Coach Hughes: Training Intensity
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Intelligent Training—Training

Varying Intensity

How to plan and gauge your most beneficial training efforts.

“If you don't plan on investing in the one on one relationship with a certified coach, these 13 pages for $5 are all you really need.”

by John Hughes
© John Hughes 2010, All Rights Reserved

John Hughes, the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach.

The difference between top bike racers and we mortals is that they vary the intensity while we ride at about the same level of effort most of the time. Varying the intensity of workouts is the fastest way to improve.

This doesn’t just mean riding harder, but also riding more slowly. Riding at a slow endurance pace brings about distinct changes in the body that don’t take place with harder riding. In a recent lecture Neal Henderson, Director of Sports Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, stressed the importance of riding at a pace so easy you’re almost embarrassed to be seen on the bike! This kind of riding:

  1. Enhances your ability to burn fat during long rides.
  2. Increases the capacity of your muscles and liver to store carbohydrates.
  3. Improves your respiratory system, bringing more oxygen to the circulatory system.
  4. Boosts the amount of blood your heart pumps per heartbeat to the working muscles.
  5. Brings about increased economy of pedaling, so your pedaling is more efficient.
  6. Increases the blood flow to the skin, which helps keep you cool.
  7. Improves the overall endurance of your cycling muscles.

You can gauge intensity using:

  • Hughes Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
    • Digestion pace like after a big meal
    • Conversation pace talking about the scenery
    • Hill climbing or headwind pace. You can still talk but can’t sing.
    • Sub-barf
    • Eyeballs bulging out
  • 10 point RPE scale
    • 0 = at rest
    • 1 = barely moving
    • 5 = very hard, time trial intensity
    • 10 = maxiumum effort, full sprint sustainable for a few seconds
  • Percent of Lactate Threshold (LT), approximated by average heart rate for a 30 minute time trial.
  • Percent of Functional Threshold Power (FTP), average power sustainable for one hour.

Here’s how to use these different methods for different types of workouts:

Purpose Workout
RPE Hughes
RPE 1 - 10
Heart Rate
as % of LT
Power as
% of FTP
Aid Recovery Recovery Digestion
1 - 2 <75% <55%
Endurance Conversation
2 - 3 76-87% 56-75%
Increase Cruising
Tempo Headwind
3 - 4 88-94% 76-90%
Build Power Sweet Spot Climbing short
hill pace
4-5 93-97% 88-94%
Increase Lactic Acid
Sub-LT Sub-barf 5-6 95-100% 91-100%
Increase Racing
Supra-LT Barf pace 6-7 101-105% 101-105%
Increase VO2 Max VO2 Max Eyeballs-out
8+ >106% >106%

Training Zones—Spreadsheet of training zones by perceived exertion, heart rate and power. Download to calculate your zones.

I’ve written an eArticle about intensity that discusses further:

  1. The importance of varying the intensity, particularly as we age
  2. How to gauge intensity using both perceived exertion and a heart-rate monitor
  3. How to vary the intensity in your workouts depending on:
    • Your type of riding: general fitness, club rider or century and longer cyclist.
    • The time of year: preseason, base period, build period and main season.
  4. Training programs for different goals
  5. Sample workouts
  6. The importance of balancing overload and recovery

One reader, Mike, wrote:

Wow! Hughes's e-article put the majority of training advice most would need into 13 pages for $4 compared to Friel's large $20 book.

His points at the beginning are spot on with his description of how exercise works. Then, he goes on to lay the basis of training with methods and gauging principles. He brings on adaptation then rolls that into easy to follow training plans.

If you don't plan on investing in the one on one relationship with a certified coach, these 13 pages for $4 is all you really need.

The 13 page eArticle Intensity: How to plan and gauge your most beneficial training efforts is available for just $4.99 from