Into the Red Dragon - How to Perform the Ultimate Interval Training Session
Indoor Cycling Instructors often prescribe interval drills as one of the best ways to get fit and lose weight rapidly in their classes for years now.
And years of exercise science research has proven what professional athletes have known since the early 1900's, that interval training works.
I love these drills personally.
And they are a staple of my own training program.
But balance is the key here. This is not something you do every day unless you have been gifted by the Gods with super genetics! And should not be the sole drill in an instructors toolbox.
That said, properly done HITT intervals produce rapid and marked gains in fitness which we can measure by increases in aerobic capacity/VO2Max and they burn large amounts of calories both during and after post session, which of course goes a long way towards burning through unwanted fat stores.
BIG ASS WARNING!: High Intensity does mean high intensity and you should be at an appropriate level of health to take part in them. So make sure you have been cleared by your doctor for high intensity exercise. No kidding! Ok... that said before I lay out the MONSTER you will learn to LOVE/HATE called the RED DRAGON.... let me ask you a serious question if I may?
I'm going to be shockingly honest here!
I don't know! Serious.... I could pull up a bunch of academic articles... but I won't. I will talk about a training PRINCIPLE that I will call "KNOW THYSELF."
Yup. Here is the thing that KILLS me in the gym and the spin studio. People showing up day in day out with no plan, they record no results, plan no progression, do no cross training, over train, under train ... never consult wth an expert...I can go on.
I think you get the point. And the results show...
When you are new and you can do ANYTHING... changes will happen. But that pink cloud only lasts so long. Eventually, your body gets REAL smart FAST and needs to be challenged to keep changing.
We are all so different.
Genetics, age, health situations etc. Inputs and Outputs will vary. And Ideal inputs will vary - based on YOU. The best system of cardiovascular training, therefore probably isn’t the all-or-nothing approach toward which many other people gravitate to.
Don't be lazy.
And don't base your health off of magazine articles or blogs like this! The following drill is a suggested TOOL... you must create a plan and a tool box that works for you!
Why I like this drill in particular is we use benchmarks and metrics to focus us.....
Rather, start to think strategically because most likely it’s a blend of both higher and lower-intensity cardiovascular training that’s tailored to YOUR body and your goals. In the following drill I will outline a BADASS INTERVAL TRAINING session on the bike. Its for only ADVANCED RIDERS. You are warned.
It ROCKs. So much you might vomit!
But is it right for you? Are you healthy enough for this? Have you put in the time to build a base? In the total volume of cycling you are doing in a week what % of it should be at this intensity? You need to make these decisions. Ok... enough banter. Buy a heart rate monitor, learn about zones, ride bikes with power meters... keep reading this blog and others that encourage you to use metrics.... now back to the RED DRAGON!
When you enter the "Red Dragon" you enter a state of “crisis” in your body. Controlled Crises.
This is some high level work... folks...This level of intensity endangers oxygen supply to tissues, increases body temperature, reduces body fluids and fuel stores, and causes tissue damage. So come hydrated and fuelled.
Intense intervals creates endocrine and defense reactions that are similar to those elicited by low blood oxygen, high blood carbon dioxide, acidosis, high body temperature, dehydration, low blood sugar, physical injury and psychological stresses.
Hormonally, your body basically freaks out.
Then it brings out the big guns to deal with the problem. High intensity exercise stresses the body so much that it’s forced to adapt. In short it FREAKING HARD - and it will CHANGE YOUR RIDE. When you learn to do these safely and routinely your GAME WILL never be the same.
This drill involves a few prep steps but is well worth it. Not for newbies, wimps or complainers...
STEP 1: Figure out your PPO. You need a bike with a POWER meter. Yes I know they are all not 100% right in terms of actual watts but you want to use the SAME bike for each test and training session to keep things on par. It's about calibration. First we need to determine our Peak Power Output or PPO if you don't know already.
You will warm up will very little resistance for 10 min (watt's <100)...when you you feel ready psych yourself up (see playlist) and turn up the tension enough to be riding at 100 watts. RPM's are brisk to start maybe 80~90. Now every 30 seconds up the pace/tension to get those watt's up 20 watts.... keep repeating this.... watch the clock and every 30s get those watt's up 20. So you will see 100, 120, 140, 160, etc. You will know you are done when you cannot ride at 65 RPM anymore. SIMPLE. Look at the meter and note the watt's you were riding at at 65 RPM.
