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How to build cycling fitness in limited time

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health and fitness 02 Jun 2024 By Travis Reill

Every year, the cycle repeats. Summer fades into fall, and I find myself in the prime of my cycling fitness. It's a time when my endurance seems boundless, and I effortlessly conquer the toughest of trails. I'm a regular at local mountain biking trailheads, pedaling five to six times a week, often racking up an impressive 60-70 miles. And the best part? I wake up the next day, ready to do it again.

Then winter hits. The days are shorter and much, much colder. Time for riding my bike seems non-existent, aside from a day here or there, and sometimes on a weekend. If I’m lucky, I can ride on both Saturday and Sunday as long as the weather doesn’t change my plans. While I don’t live so far north that I’m snowed in for several months out of the year, I do get several weeks of snow scattered throughout the winter season. The arrival of the first snow typically indicates that the higher elevation trails in my area will be closed for the season unless I want to invest in a fat tire bike, which I’ve considered. What’s left is lower elevation trails and fewer of them. Riding the same handful of trails for months and months becomes mundane and is another reason my cycling time is drastically cut during the winter season.

cycling in winter

But, finally, that big thaw comes, and flowers begin peaking their heads out. The snow melts, the forest is overwhelmingly green, and the trails are once again rideable. Spring has arrived, and while I am mentally ready to pick up from where I left off at the end of last season, my body has tremendous hurdles to overcome as it attempts to catch back up to where I once was. All the while, I am worried that as each year goes by, I will be unable to perform at the same pace I did the previous year. Plus, it isn’t fun to spend the first few months of every season trying to play “catch up” and being left behind by those who apparently didn’t face the same winter predicament as me.

This reality was all too apparent this year as I’ve been able to go on a few rides with another writer and editor I work with while he was visiting the country. He and I have a few similarities, but as we’ve been able to get out on a few rides together, I’ve found that our similarities end rather quickly. For starters, he’s about ten years younger than I am and without a wife and kids. He is also a tremendously faster and more aggressive mountain biker than I am, which I quickly realized as I watched him disappear down the first trail we rode together. I also found that he not only lives in a place with weather that allows him to ride his bike year-round but also has a regular fitness regimen off the bike. This was all too apparent on one particular ride as he rode up and down the trail, passing me several times while I was climbing, so he could bed in the disc brakes on a new mountain bike he was testing. It was both awe-inspiring and demoralizing at the same time.

The harsh reality is that aside from the several times a week I get out and ride my bike, I need to do something off the bike to improve my overall cycling performance. I am not lifting, and I am certainly not riding a stationary bike or doing interval training. If I were, perhaps I wouldn’t struggle once spring rolled around. Plus, I am sure I would not only maintain endurance, but I imagine I would also see an overall improvement in cycling. And, as I get older, I know that regular training is a habit I will need to start practicing if I want to keep cycling into middle age.

The answer may be more straightforward than I think. Yes, life is busy. My life as a dad and husband is significantly busier than that of my friend and co-worker. We both have work that we must focus on, and this is true, but outside of that, he can focus the entirety of his time cycling if he chooses. For the rest of us, the time we have to ride can feel limited, so thinking about fitting extra time for a training regimen into that schedule seems impossible.

Then I read things saying that the average cyclist rides 3,000-5,000 miles a year. On the lower end, that is about 250 miles per month. I would touch that number if I consistently rode 70 miles a week. Some weeks, I’m up in the triple digits, while others are a big fat zero. The reality that I ride less than the average US cyclist makes needing to start a training regimen feel even more urgent.

But where do I even start? What exercises do I need to do?

High-Intensity Interval Training

Regardless of the cycling discipline you lean toward—yes, even me, the beer-drinking mountain biker—can benefit from high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is precisely what it sounds like: it involves short bursts of intense exercise (the “high-intensity” bit), followed by periods of lower-intensity exercise or rest. These intervals of high-intensity and low-intensity are then repeated a certain amount of times for the duration of the training session on that particular day.

