Cycling is ideal for staying in a low aerobic heart rate zone for long periods. Many cyclists simply pedal at a comfortable pace until they are able to build up to riding 2 hours or longer at a time — whether it’s a century ride or your weekly long ride.
But it’s important not to overlook the benefit of building endurance and speed over time by introducing variety into your routine. Specifically, by adding shorter rides into your routine, you’ll build fitness efficiently.
Cycling coach Kim Geist offers her thoughts on why shorter rides are a necessary part of building fitness along with what you should be aware of before getting started with shorter, more intense cycling workouts.
While you may need to ride for 2 hours or more when you head out at a leisurely pace, not all bike rides need to take up a significant chunk of your day. In fact, getting a quick workout in before or after work, or even during a bike commute, can be just as beneficial as those longer rides you pencil in for weekends.
“If the intensity is high enough and appropriately focused, workouts can be as short as 1 hour, including warmup and cooldown periods,” Geist says.
Since most good warmups and cooldowns are 10–15 minutes each, the main set of a good cycling workout is possible in as little as 30–40 minutes. This makes it a perfect option for those days when you don’t have time to go long and only have the indoor trainer or a quick neighborhood ride as a reasonable option.
The key is to avoid riding in an aerobic zone 3, and getting the intensity in a higher training zone.
“Including work in the threshold and VO2 zones is most effective in short rides because the volume of time needed in these zones to elicit change is less than that of lower zones,” Geist says.
For those cyclists who like to commute by bike, two short rides to and from work can substitute for one longer ride at a steady, lower-intensity pace.
“Splitting endurance rides into two shorter workouts per day can be an effective way to get in a longer overall ride time versus one longer ride when it’s not feasible,” Geist says.
While you’ll still benefit for one long weekly ride, this strategy helps squeeze in a few longer sessions during your week when you might not otherwise have the time.
Aside from the benefit of fitting cycling into a busy schedule, there are other pluses to shorter rides, particularly as it relates to overall fitness and performance. Since hitting a plateau is normal and expected, switching things up and riding different types of workouts helps prolong the periods between plateaus. This is where high-intensity intervals come into play.
“In the case of including high-intensity intervals in the threshold or VO2 zones, cyclists are working on improving aerobic ability,” Geist says. “Physiological adaptations of completing rides including these high-intensity intervals may mirror many of the adaptations seen from completing longer, slower rides and are able to be gained in shorter time periods per ride.”
According to Geist, in some ways, these shorter, more intense bouts of exercise are more beneficial than the slower aerobic rides you may be used to. These include the body’s ability to adapt from:
- Increased cardiac output: The amount of oxygen-carrying blood pumped per beat by the heart to working muscles.
- Muscular capitalization: Increasing the amount of oxygen transferred to working muscles.
- An improved VO2 max: Increasing the amount of oxygen utilized by the body for exercise.
“Aside from building endurance, these adaptations improve a cyclist’s ability to ‘save a match’ during those times of a ride that require digging deeper. This could turn up on a big climb, an unexpected headwind or when a response is needed to a change in pace,” Geist says.
Like anything else, incorporating new workouts into your routine should come with some precautions. Since high-intensity workouts can be more taxing on the body, you’ll need to be more mindful of your nutrition, pre- and post-ride routines, and rest between sessions to avoid an overuse injury.
In terms of nutrition, Geist recommends consuming more carbohydrates than you might be used to. “Working at threshold or higher intensities utilizes carbohydrate stores. Keeping carbohydrate content up in the diet will allow a cyclist to hit the intensities needed to get the most from their shorter workouts.”
While keeping your energy up is crucial, so too is including a proper warmup and cooldown in your sessions to avoid injury and get the body primed for a more intense effort — something that might not typically be needed for longer, slower rides.
“A warmup should last at least 10 minutes and include some time entering into at least the threshold zone,” Geist says. “This prepares the body by raising VO2, which is the main goal of an aerobic warmup for a workout that will include intensities at threshold or higher. A cooldown of about 10 minutes of very easy riding will help to start the recovery process.”
Since these short rides are more intense, the time you need to recover in between rides may be greater. This means avoiding back to back high-intensity sessions and including some easy rides on the days in between.
“More intense training rides will demand more rest between days,” Geist says. “A good starting point is to give at least a days rest or lower-intensity riding between high-intensity days and complete no more than two days per week.”
To help get you started with shorter, more intense workouts, Geist recommends including one day that focuses on threshold and one that focuses on building your VO2 max. If you aren’t sure what these training zones are, here is an introduction.
Below are two of Geist’s favorite workouts, which she has her clients complete when including shorter, high-intensity sessions into a routine for the first time:
60-Minute Threshold Workout
- Warmup: 10 minutes spinning, progressing to a pace near threshold. Follow with 5 minutes of active recovery spinning easy.
- Main set: 3 x 10 minutes at threshold, spinning at 90rpm. Spin easy for 5 minutes in between each 10-minute interval.
- Cooldown: 10 minutes of easy spinning.
60-Minute VO2 Workout
- Warmup: 10 minutes, progressing to a threshold pace. Follow with 5 minutes of active recovery spinning easy.
- Main set: For 8 circuits, ride for 30 seconds at V02 max followed by 30 seconds of active recovery at 100rpm. After 8 circuits are complete, recover with easy spinning for 8 minutes. Complete 3 sets.
- Cooldown: Spin easy for 10 minutes.