Now we have a base line! You are smarter than 95% of Riders....
The number of max watts you produce just before collapsing is your peak power output, or PPO. Example maybe you cannot hold 65 RPM at say 310watts... or some number. Don't worry about the number... my experience in studios is that the bikes are all different... what we want is to calibrate a PPO on that specific bike.
Step 2: Rest for a few days... serious... or nice easy rides because on ....
Step 3: Determine the "DRAGONS BREATH INTERVAL TIME" - ok. It's work time peeps.
In this test we use the SAME bike and again using your power meter, after warm up ride at your PPO over 65 RPM until you can no longer sustain that level of output or drop below 65 RPM. We want to know the amount of time you can hold your PPO watts >65 RPM' = your "DRAGON's BREATH INTERVAL".
For most of us, that's between three and six minutes. So now you've got two key variables... a PPO and a max time you can sustain that that I loving refer to as the DRAGON's BREATH (when you do it you will understand 🙂 )
Step 4: DO MATH! It would be stupid to do intervals at 100% of our "DRAGONS BREATH TIME". At least for me it would because I would not be walking or doing much of anything after. Here is where you need to "Know Thyself."
We can do intervals as a % of this DRAGON BREATH time anywhere from 50% to 85%. I suggest 60% because that works for me. But you can experiment with this. If you are not sure start lower... experiment and build SLOWLY!
So as an example... lets say your PPO was 300 watts and your DRAGONS BREATH timing was 5 min... your work DRAGONS BREATH interval at 50% would be 2:30 holding 300 watts.
Now RECOVERY! We want to double the recovery phase for each interval... but do not be afraid to give yourself more time in the beginning as needed. Some people lean the other way but I think lets just be safe. Personally, if I find myself LIKE SERIOUSLY really struggling to finish a set (say 300 watts for 2:30) I will add an minute to my recovery and see what happens. On the next Dragon Breath if I find myself in the same situation I call it a day.... that's it.
STEP 5: BRING ON THE BADASSERY!!! Ok... its game day. So some ground rules.
WARMUP: A great interval session starts with a great warm up. The warm up potentiates your aerobic systems for the work ahead. I recommend a min 10-minute progressive warm up that increases the intensity from resting every 2 or so minutes to 90% of HR by minute 10.
GAME TIME: High Intensity does mean high intensity and you should be at an appropriate level of fitness/recovery/health to take part in them. So make sure you have been cleared by your doctor for high intensity exercise. That said... if you want to get the benefit from these Dragon HITT's what you put in is what you get out.
WARNING: First of all if you do this right it’s NOT enjoyable for one second, which means the likelihood of you sticking with the program is very slim unless you FOCUS ON YOUR BIG WHY. (I have a kick ass playlist to play as a bonus below) Every single interval is truly an ultra-maximal effort. It feels more like an hour of exercise. So get ready to be a BADASS and BRING IT!
THAT SAID - this is a progressive tool. First time out try one or two sets tops! Don't cowboy this! Aim low... and build. Always make sure you have two days or more recovery between these sorts of workouts. Think long term!!! Like in a year I can do 8 in a row or something absolutely crazy! But in the beginning baby steps! Ok....
Please make sure you do not do this alone! No I am not over reacting. I am a 40+ year old. I always make sure I have someone about for help when I train this hard and I go see me doctor regularly. BE SMART.
TAKE NOTES and SHAKE THINGS UP EVERY 6 weeks - another suggestion would be to move the levers after 6 weeks. Do a new PPO test. Maybe ride intervals at 65% of your Dragon Breath Time? Note results... recovery times. What happens if you shorten recoveries? Lengthen them? Pay attention to your RPM's and where you are generating power. I'll repeat the theme... "start to "Know Thyself". After a few months do a 20 min FTP test... and then again after 6... how are you responding? Keep it Fresh, BADASS and REAL!
Note to Instructors: You can build this into your classes either as a special feature class or integrate the tests as drills for advanced riders.... and then cue them separately when they choose to go "Red Dragon" Ballistic and do this in class ... education is the key. This sort of thing is most likely only going to work for your Riders who really want performance gains.... but I would be curious to hear your experiences!
1. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al.(1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28 (10): 1327–30.
2. McRae G, Payne A, et al. (2012). Extremely low volume, whole-body aerobic-resistance training improves aerobic fitness and muscular endurance in females. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 37(6):1124-31.