For example, a HIIT workout on a stationary bike or trainer can look like this: a 5-minute warm-up followed by a 30-second sprint at maximum effort, then 90 seconds of easy pedaling before returning to the max effort sprint. This is repeated for 6-8 intervals before finishing with a 5-minute cool-down spin. HIIT improves cardiovascular fitness, endurance, and strength faster than other training when used as a regular training practice. We can all agree that stronger hearts, lungs, and muscles are something we are all looking for, regardless of whether we are on the road, gravel, mountain trail, or anything in between.

cyclist riding in spring

Some studies have shown that even well-conditioned cyclists benefit from HIIT. An Australian study showed that cyclists who participated in HIIT just twice a week shaved nearly three minutes off their 40K time trial while improving their overall speed by almost one mile per hour. If seasoned athletes can still eke out performance gains from HIIT, imagine the benefits an average rider who is serious about discipline will see from picking up a regular training program.

Focused Strength Training

Your training shouldn’t stop with HIIT; you must also branch out into strength training. So often, we think of building strength in cycling as growing strong legs. While no one will doubt that leg strength is vital for cycling, upper body strength is also essential, especially in disciplines such as mountain biking. Being able to pull, row, jump, and maneuver your bike into places at will is vital to smoothly riding a trail, attacking a climb or placing yourself into an optimal spot within a peloton. This kind of riding is highly physical and zaps your arms, shoulders, back, and core strength.

Rather than just thinking about strengthening your legs, consider having a whole-body approach to building strength off the bike. A few exercises to focus your attention on are squats, lunges, deadlifts, and core exercises. You’re already pressed for time, so focus on compound movements, exercises that will work for more than one major muscle group simultaneously. While you can accomplish all of these at any gym, they can also be done at home by purchasing a few pieces of equipment. Here, various dumbbells or exercise resistance bands will be your best friend, as you should be able to accomplish the lion’s share of these workouts using them.

Other than helping you feel stronger and faster on the bike, strength training has another critical aspect that cycling athletes benefit from – injury prevention. This makes sense as you are not only bulking up your muscles in focused areas, but you are also strengthening your bones, which helps prevent breaks and fractures. Studies have shown up to a 50% injury reduction in cyclists who had strength training as a part of their regiment. Consider working strength training into your schedule between rest/easy days and HIIT days to see the most improvement.

cyclist doing squats

Use a smart trainer

One of my biggest excuses for getting out of shape over the winter months is that I cannot ride my bike. Where I live, we get regular winter snowstorms that dump around a foot of snow. Despite the snow stopping the following day, it almost always lingers on the ground for the next week or more, because the temperature will stay around freezing. Snow on the ground means no bike rides for me.

However, just because I can’t get out and ride my bike doesn’t mean I can’t train like I do every day. This is where stationary bikes and indoor trainers can make a huge difference in your training performance, as they still allow you to keep your pedals spinning despite the weather outside – pair your trainer with a virtual cycling app to introduce the social aspect into your “pain cave.”

Virtual cycling apps like Zwift allow structured training sessions regardless of weather or time constraints. As a dad, my time is often the most valuable thing I have. While I take advantage of every free opportunity I get to ride my bike, it results in time away from my family, which is incredibly frustrating when a large chunk of that time away is spent driving to where I intend to ride. With cycling apps like Zwift, I can knock out a workout before kids wake up or after they’ve gone to sleep, remaining consistent with a training regimen but not missing anything from our day-to-day lives. The structured workouts, virtual races, and social interaction can make training more engaging and efficient, and while membership fees to these apps aren’t outrageous, knowing that you have to pay a bit of money to use them can also help keep you committed and accountable.

cyclist on a smart trainer

Optimize your commute

While getting my undergrad, I started riding my bike five miles to school rather than driving or taking the bus. If I drove, I would have to pay for parking, which wasn’t cheap, especially on days when I was on campus for seven or eight hours. Public transportation was cheaper than parking but was not reliable. Plus, I found that by riding my bike and not battling traffic, I could make it to campus just as fast—if not faster—than if I drove or rode the bus.

