal has some low cadence work, so only to be undertaken if you (and your knees!) are comfortable with that."

Low cadence work on an indoor stationary trainer can also exacerbate potential knee issues as the position is more static than riding outdoors. For many athletes, knee pain come from a variety of causes. Luckily, it can also be prevented with a complementary strength and conditioning programme.

Make sure you regularly stretch out your quadricep, hips and lower back muscles before and after cycling.

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