3 Strategies for Cyclists to Build Fitness

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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3 Strategies for Cyclists to Build Fitness

If you’re a busy person balancing work, family and cycling goals, you’ll find that your hours in the saddle reach an upper limit at some point. Once you have adapted to that training volume — usually around 6–8 hours per week — adding more intensity (versus adding volume) will build your fitness and keep your training from stagnating.

How to add intensity is a heavily debated topic, but most people are best served doing a mixed strategy of 2–3 different workouts per week that challenge different intensity levels. A variety of interval lengths and intensities will help you become more efficient at handling intensity. If you’re able to target three workouts per week, here’s a sample of what each effort/intensity could be:

  1. Strength: short sprints on the bike and strength training in the gym
  2. Aerobic: fast or short hill climbing on the bike
  3. Muscular endurance: moderately paced longer efforts on the bike

Your strength day will consist of two workouts. You can spread these over two days if needed, but I like to do these two short efforts together to allow for a recovery day. Try the bike workout in the morning and the strength-training session at lunch or after work. The bike will be a sprint workout featuring some coordination in the warmup (5 x 1 minute at 110–120 pedal strokes per minute) followed by 10 x 10- to 15-second sprints with 3–5 minutes easy spinning between. Focus on these full-out sprints, and each time you do the workout, you should find you get a little better. There are three aspects that will show improvement: the psychological (how badly it hurts), mechanical (gearing) and physiological (generating the energy quickly and recovering).

If you can train outside, these can be sign sprints. On the trainer, you can sprint for 10–15 seconds when the song changes on your iPod. Later in the day, you can do a full-body strength routine with several movements that challenge your cycling muscles. I like to rotate through 1–2 sets of split squats, front squats, dead lifts and step-ups, adding a bit of load each workout and progressing slowly and safely.

For your hill-climbing or aerobic power workout, complete a similar warmup to your sprint day. Then ride up a hill five times, and track how far up the hill you get in 2.5 minutes. Many races also feature efforts of this duration, so it helps us get familiar and used to pacing at high intensity. The recovery between the 2.5-minute intervals will be 3–5 minutes of easy spinning. Keep the set the same for a few weeks before getting creative with increasing the interval length or number of reps. In these first few weeks, see whether you can push a bit harder each time you do the interval set, making it a bit farther up the hill or pushing a few more watts.

The third workout you will do is a muscular endurance day. The workout should have a warmup with a few 30- to 45-second efforts around your threshold (8/10 effort) pace with a higher cadence of over 100 rpm. Then, to work on muscular endurance, use 3–5 x 10-minute intervals riding at 80–90% of maximum heart rate using a moderate cadence 70–80 rpm. This intensity range is wide so you can vary workload with your goals, limiters, fatigue and also the time of year. Riding at 80% MHR is not very challenging for many people unless they have a high level of aerobic fitness. Your goal is to make these a bit harder each time you do them and to get used to pushing your tolerance for the tension and discomfort while pedaling seated, so you’re ready for long climbs and other seated efforts.

Take these three quick, simple workouts, and add a bit more challenge each week with more intensity, longer intervals or more intervals. Using variety will keep you healthy and continue to build your fitness for many years. Certainly these are not the only workouts you can or should do, but they’re a basic routine to start with and eventually modify to help you reach your goals.

Here’s a snapshot of what an ideal training week could look like:

All workouts can be about 30–90 minutes total time.

  • Monday: yoga and a 15-minute (or more) walk
  • Tuesday: morning sprint workout on bike and afternoon strength workout (30–60 minutes) in gym
  • Wednesday: muscular endurance 3 x 10 minutes at 80–90% MHR with 3 minutes off
  • Thursday: yoga and a 15-minute (or more) walk
  • Friday: morning sprint workout 10 x 10-second sprints with 3–5 minutes off and afternoon strength workout (30–60 minutes) in gym
  • Saturday: aerobic power workout 5 x 2.5 minutes with 3 minutes off
  • Sunday: cross-training or longer (90 minutes or more) bike ride

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.