After about three months of riding my bike to school, I dropped nearly 25 pounds. I wasn’t training for anything, but I was just trying to keep a steady clip and get to my first class on time. If losing weight and getting into better shape was an accident from my commute to school, imagine how much more effective time on my bike would have been if I had actively been engaging in HIIT.

Finding time to train in with an already busy schedule can often be tricky. So turn your work commute into your HIIT time, and, as they say, kill two birds with one stone. This could also be done on your way home from work, as you may want to avoid showing up to work drenched in sweat.

The goal is to ensure you are taking advantage of your work commute. If you currently commute by car but can ride your bike, make the switch! Maybe you are already riding but can kick it up a notch and work on some HIIT, do so. Even choosing to take a bit longer of a route, adding an extra mile or two or maybe one more punchy hill will make a difference to your overall performance. Time is precious; take advantage of every moment to better yourself on the bike.

bicycle commute

Quality over Quantity

Time often feels like the most significant constraint when training for cycling. It can be easy to think that to get out and ride longer, faster, and stronger, you must train for longer time periods as well. While it is good to incorporate a longer ride into your training plan, this doesn’t mean that hours upon hours need to be spent training to stay in shape.

While building endurance by increasing volume is a legitimate way to train, especially during the base-building period, what usually ends up happening is that we get so focused on riding more and training longer that the training plan we set off with becomes sporadic at best, because we simply don’t have the time to execute. So, rather than focusing on a consistent training plan that is manageable with our schedules, we try to trade that for a longer ride every once in a while and “push it” at the same time. This training method will ultimately provide little to no performance gains and could actually have you doing worse than when you started.

One of the beautiful things about HIIT is that it doesn’t take up much time to complete an entire training cycle. If you have 30 minutes to spare, you can get a workout in. Get out of the mindset that you need hours, and start looking for where you have 30 minutes to spare three or four days a week. As the days and weeks tick by, make this 30 minutes a daily habit, mixing HIIT with strength training, rest or light days, and perhaps a longer ride on the weekend – focus on training right rather than training more. Half an hour of quality, consistent training where you hit your intervals correctly will do way more for you than two hours of bumbling through a training leaves you overwhelmed.

There’s a concept of “what get measured improves” that applies directly to training. By tracking your progress and making continuous adjustments to your plan will have you hitting your fitness targets quicker than you can imagine. Investing in equipment such as a heart rate monitor that can be paired with a cycling computer or a smartwatch is a great way to have actual data to see how you are progressing. While a cycling computer can track distance traveled, maximum, average, and sustained speeds, elevation climbed, and cadence, when paired with a heart rate monitor, it gives it enough data to calculate energy expenditure, heart rate over the duration of your session and in the end extrapolate the actual effort you put in. All of this data can also be collected by some smartwatches, but beware that for cycling you wouldn’t want to rely on the built-in sensor but rather a dedicated heart rate strap that goes on your chest - it’s much more precise and doesn’t get thrown off by sweat.

To make this data even more useful, it gets uploaded from these devices onto “the cloud” where it’s crunched. The days of staring at graphs that leave questions unanswered are long gone, you will instantly know how much recovery is needed after a particular workout or how your last effort compares to all other sessions on the specific route. You can still get nerdy and dig into the details if you want. For example, if your energy levels dropped off significantly towards the end of a long ride, upon viewing your speed and heart rate on the graph you might notice your heart rate kept climbing while your speed kept dropping – this is a phenomenon known as heart rate decoupling, a sign of subpar ​​aerobic fitness and a clear sign that you picked a workout that was beyond your ability, or you might be overtraining.

Recovery and Nutrition

Athletes who switch from casually riding or training by feel to a structured training plan, especially HIIT, often notice significant gains in a very short time. Such gains are very motivating, and it’s easy to fall into a trap by getting overzealous with training and overlooking recovery. This will almost certainly hinder your progress and could even result in an injury. Any seasoned athlete will tell you that fueling your body and giving it adequate time to recover is as important as the training itself.

