How to do traffic light HIIT

Photo by M Bender, Unsplash

Photo by M Bender, Unsplash


Will Newton looks at a new type of interval training that's turning morning commutes into seriously good workouts…

Want to get faster, leaner or stronger but don’t have the time for loads of multi-hour training rides during the week? Then traffic light HIIT could be the answer.

With no need for a fancy power meter, a fitness watch to time interval blocks, or even a long climb on which to really test yourself, for traffic light HIIT all you need is your bike and the inevitable red and green lights of the city streets.

What is this HIIT of which you speak?
You’ve probably heard of ‘high intensity interval training’, which is much-touted by Instagram fitness impresarios Joe Wicks and Kayla Itsines.

Emily Pointer, London-based personal trainer and spin instructor, gives us the definition in a nutshell. “HIIT is basically working at your max for a short amount of time, then giving yourself less than that time to rest before going all out again.” Crucially, you can apply the same principle to your bike riding as your living room YouTube workouts.

Photo by Aurélien Dockwiller on Unsplash

Photo by Aurélien Dockwiller on Unsplash

Why does HIIT work?
There is a lot of science behind interval training, but to put it quite simply, the method works by raising your heart rate dramatically and forcing your muscles to work with more power and a lot less oxygen – otherwise known as an anaerobic effort.

When coupled with following periods of rest – aerobic efforts – the training technique brings with it a much greater return in muscle strength and cardiovascular gains than many other workout methods.

Multiple intervals in a single session can really build your resistance to entering the dreaded ‘red zone’, as well as extend the amount of time you can stay there, which means you will dramatically improve both racing performance and how hard and how long you can ride at the weekend.

The method boasts massive fitness-boosting benefits, while also saving a whole lot of time, so it’s no wonder many refer to as ‘the Holy Grail of workouts.’

Applying it to cycling
Given the fact that riders can work with maximum intensity, pre-determine the power ranges (measured in watts) and fit a lot of high-value training into a single session, it’s no surprise that the women of the UCI Women's WorldTour spend so much time doing intervals. 

Just because it’s common, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a popular method of training though – it’s mega hard work and can leave you pretty knackered. Rebecca Charlton, presenter, journalist and self-proclaimed Queen of HIIT, describes her first encounter.

“When people were first buzzing about High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) in the journalistic world I was a little sceptical. I’d always integrated intervals into my training as a racer, but I’d never relied on it as an alternative to volume. 

“However, when I became a broadcaster and had to get fit quick for big multi-day rides I’d disappear to a Watt-bike class for an hour and see huge gains." Note: watt bike classes apply the HIIT principle in a class environment while on stationary bike, so they're perfect if you are less confident on roads and/or have the luxury of a centre offering classes near you.

"I’d use every class to push the intensity," continues Rebecca, "and I started to see my fitness rise rapidly. I now swear by HIIT and when I need to sharpen up for a tough ride I always rely on those interval sessions to get me ready.”

Watt's the alternative?
Without a watt bike class near you, you can still enjoy all the benefits of interval training by incorporating Traffic light HIIT into your commute. “The way it works,” says Emily, “is to use the traffic lights as your timer. When the lights turn green, go all-out as fast as you can until the next stop. Or, if it's quite a way between the two, give yourself 40 seconds of flat-out work before resting for 20 seconds. When I say ‘work’, the idea of doing 41 seconds should feel hard.”

Going off at the traffic lights is a very simple and completely free way to structure your interval sessions, but there are a few words of warning (and we mean this, people). No-one wants to be that aggressive idiot cutting people up as they ride to work, and safety is always the number one priority. Back to Rebecca, “If you’re ever doing intervals on the road, please ensure you’re safe and considerate and never sacrifice the safety of yourself or others by putting your head down and losing concentration on the road around you.” 

Heed these words of warning and you could just turn your commute into an awesome fitness session.

More from Rebecca Charlton
More from Emily Pointer
Read how a power meter can up your fitness here

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