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Workout of the Month: Coach Connor’s 5×5-Minute Intervals

Coach Connor details the best practices for 5x5-minute intervals, from their physiological benefits to how and why you should do them. INCLUDES downloadable workout files.

One of Coach Connor’s favorite workouts, 5×5-minute intervals take commitment and good execution to reap the greatest rewards, but it is a well-researched interval that consistently demonstrates benefits.

In Trevor’s preferred prescription, the short 1-minute recovery period allows you to get the gains of a 25-minute effort but at a higher quality.

This workout is great for raising your threshold power, but remember that it takes time to see improvement in this energy system. Expect to spend at least 8 to 10 weeks at it.

The workout file downloads include .ZWO for Zwift, .ERG for TrainerRoad and others, and .MRC for TrainerRoad, Computrainer, and any others.

Video Transcript

Trevor Connor 00:00
We get asked all the time about my favorite base season interval five by five minute threshold intervals. I love these. But we get asked how do you execute them? What should they look like? What are the benefits of these. So today, we’re going to take that deep dive into five by fives, show you how to do them, why you should do them. And we’ll even give you the fit file so that you could download this to your computer and do them yourself.

Welcome to Fast Talk Laboratories, your source for the science of endurance performance.

Intro to 5×5 Intervals

Trevor Connor 00:44
Welcome, today I’m going to be teaching you about one of my favorite workouts, which is five by five minute intervals. This is a workout that was actually given to me by one of my first coaches houzhang humuri. It’s something I have been doing ever since and have given to almost every one of my athletes. Some of the reasons for doing these intervals. There’s actually a lot of research behind these and consistently, when you look at the research, it shows a lot of benefits. So this is an older study now from 2004. But actually a study that I love that looked at all the different types of intervals or studies that have been done in intervals at the time, and showed how they matched up. And you can see here, these top two studies were the 5 by 5 minute intervals, and you were seeing 8.3% improvement 12.4% improvement. Compare that to some of the other interval types where you’re seeing at the top end four to six. This is kind of what you’re seeing what these intervals a lot of gains, it does take a fair amount of time to see those gains. So it’s a great interval to do in the base season. But it’s great for raising that sustainable power. Now, what’s really nice about these intervals is a key element is one minute recoveries. So basically what you are getting is the equivalent of a 25 minute effort, it’s just not long enough of recovery, that your body isn’t still in that revved up aerobic system is really going mode. But those one minute recoveries allow you to do the five minute intervals, harder with a little more quality than you would do just a straight 25 minute effort. So the execution, we will actually put this fit file up in the website, so you can download it, I have a warm up that involves some little Cadence work. But I won’t cover that. Here’s the interval. So it’s a five minute effort, you can see it’s a pretty tight range that you want to work in, then a one minute recovery than a five minute effort. Some of the keys here are that the wattage needs to be consistent across all five intervals. So one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to do the first one really hard, and then the power drops down. You really want it to be steady. I like to set a heart rate limit for my athletes. So I couldn’t do this in training peaks. But if your threshold heart rate, if we say it’s at 172. I tell my athletes, when you do these intervals, you can’t go over 173. For me, that’s really important. Otherwise, you start getting into the wrong systems. So very important when you’re doing these, even though this is prescribed by power, look at power, look at heart rate, look at rate of perceived exertion, you have to use all of those to actually execute the intervals, right and I’ll show you a few examples in just a minute. Couple other notes about these cadence I like when I have my athletes do these in the base season on a trainer to do them around 100 RPM, as they’re getting closer to the season, if they’re they’re doing these in, say, February, March, and races are coming up. That’s where I might say do these at more of a race cadence. Finally, last note, it takes a while to see the gains from these. So we’re looking at eight to 14 weeks, I would say you’re gonna see pretty significant gains after eight weeks, if you want to get the full gains out of these intervals. That’s where you need the full 12-14 weeks. And you should be doing it two times most weeks. So here’s an example of a really good execution. And I’ll explain all this. So here you can see this athletes power, they were in erg mode, so you can see that power is really steady. But notice the power is the same across all the intervals. That’s really important. It’s got to stay steady. But that’s not enough on its own. The other thing that we’re going to look at here is heart rate. And you can see this dotted red line is their threshold heart rate. And it’s only in that last interval where you see them even just going a little bit over that. Otherwise these three intervals they’re pretty much on their threshold. Notice these two haven’t touched threshold yet. Now I do know some coaches that want to see the athlete get up to threshold in that first interval. I’m okay saying no if it’s a little bit below, that’s alright. Because when you do those first two intervals, you still have a fairly strong anaerobic contribution. Aerobic system hasn’t fully ramped up. So heart rate isn’t going to fully respond. But if you try to go hard to get that heart rate up, you’re actually going to go too hard, your power is going to be up there. And then you’re not going to have those consistent intervals. So I prefer heart rates a little below threshold, the first two, and then this is where you’re actually getting that quality work. So this line here is the athletes walk prime.

