“Can I replace intervals with hilly rides”?

As cyclists, regardless of the level, be it recreational or competitive, we all share the common desire to feel stronger, fitter and better able to handle the rides we do on a weekly basis. I am asked if simply riding hilly terrains can be a substitute for interval training, which is commonly know to produce a fitter more efficient rider.

Hilly terrain riding will increase the heart rate (exertion level) as you climb, and decrease the heart rate as you descend, in essence, providing an “interval training effect”, which does stimulate an improvement in ones level of fitness, if performed on a regular basis. However, the question is “can it be used to replace traditional interval training”, which is timed periods of high intensity riding, followed by periods of easy lower intensity riding. If one lives in an area where there is limited flat sections of road, then hilly terrain riding is a good substitute for interval training, but to ensure the full “training effect” I would suggest the following riding protocol:

Start your ride with a good 15-20 minutes of light easy cycling, to warm up the body, muscles, tendons and ligaments. After the warm up, then approach each hill at approximately 80% of maximum intensity, knowing that you will be using the downhill portion of the hill to recover and bring the heart rate down. Depending on how frequently the hills come in your riding route, this will determine how hard the workout is, if the hills come close together, then there will be less recovery, hence producing greater benefits aerobically.

Traditional interval training is usually done on flat terrain, and can be performed in many formats. The typically format for a cyclist to start with is, an equal work: rest ratio. For example, ride at 80% of maximum intensity for 1 minute, then follow by 1 minute of easy recovery spinning. As one becomes fitter and more efficient, then the work to rest ratio can be altered to provide a harder workout. Using the same example provided above, the 1 minute of 80% intensity riding, would be followed by only 30 seconds of recovery spinning, producing a 2:1 work to rest ratio.

Regardless of whether you choose traditional interval training or hilly terrain cycling, each provides the cyclists a stimulus to promote higher fitness levels, with a lower heart rate and lower level of perceived exertion.

The added benefit of these two types of training, increases the amount of calories that are burned, and adds variety into the weekly riding schedule.
I suggest mixing up your rides, to prevent staleness and boredom, and also, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results you will see.