The Sufferfest: Nine Hammers

Video Review: Getting Faster with Hammers

StartConfident Summary

This video by The Sufferfest designed to improve top-end speed quickly became one of my favorites

A mix of Threshold and VO2-max intervals insures that you’ll get through the entire, awful, agonizing journey — building stamina​

Use this — and all Sufferfest videos as part of a weakness-strengthening plan. Random use will get random results

Nine of them, in fact

This will not be a typical Sufferfest video review. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the entire Sufferfest library. With only a couple of exceptions, I own all of their cycling related titles.

What’s going to be different about this review, is that I’m not going to spend the lion’s share of the space talking about how the experience of riding Nine Hammers — their newest at the time of this post — is like being whipped with chains or prodded with sharp sticks. Of course riding any Sufferfest video is going to be quite difficult. They’ve established that reputation, and it’s well earned. And the schtick they’ve got going about repeated visits to Sufferlandria make for an engaging and continuous experience throughout their entire library.

You return to Sufferlandria so frequently not only ’cause it can help you raise your FTP and mix it up with the pack more consistently; you return because they make the otherwise arduous task of working really, really hard on an indoor turbo trainer a heckuvalot of fun. And that is no small accomplishment.

Don't let a jersey flapper drop you

You may be bleeding from the eyes from the effort, but style matters in Sufferlandria.

First things first: Suffer with a Purpose

The sheer difficulty of Sufferfest videos isn’t what makes them valuable. What makes them special, is a combination of intensity, motivational techniques, and immersion that is unlike any other training video product available for competitive cyclists. That said, and this is especially important for beginning bike racers seeking to do more than simply go for rides, but who want to train mindfully with an eye towards real improvement — you can’t simply download a hard disk’s worth of Sufferfest videos, and by riding them sequentially or as you feel like it, find yourself becoming faster. Even the minions of Sufferlandria are aware of this. It’s one of the reasons why The Sufferfest offers an intermediate and advanced training plan. (A note about “out of the box” training plans — if you’re not going to get a live coach, or invest in the self-training provided, say, by Joe Friel in his excellent Training Bible series in order to build a plan that is suited specifically for you and the events you intend to ride, by all means invest in one of The Sufferfest’s plans. Digg Deep did a really, really good job of planning for a measured escalation of intensity and appropriate rest. Good stuff.)

First page of The Sufferfest Intermediate Training Plan

I enjoyed the Intermediate plan so much I was sad when it was over. Now is that twisted, or what?

When conscientiously applied as needed in a well thought out training plan, the Sufferfest videos are excellent medicine. The trick for most beginning cyclists – and even many experienced amateur racers – is knowing when to use each video.

Now, for the Video Review

Nine Hammers is a one hour video workout designed to stress your anaerobic system. (If you don’t know what that is, just hang in there. We’ll cover it.) More advanced cyclists also refer to this as your VO2-max zone. When The Sufferfest provided me an advanced copy of Nine Hammers, I was in my late Base Period of training. If you follow my posts here, you know that Base training is primarily guided by heart rate. Most of your rides should be solidly within Zone Two, and as you get later in the period, you can toss in a tougher interval day. On the day I eventually rode Nine Hammers, I had intended on riding The Sufferfest’s A Very Dark Place, after a week filled with 90-minute to 2-hour Z2 rides, as well as 30-second to 1-minute high cadence and single-leg drills. If you’ve never ridden AVDP, it’s a series of four over threshold-level cruise intervals. I had already completed a sweet spot interval ride earlier in the week, and knew that AVDP would be plenty difficult enough for this stage of training.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]The trick for most beginning cyclists – and even many experienced amateur racers – is knowing when to use each video.[/callout]

I’m not giving you this example of my week’s training diary for any other purpose than to reinforce my opening assumption: videos – especially those from the Sufferfest – are only of value when you inject them into your training at the right time.

