When you begin cycling, any time spent on the bike is worthwhile. But after you develop baseline fitness, it’s easy to plateau and not see as much progress as you did in the beginning. So instead of just hopping on the bike and riding nonstop, it’s a good idea to develop a structured training plan to boost your top-end speed, develop your endurance and become a better climber.
These four classic workouts are an excellent place to start and should a be part of your weekly cycling routine whether you’re a beginner or an experienced cyclist.
The mistake a lot of cyclists make, even when the intention is to go long and slow, is to ride a little too hard and push into Zone 3 of your maximum heart rate — a no man’s land for building aerobic fitness. To boost your endurance, burn fat and build type-1 muscle fibers, it is essential to focus at least one of your weekly training rides on going long and slow.
This means staying in Zone 2, which is roughly 60–70% of your maximum heart rate. These rides should last more than one hour if you’re a beginner, but aim for 2–3 hours if you can. Make sure you stay within the 10% rule when increasing your ride time, only increasing total mileage by 10% each week to avoid injury. Once you become more comfortable with these efforts and build your aerobic fitness, you can increase your ride time by about 15–30 minutes each week until you’re up into the 4–5-hour range or a time similar to the time it’ll take to finish a goal event you’d like to try in the future.
Falling somewhere between the long ride and intervals, the group ride is a must for anyone considering signing up for a cycling event. Whether it’s a cycling club or a group of friends, occasionally upping the intensity during a medium-distance ride of about 1–2 hours helps develop the kind of efforts you’ll need to be ready for during a race.
To do so, move to the front of the group and take your turn pulling at the very front so the cyclists behind you can draft. Your goal should be 1–2 minutes on the front in Zone 4 heart rate. Once your pull is complete, go to the back of the paceline for 3–4 minutes, working your way back up to the front. Repeat the cycle 3–4 more times. After your fourth effort, go to the back of the pack for easy pedaling for 10–15 minutes. Once you’ve recovered, and if you’re feeling up for it, you can complete a second round of pulls at the front. As your fitness improves, you can increase the time of your pulls, working your way up to 5 minutes at a time. If the group isn’t big on pace lines, challenging your friends to race to the top of any short climbs along the route is a less structured (and maybe more fun) way of completing the same type of workout.
In addition to getting used to faster paced efforts, group riding also helps you gain comfort riding in-close-proximity to others, improve your bike-handling and learn the intricacies of drafting off of other cyclists — all of which are crucial elements you should master for any road cycling event like a Gran Fondo. They’re also fun and can be a good way to meet more experienced cyclists you can learn from.
If you want to get faster, there’s really no way around doing intervals. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) isn’t particularly fun, but the good news is they don’t take long to complete and this is a great workout option when you’re short on time. This type of training also improves your lactate threshold, meaning you’ll be able to ride at a higher intensity for longer periods of time before lactate begins to accumulate in the blood faster than it can be removed and eventually slow you down.
The indoor trainer, a short steep climb or an open stretch of road with very little traffic are ideal spots for high-intensity intervals. For the workout, warm up with easy spinning for about 20 minutes. During the main set, complete a series of intervals that lasts between 30 seconds and 2 minutes depending on your fitness level. Ride at max effort, between 90–100% of your maximum heart rate (Zone 5). Recover with 4–5 minutes of easy spinning at a cadence above 90 rpm and repeat the cycle 5–6 times.
Remember: Because these intervals are high intensity, doing them on consecutive days is not recommended due to increased injury risk. Once or twice per week does the trick.
With all the hard riding you’ll be doing, a day off the bike might seem like it’s been earned. And while the occasional rest day isn’t a bad thing, you’ll actually recover more quickly following hard efforts if you include an easy recovery ride in your routine on the day following your hard efforts.
A day of easy spinning in Zone 1 or 2 for 30–45 minutes helps decrease joint stiffness, reduce muscle soreness and get your blood flowing to make your body feel better. Your pace should be conversational and easy and always use a low gear that allows the legs to spin at 90 rpms or greater.