Example of not great execution

Trevor Connor 05:40
and that’s that capacity, how much basically anaerobic energy that they have in the tank. Since this is an aerobic workout, you notice in this execution, that is a flatline, there’s no drop whatsoever. That’s what we want. Here’s an example of not great execution, you can see this athlete wasn’t very steady, they certainly weren’t in erg mode. But the more important thing to notice is that heart rates getting up above threshold, so they kind of ignored my rule, they’re not recovering very well. So heart rate didn’t come down, notice these two intervals getting way above threshold. And this interval here, not very steady, they have a middle part where they’re not going very hard, and then notice they completely tanked on that fifth interval. That’s not what we want. That’s not very good execution. But I’ll show you one that’s even worse. Here’s a example of what I see athletes do a lot that we don’t want to do. Now, if you just look at heart rate, that heart rate actually looks okay, because it got the heart rate up around threshold each interval. But notice how they did it the first interval, super hard, I color coded this, you can see they are way above threshold. second interval, they managed to get up to threshold, but they kind of tank towards the end of it. And by those last two, this is kind of a sweet spot effort. And they didn’t even do a fifth one. So if you remember I said those last three are the really high quality ones. Not in this case, basically, they did a giant anaerobic effort blew up. And then you have really low quality intervals for the remainder and over here, you can see that’s not the watt prime line that we want to see they completely tanked their watt prime. And basically, were just trying to get some energy back in those those final intervals. So this is not the way to do it. Another nice thing about these intervals is they can give a bit of an indicator of where your fitness is at. So these were both executed correctly. no issues with the execution these intervals. But notice you see a very different response in the heart rate between the two. This one up here, you see, heart rate comes up very quickly each interval after each interval, it drops down pretty far. And notice for most of the interval, that’s just a flat line each time, that is an athlete who has a really good aerobics engine, they are doing these intervals, mostly aerobically. This athlete here, notice, it’s a slower rise, it doesn’t really plateau here it plateaus a little bit more later on that one, you get a little flat, but notice again, very slow rise there, really slow rise here. That’s an indicator their aerobics system is not as well developed as this athlete up here. And they have a little more of an anaerobic contribution to the to the work here. So early on in the intervals aerobic systems not kicking in as well. anaerobic metabolism is kicking in to help produce that power. So you see that slower rise, that slower response in the heart rate. So for this athlete, this is a really good workout for them to do because it’s going to build that aerobic system, which is a little weaker for them. Finally, I get asked this a lot. Should you be doing this with erg mode if you’re on a trainer or should you be controlling your own power? I’m actually okay with both I generally, early in the base season, when I have my athletes start out, I tell them put in erg mode, let it control the power, just get the job done go home, as they get closer to the season, to the race season. So if they’re doing say a 12 week block of this, as we get into those last three weeks, I might tell them stop using erg mode and actually tell them to get outside so they can practice controlling the pace themselves. But in either case, whether it’s an erg mode, or whether you’re controlling the pace yourself, you still have to make sure execution is correct. So here’s an athlete that was controlling their own power. Notice that power is still very steady. We still have that nice heart rate profile. That’s what we’re looking for. I don’t want to see the power all over the place. But likewise, here’s an athlete that was doing it in erg mode. Remember I said you have to use RPE, heart rate and power. All three of those to gauge how Execute the intervals correctly. So you could see with these first two intervals heart rate didn’t even come close to that threshold line. So this athlete could have said, well, you told me to do it at x wattage. And I did that wattage and I didn’t get the heart rate response. But I did what you told me. No, that’s not actually an excuse, they have to look at this and say, I think I’m on a good day, normally I would do at this power, but it seems like my body’s really handling something a little harder today. So notice, they bumped up the power in that third interval, and got the heart rate up closer to where it should be.

Should I use ERG mode?

Trevor Connor 10:34
So even if your using erg mode, you have to look at that and say, is this hard enough today, you can’t just say, I do these 280 watts every week, I’m going to do these 280 watts, I don’t care about how the rest of my body responds, some days 280 is going to be right, some days 295 might be right, some days 275 might be right. So even in erg mode, you have to watch that heart rate response, you have to listen to RPE, and then make that choice of Do I need to bump this up? Or do I need to bring it down? So few final notes and these types of intervals. They’re really good about raising your sustainable power. But you then have to learn how to use that power. So I had an athlete who was a time trialist, he did these he got his threshold power up 50 watts, but then immediately tried jumping into a 40k tt and blew up, because these still are short intervals. So if you are doing this to raise your threshold and then perform well at time trials, I will always have athletes after they finished this block of the five by fives, go and do some 20 minute time trails, some 30 minute time trials learn how to take that power and extend it over time. So the idea is, let’s say you finished doing that block of five by fives, you are doing them at 330- 340 watts, I’m now going to have the athlete go out and try to start doing longer time trials at that sort of wattage. As I said before, they’re good base season interval because a they’re not too hard, your tongue is not going to be hanging out when you do these. It shouldn’t be, maybe on that final interval but most of the time you should be going I could go a little bit harder, particularly if you use that heart rate limit which I like and the other good reason why this is a good base season interval is because it takes a long time to see those gains. This isn’t something you can do for three weeks and see benefits and finally as I mentioned we’ll post the fit file on the website so if you want to download this load it into your trainer and do it yourself or put it on your your bike computer, you’ll have that file. So now you know how to execute five by five minute intervals. Tell us what you think. Go to share your experience with these intervals. Post a screenshot. Hit us with your questions. We really want to hear what you think.