The Importance of HONESTLY Cueing Intervals with Specific Duration and Effort Levels

Have you ever taken a class in which the instructor said you were going to do a high-intensity interval effort but didn’t tell you how long it would be? As a result, you didn’t know how hard you should push for fear that you wouldn’t last the whole time.

Or even worse, suppose that instructor had said you were going to do an all-out effort (implying a very, very high intensity) for 30 seconds, and then when you got there completely breathless, she said, “Just kidding, keep going another 30 seconds!”

How did you feel? Were you able to give the required effort for that duration? Or did you feel your intensity wane as the seconds ticked on? 

Chances are, you did not have what was needed to continue that effort, if during the first 30 seconds you gave everything you had. Therefore, the second half was not as effective as it could have been. It produced a high level of fatigue without targeting the desired metabolic system properly. It also may have caused you to be unable to perform the next interval at the desired high-intensity level.

If your instructor has a history of “just kidding” every time she asked for hard intervals, you would probably always hold back and therefore rarely attain the desired benefits of the high-intensity efforts. Oh sure, you might burn a few calories and breathe hard, but as you’ve learned here at the Indoor Cycling Association, not all intervals are created equal. Different intensity levels reap different metabolic and physiological rewards and you should target your interval duration and intensity level based on the adaptations you are seeking. (For more, please read the articles in the interval series listed at the end of this article.)

gorgeous-climbing-photo-in-the-trees-with-sunlight-filteringNow, I will admit to occasionally asking my students to continue pushing longer than I originally had asked them, but only when working below threshold. I might do this on a hill, where we are surging through a hard section for a minute or two. When they’re working sub-threshold, they haven’t emptied their tank and will have a little more to give. As a result, they won’t fear pushing a little longer and I will not have betrayed their trust. This mimics an outdoor ride where you turn a corner and you see the hill goes on longer than expected. No problem—it may be hard but you’re still able to put out a little more without dying. These are the real-life situations you can prepare your riders for, whether cycling, running, or other endurance sports.

However, when you are asking for high-intensity efforts above lactate threshold, above FTP, your riders are now on a backward-ticking clock. Depending on how much above threshold you are asking for, riders might only be able to endure that effort for 3 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds, or even just 15 seconds in an all-out explosive power effort. The higher you go, the shorter the duration. Therefore, it is not only unreasonable (and physiologically unwise) to ask for more, but they will also lose any trust they have for you and your coaching.

So now let’s discuss how to prepare your riders for the intervals ahead, how to coach them through the intervals using perceived exertion, how to coach with power in successive intervals (especially for those who may have power meters but don’t perform FTP tests), and what might happen if you don’t cue this way. 

Basic Rule of Thumb When Cueing Intervals

When coaching any kind of intervals, make sure you let your students know the following:

Losing your students’ trust in anything can cross over to other areas of your teaching. The last thing on earth you want is for a student to ponder, “What else might he or she lie about?”

Please read these articles on interval training and metabolic adaptation at various intensities:

A Physiology Primer for Intervals
VO2 Max Intervals: Welcome to the Pain Cave
Lactate Tolerance Intervals: What Are They and How to Coach Them



  1. The most important thing in the relationship between athlete/coach, instructor/student is trust. If the instructor says the interval is 30 sec then it should be 30 sec – no more, no less. Anything different will be detrimental as the student will start to second guess.

  2. Great article, and one of my pet peeves when attending other instructors classes. I thought this was second nature as well.

    1. Author

      my pet peeve as well. You just want to shout out “NOOO! That’s not what you said!”

  3. Guilty, but only a little bit. Yes, I do “cheat” the time occasionally but only when I see the students not trying. This is a very rare occurrence.

  4. thanks for the article!

  5. Author

    It’s surprising to those of us to whom this is second nature, but I have heard stories about instructors who not only do not tell the number, intensity (except a nebulous “Gooooooooo”!) and duration, but who also trick the students (or try to ) into going longer than they originally asked for.

    An outdoor cyclist might recognize this need, but it might not be as apparent to a non-cyclist. I think most cyclists have experienced both of the following:
    – I wish I knew that hill was going to be that long and steep, I wouldn’t have gone so hard at the beginning. I had to get off and walk part way up.
    – If only I had known that hill was only a half mile long I would have gone harder/faster. I was afraid it was like the previous hill which kicked my butt so I went really easy!

    This is a great lesson for new instructors who might not have been taught this in their certs.

  6. Wait – doesn’t everyone do this? Well, everyone who keeps it real, at any rate!

    I would go further and say that one of the most important factors in my classes is that my riders always know what we’re doing, why, for how long, at what intensity and what (if any) recovery is on the way. This applies to endurance efforts, strength intervals, rolling hills, etc.

    It’s something that I learned after my very first class, when a rider came up to me and said “great class but, if I’d known there were only five minutes left, I’d have worked harder at the end”. That’s when I understood that, just as on the road, if you don’t know how far you’ve got to ride (or run), then you’ll hold back on your effort…just in case. And certainly never ever ever be one of those instructors who “extend” the time – I always hated those instructors and would sit up on principle!

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