Yes, this means that you get a rest day! However, don’t confuse “rest day” with a “sit around, doing nothing but eating and drinking” sort of day. Rest days are intentionally placed in your training schedule to allow your body to recover from the more strenuous exercise you’re subjecting yourself to. For many, rest days continue to be active, where they take advantage of doing a light pedal or some stretching or yoga. If they choose to ride their bike, the mileage is significantly less, and they certainly aren’t pushing hard or doing any HIIT.

Getting enough sleep is a huge part of performing at your peak level and should be something that you incorporate into your rest day (a nap) and into your life. Studies have shown that cyclists saw a three percent increase in their endurance when adding an extra 90 minutes to their sleep schedule for the three nights leading up to a race. If you are disciplined in your training, you need to be disciplined with your sleep, ensuring you get a solid 8 hours each night—lack of sleep fatigues you more than you know.

As we get older, diet and nutrition become a significant factor in how well we perform on and off the bike. A tailored nutrition program should go hand-in-hand with a training program to make sure you are fueling your body correctly and consistently. Knowing how many calories your body burns during a training session will allow you to stay out of nutritional deficit, which would be counterproductive to your training. Luckily, most bike computers and heart rate monitors can provide you with post-workout numbers, which you should treat as a guide to your nutritional needs.

While HIIT sessions aren’t long enough to require a targeted hydration plan beyond having liquids readily accessible during exercise, because it is anaerobic, it results in excessive lactic acid production so proper hydration becomes critical prior to the workout and in recovery. There are numerous studies that indicate that the vast majority of adults live their lives in a chronic mild dehydration state, so developing and following a personalized hydration plan can yield substantial results.

Before a long ride, fuel your body with a large meal emphasizing carbohydrates three or four hours before you set off on your ride. You should eat 3-4 grams of carbs for every kilogram of your body weight. For me, that would be roughly 250 grams of carbs before a long ride. While on your ride, continue fueling your body by putting in 30 grams of carbs per hour with easy things like gels, bars, and liquid nutrition. Post-ride meals are when you should focus on protein to help rebuild muscle.

cyclist cooking in the kitchen

A well-balanced diet may not be enough, as some lifestyle choices affect your performance on the bike more than you can imagine. How much alcohol you consume is one of those choices and something you may consider cutting back on, especially as you get older. It’s no surprise that men produce less testosterone as they get older, but the few beers you may drink after a ride might be inhibiting testosterone production even further. The enzyme in alcohol that inhibits this is called alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down and turns into acetaldehyde. This blocks testosterone production and is only combatted when our bodies create another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase. Ultimately, this is an arduous process on the body that holds up vital testosterone production that helps our bodies recover, which could be avoided by cutting back or not consuming alcohol.

Lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced and healthy diet, incorporating a daily training program, cutting out alcohol, incorporating rest days, and getting enough sleep have some athletes performing and feeling better in their 40s and 50s than they did in their 20s.

Your weekly training could look like this

It is important to remember that training doesn’t have to consume your life. It is easy to feel overwhelmed if you want to take your cycling to the next level while keeping up with other responsibilities in your life, be that your career, being a spouse or partner, or a parent. However, seeing it laid out can help you realize that it isn’t a significant adjustment to what you are already likely doing. Remember, a shorter, consistent quality training plan is much better than inconsistent and sporadic longer “training.”

Monday: HIIT session (30 minutes). Remember, this could be incorporated into your morning commute

Tuesday: Strength training (30 minutes)

Wednesday: Recovery ride (easy pace, 30-45 minutes). This could easily be done on your commute to work

Thursday: HIIT session (30 minutes)

Friday: Rest or active rest, such as light yoga/stretching or a leisurely ride

Saturday: Longer endurance ride (60-120 minutes)

Sunday: Strength training (30 minutes) or rest. This could be active resting, such as a light ride

Aside from the longer endurance ride you tackle on the weekend, you only need about 30 minutes a day to maintain this training regimen. Several of these sessions could be tackled on a morning commute if you so choose. And, for the vast majority of us, 30 minutes is something we can find in our days, especially if it will mean increased performance on the bike.

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