Last-Minute PBP Prep: Tabata Intervals

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Paris-Brest-Paris is less than three weeks away. If you are riding in the 1200 km ride, you already have qualified and trained. You will have thought about your equipment and tried any changes that you may want to make.

Your endurance training should be complete by now. Riding long distances between now and PBP will only fatigue you. Arriving on the start line well-rested and eager to ride is a key component to an enjoyable experience in the long ride.

Now the final count-down has begun. What can you do to increase the likelihood of your success and to make your PBP experience more enjoyable? Of course, this advice applies to all big rides, not just PBP…

The answer is simple: Work on your speed!

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Why speed? Speed gives you options. If you are riding with a good group, speed means that you’ll likely be riding below your maximum. It willbe easy to keep up, and you can even do a greater share of the pulls. Speed also allows you to pull ahead of the crowds in PBP, which may allow you to go through the controls without lines. Not only is this more pleasant, but it saves valuable time and allows you to sleep where you want. Speed allows you to slow down or even stop if you want, knowing that the time limit isn’t breathing down your neck. Speed means that you don’t have to ride at your limit unless you choose to. It’s a nice option to have, and it makes a timed ride a much more enjoyable experience.

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Speed training, unlike endurance training, is something that you can accomplish in a relatively short time. It also doesn’t have to fatigue you very much. You get faster by taking your body to the max, and then resting. During the recovery, your body adapts to the new demands you’ve placed on it by getting stronger. And perhaps surprisingly, the speed you can sustain during a long ride is directly related to your top speed during short bursts. So if you increase your top speed, you’ll also increase your speed in a long ride like PBP.

Taking your body to the max is best done in structured intervals. Last year, the trainer at my gym recommended Tabata intervals. This year, my schedule has been tight, and so I’ve incorporated them into my training regimen, and they seem to work exceedingly well. Most of all, they are not all that hard to do, because they are so short!

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Here is how it works: Find a flat road without cross-traffic. After a good warm-up, go as hard as you can – for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds, then repeat. After 8 intervals, rest for a minute or two, then do another set of 8. Repeat until you’ve done three or four sets.

20 seconds hard
10 seconds rest
20 seconds hard
10 seconds rest, etc.

My watch has only a single timer, so I set it to 10 seconds. During the intervals, I ride hard until the second beep, but the rest lasts only one beep. The “intermediate” beep during the interval shows me that only 10 seconds of hard riding remain, and I redouble my efforts.

The beauty of Tabatas is simple: 20 seconds is short enough that you can really go all-out. Just as it starts to get difficult, your watch will beep for the second time, and you get a short reprieve. And four sets of 8 Tabatas take only 15 minutes, so with a 20-minute warm-up and 20-minute cool-down, your training session lasts less than an hour. During that time, you’ll have worked hard for only 15 minutes, but the training effect will be tremendous. If you do three or four set of Tabatas in the next 10 days, it may well take an hour or more off your PBP time. Give it a try!

Next time, I’ll talk about checking your bike before you head to Paris. All the training in the world doesn’t help if your bike breaks down!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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24 Responses to Last-Minute PBP Prep: Tabata Intervals

  1. ORiordan says:

    It sounds a very useful training method given it doesn’t need a lot of time.

    I appreciate this depends on the speeds achieved, but what road distance do you need to complete your four sets of eight assuming that you never need to stop or slow down because of other traffic, junctions or lights?

  2. sarah says:

    I can concur that these are great, from the opposite end of the randonneuring pack from Jan, speed-wise; they will make you faster, period, and you don’t have to be a speed demon to benefit. They are not at all fun to do — if you don’t feel exhausted at the end, you weren’t going hard enough.

    I personally prefer to do them on a trainer/spin bike where I can put all of my attention into pushing hard. (And since I’m on a spin bike, I’m comfortable wearing headphones which means there are a lot of cued tabata podcasts/audio files out there if you don’t want to set up a watch.)

  3. is this something that you would recommend doing right up until the event or is there a point in time where high intensity training should stop?