So when is the right time to ride Nine Hammers? When you’re well into your Build Phase, have laid a foundation of heart and lung (aerobic) fitness, and are ready to start working on race-specific fitness for your targeted races. If you know that you lack the ability to close down a break, or powerfully initiate one on your own, then anaerobic endurance is probably something you have built into your plan. Nine Hammers is just what the doctor ordered; up to twice a week in your second Build Phase.

Anaerobic efforts are sharply over your lactate threshold, and the only way to increase that ability is to repeatedly stress that system, then allow it proper time to recover — both in-between intervals and in-between workouts. As I explain here, your threshold is the balance point where your muscles are producing only as much lactate as your body can process. When you go significantly over that — read, your muscles are now swimming in a big pool of Sriracha — you force your system to deal with all that extra lactate. This forced-feeding is what Nine Hammers is all about. But it doesn’t do it willy nilly. It’s a very controlled feeding, and that’s good for the racer in you.

Nine Hammers fills a previous gap in The Sufferfest’s library. Prior to this release, I either did anaerobic work on my own, or I would do a modified aforementioned A Very Dark Place. But still, it wasn’t quite right. As much as I enjoyed going toe to toe with Cancellera on the cobbles, each of AVDP’s intervals were 4-minutes, with 4-minutes in between. Very regular. It had a “cruise interval” feel that I actually preferred to do on my time trial bike.

Enter Nine Hammers. Designed by notable coach Neil Anderson of Apex Coaching, you get nine VO2 max intervals that are not only varied (because the residents of Couchlandria who own bikes simply ride the same route over and over again) but they have the perfect balance of recovery in between.

Assuming you have built your zones into your computer recently and correctly, staying true to the recommended intensity levels will absolutely bring you to the edge of what you can tolerate. And that’s the point. When your body is truly “going anaerobic,” sustaining it for over four minutes is something even very well trained athletes have a difficult time doing. In fact, 5-6 minutes is pretty much the limit if you’re at VO2 max. Additionally, during an anaerobic workout session, you generally don’t want any more than 30 total minutes of VO2-level intensity. In Nine Hammers, Coach Henderson mixes VO2 and threshold efforts masterfully. You get a measured brew of 12 minutes at threshold, and 18.5 at VO2. In-between he gives you just the right amount of easy spinning to allow you to catch your breath – or fearfully contemplate what’s coming next.

Hammer Blow by Hammer Blow

New interface

The Sufferfest new on-screen instruction format

When you’re this taxed, there is no try, there is only do. That’s why they keep it simple.

One of the first things about this video that immediately struck me was the new data interface. The level of intensity that you should be holding is extremely clear, and unlike any other Sufferfest video, with maybe the notable exception of Violator, Nine Hammers not only tells you what’s coming next, but it gives you clear visual indication of where you are during each interval. In the last half of the video, you’ll find yourself looking to the upper right-hand corner repeatedly. “I don’t think I can make it,” you’ll say to yourself when you’re halfway through an interval, only to find yourself somehow finding the ability to dig deeper and deeper as you watch that red bar get nearer to the end. It’s really quite brilliant.

What this teaches you is that, in a competitive situation, when you’re pushing into Zone Five and even higher, you can reflect on your 3 to 4 minute efforts in Nine Hammers and realize that you pushed all the way to the end. You begin to get an intimate understanding of what you’re capable of and for how long.

Add a little warm up

The warm up is rather spritely, as you'd hope for a workout this hard. I started with 20 minutes on my own, anyway. Boo-yah.

The warm up is rather spritely, as you’d hope for a workout this hard. I started with 20 minutes on my own, anyway. Boo-yah.

Perhaps it’s because I am an older cyclist, but I find myself needing at least 20 minutes of spirited warm-up before a truly intense interval workout. Additionally, races at my level take just over two hours. I want my training sessions to last as long as I expect my races to last. (This is a big reason why I really enjoy ISLAGIATT and Blender. Hint, hint: Dear Minions — more longer videos, please! Extend the pain beyond the addition of an Extra Shot)

 Nine Hammers, like all Sufferfest videos except Extra Shot, have a little warm-up throw in. But take it from me, doing a little additional spinning ahead of time won’t hurt. It will most likely help.