    • I like to rest the last two weeks before the event. Training during the last week only fatigues you, with no benefit. And being well-rested means you are eager to ride your bike. That is important when you head out for 1200 km. So the extra week of rest seems like a good idea to me.

      • Christophe says:

        What do you mean by “rest” ? No bike at all, or would usual commuting be OK ? I am just finishing my holidays in southern France (in the Perigord region, which I recommend for cycling, it is beautiful with lots of places to visit -castles, villages, prehistoric caves, etc.- , full of tiny roads with little traffic, hilly but not too much, sunny in summer…), I will be back in Paris next Monday for 2 weeks of work before PBP, and I will commute by bike (about 38km/day).
        Maybe I will try some Tabata’s on my way back in the evening next week (there is a perfect place to do this in the Bois the Vincennes), and rest just the last week before PBP.

      • I think commuting is fine… just keep the speed down…

  4. Jon says:

    Jan,
    If you bring along your smart phone and can find a way to keep it from falling on the road, you can use it for timing. There are a lot of Tabata or interval timers available for iphone and Android. I have not used many but settled on a free one that really only does a work time, a rest time and the number of rounds. It is called Clean Timer because it cuts out all but the necessities. Don’t take it as an endorsement because they may be others just as good for you that are also free or have extra options you may want. Take a look in the app store of your choice. Mounting and hearing the phone may be the hard part.

  5. quinnkeogh says:

    I recommend the “Gym Boss” interval timer. It’s a simple, inexpensive, widely variable, interval timer that beeps or vibrates at the desired time periods and desired number of repeats. And available in hot pink…

  6. Chad Knutson says:

    24 all out efforts seems impossible. Surely you have a different definition than me of ‘all out’. If you’re really going ‘all out’, then your power must be dropping precipitously from interval 1 to interval 24. After about 5 20 second efforts like this, i’m gasping for air (probably why I’m not a good racer :)!

    Or are you riding at a pace that you can manage 24 times? Based on the distance you’re traveling in the 4 minute set (2 km), this seems more likely. Your average speed is on the order of 18 mph. Even with the 10 second rest period, this doesn’t sound like a sprint, relax, sprint pace.

  7. I think Tabatas are best done on a trainer. If you do them faithfully and with high motivation, you’ll be near peak HR at the end. Due to the concentration and distraction involved, I don’t feel they are safe to do on the road, even a quiet one with no intersections.

  8. Resty says:

    Always dread doing this workout. At 63yo, limit myself to just two or once a week of this. Otherwise, I overtrain.

  9. George Swain says:

    An hour off my time with 3 or 4 sets of Tabatas? I’m in! After last week’s Rapha Rising Challenge, my hill work is complete. Off to the beach for a family vacation for the next ten days. This will be a perfect fit. See you in Paris!

  10. Gert says:

    Tried it this morning. Did not get my pulse much up though, not that they were not hard, but it felt more like power training. I have on my home trainer in winter tried another interval from running: 30-20-10. 30s jogging, 20s fast running and 10s sprint. On the home trainer I doubled the times due to all the needed changes in resistance and gears between each part, and that worked well. I think I will do that next time with 40s fast and 20s rest to see if I can get the pulse up as well.

  11. Jihad says:

    Tabatas has the ability to make an professional rider!

  12. David Pearce says:

    Do these Tabatas of which you speak require one to ride one’s bike? If so, I better pump up the tires!🙂

  13. Michael says:

    So let me ask… I want to try an SR series at some point.
    I do flat centuries and have no problems doing metrics in my hilly area.
    But I tried a 120k hilly ride (for me) in my area and successfully finished inside the time limit but got whupped up on by the repeating 6-8% hills. I was fried by mile 55. The last 20 miles was really tough, so I cannot imagine mountains and 400ks, etc.
    Help me get some perspective on this.
    So let me ask: in order to handle an average SR series, can any normal person do it? Or do you have to be in shape and mentally driven like a Boston marathoner, or Hawaii Ironman type person? I just cannot fathom the climbs and distances in Randonneuring, though it sounds like fun, not including the reports of vomiting, crying, breaking bones and continuing on, etc…

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