Racelike attention demanded

Warm-up segment of The Sufferfest's Nine Hammers

You read the numbers right. This is part of the warm-up — where the action changes frequently.

Another bit of brilliance is that, at the beginning especially, despite how hard you’ll be going, you really need to pay attention to the on-screen action. Just like a real race, things change fast, and things change hard. The last thing you will want to do while pushing out so much effort is having to keep your mind engage on changing environmental factors. But that’s exactly what this video demands of you. Ultimately, it’s going to make you a sharper cyclist. One of the negative side effects of training indoors on a turbo trainer, is the head down syndrome. Videos like Nine Hammers will cure that pretty quickly.

Varied Intensity

The Sufferfest. 5th Hammer. Chris Froome.

Sit on Froomie’s wheel for 3 minutes going nearly flat-out — and hope he sits up. (He doesn’t.)

Coach Henderson knows better than most that just because you need repeated intervals on an anaerobic level in order to get proper adaptation, you can’t just go out and do a series of intervals at the same intensity over and over again. The first hammer starts you out at threshold. Essentially, it’s a short time trial. As the on-screen graphics warn you, don’t get cocky. You’ll get through this first one with plenty left in the tank, but it would be foolish to let that success go to your head. It’s a hammer warm-up, that comes at the end of a normal warm-up. In a way, it may be the most merciful thing you’ll ever experience in a Sufferfest video.

From there, you’ll experience intervals that start at threshold and go up. You’ll experience relatively low cadence hill grinds that drag on and will feel reminiscent of one of my favorite Sufferfest videos, Angels. you’ll experience one interval that starts hard and simply stays hard. Ultimately, however, you’ll end up at hammers eight and nine: sharp, relentless, and increasingly intense. At the end of the last interval, I remember my mouth being open like a baby bird’s straining to be fed. I was sucking in oxygen for all I was worth, while trying to maintain good form as Zone 6 screamed at me from my Garmin.

Coming Down the Mountain

Mt. Ventoux descent from The Col Collective

In “Nine Hammers,” even the recovery is intense — visually. Like Mt. Ventoux…

If you have been spending any time online in the cycling media space, you have no doubt already seen some of the beautiful mountain range from The Col Collective. Even if The Sufferfest had not kindly provided this video to me for this review, I was going to purchase it anyway, if for no other reason then the amazing high-definition footage during the recoveries. Mount Ventoux, the Stelvio — they’re inspiring.

Production Values and Music

Doesn't that hamster show up in "Rubber Glove," too?

Doesn’t that hamster show up in “Rubber Glove,” too?

The bulk of my professional career has been in marketing and advertising. I know a thing or two about music production, video production, and the challenges of producing a compelling brand. It’s been exciting to watch the evolution of The Sufferfest’s personality and the current maturity of their video production. Nine Hammers really is one of their best in terms of polish. Meticulously edited, excellently paced, plenty of fun thrown in, (I found myself disappointed when a cyclist or motorcyclist coming up a mountain descent didn’t have a voice bubble attached) and music selections that go from a simple, steady beat at the beginning, to much more powerfully driving by the end. in fact, that is my one and only beef with this video – the opening guitar and drums during the data screen explanation was right up my musical alley. When it switched to more of a hip-hop beat, I was disappointed. But then, if every video was supported by the snarl of Mash & Flutter’s “Carnival of Noise,” I guess even I’d get tired of it.

Final Analysis

If you’re the kind of rider that breaks his or her training season into periods, and has specific weaknesses highlighted for improvement — and VO2 max is one of those areas — Nine Hammers is for you. For your anaerobic intervals it will keep you engaged, challenged, and chuckling — in between gasps. Plug it in, turn it up, keep good form, and watch your top end speed improve — assuming you’re supporting your training with proper strength work, nutrition, and rest. Highly recommended.

 [icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: What’s your favorite Sufferfest video? And why? Tell us, below![/icon_box]

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Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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