Cycling Training

Track cyclist Robert Forstemann’s thighs

The exercise machines at the gym say, “If you start feeling faint, stop”—but
that’s just when it starts being fun! (Cyclist’s comment)

Luke! You must complete the training! (Yoda)

Why Train?

Cycling attracts obsessive-compulsive types. No topic in cycling is so obsessive as training. There are dozens of books on the subject, every bike magazine issue has an article offering up a dozen or more workout schemes full of jargon like FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), and lots of companies are making piles of money providing individualized coaching programs for athletes. All these sources micromanage an inherently simple subject to death. If you’re a racer, or you enjoy reducing a sport to a science and putting it under an imaginary microscope, go for it with my blessing. I’ll keep it simple.

But first, a warning: recent studies suggest that repeated high-intensity training may be bad for your heart if you’re over 50, so old cyclists should factor that into their training. Please sign this waiver…thank you…now read on.

At first, just ride. If you’re new to riding, don’t train. Just riding around at a moderate effort will give you all the work you need. Seek to maximize hours in the saddle rather than worry about your heart rate level. After you’ve gotten basic fitness this way, you’ll be ready to go to a more structured approach.

You don’t have to train. If you don’t want to train, don’t. I have a friend who never thinks about “training.” She just rides her bike every morning from her house to a vista point and back at a vigorous pace, a distance of about 20 miles round trip. She’s fit as a fiddle and can ride anything.

Train to have more fun. I don’t race, so why do I train at all? Because the fitter I am, the more great rides I can do. Being fit makes riding, especially hard riding, more fun. Most wonderful rides are challenging rides. I don’t train so I can do tough rides faster; I train so I can do them at all.

Make training a game. If training is suffering, drudgery, or a duty, you’ll quit, unless you’re a masochist, or you have a compelling goal, like an upcoming race or a date to ride across the US, or you just thrive on regimentation. For the rest of us, make it a game. How you do this is best figured out by you, since only you know what you think “fun” is. I think it’s fun to count things, so I like to go out and count off 100 hard pedal strokes. I like to climb while playing games with my heart rate monitor—I’ll run it up to 140, hold it there for three minutes, then spin while I watch it drop back to 120, then repeat the process. Maybe you like to see how high you can get your heart rate in a thirty-second sprint, or see how high a pedaling cadence you can hold for ten seconds, or set sprint finish lines for yourself along your route (raise your hands after crossing the line). If you respond well to social pressure, take a spin class. Some people (not me) buy a fancy stationary bike with a programmable video screen and upload a virtual Tour de France stage. The state of the art here is Zwift, which turns riding a trainer into a video game—you compete against other “Zwifters” around the world on a common race route via an avatar.

Overcome the fear response. When you run your body hard, part of your brain thinks you’re dying and orders you to stop. You need to learn you’re OK, even though your lungs are pounding and the lactic acid in your legs is burning. Experience will do this eventually, but it helps to do a rational self-examination: of course your heart is running fast, but is it really giving out any signs that it’s injuring itself? No. Of course your legs are asking for relief, but, when looked at in the cold light of reason, are they really about to fail? No. (If the answer is yes, back off.) Formally tell your old protective brain that you’re fine, that this is a new sort of fun, and that you want it to relax.

Training Principles

How much time does training take? Pros typically train around 4 hours a day and 20 hours a week. A lot of recreational riders dream of emulating them. But you don’t have to. To get in killer, century-crushing, Mont-Ventoux-conquering shape, you need to do work on (not just ride) the bike for 30 minutes, 3 times a week. If we include warm-up and cool-down, that means 1 hour 3 times a week. Sure, 50 minutes is better than 30, but we’re talking bare minimum here. I know this, because it’s what I’ve done for years, and it’s gotten me in shape to ride practically anything, including Mont Ventoux.

What about long rides to build endurance? A lot of trainers say they’re essential. Not in my experience. I’ve gone from 30×3 training straight to a century and done just fine. Do those long rides if they’re fun, but don’t do them thinking you need them.

How long does it take to get fit? That depends on your physiology, how out of shape you are when you start, how much training you do, and how old you are. Some people’s bodies get fit fast. For these people, a month of regular training can work wonders. I’m not that way. Once I had a long sickness that kept me off the bike for several months, and once I was well it took me 5 months of steady work to get back to feeling strong on the bike.

There is fitness and there is fitness. If you’re normal, 2 months of training should leave you in decent shape, but the super-fitness a serious racer or pro seeks takes several years of steady work to achieve.

Train alone. It can be lonely out there, and training with your buddies sounds like more fun, but none of your buddies needs what you need on any given day. Today you may want to do three-minute intervals of hill work at a heart rate of 150 BPM, with cool-down periods of 10 minutes at 120 BPM in between. How likely is it that friend Fred also wants to do exactly that?

Train on predictable terrain. You want to be able to ride at exactly the heart rate you want or the effort level you want, or use exactly the muscles you choose to use. You don’t want the terrain dictating your workload. So training goes best on roads you know, roads with profiles that give you exactly the challenge you want.

Don’t train using speed as a barometer. There are many ways to measure your conditioning and fitness—what your speedometer says, what your heart rate monitor says, what your power meter says, how you feel, the pain level in your thighs, and so on. Of all these, your speed is the least revealing. How fast you are going is the product of many things: your conditioning, how hard you rode the day before, the wind, the road’s pitch, the temperature, the road surface, and many other factors. Tracking your speed is fun, but it doesn’t tell you much about how you’re riding, and you should never set training goals in terms of speed, as in “I’m going to go out and ride at 20 mph today.”

Warm up before doing work. Your muscles need to loosen up and get the blood moving before you put a load on them. The best way to warm up a muscle is to use it under light load—or, as a friend of mine put it, “The best way to warm up is to warm up.” So go spin. Don’t warm up by stretching—it doesn’t stimulate blood flow, it tires your muscles so you’ll have less endurance, and studies suggest it provokes injury.

How long it takes you to warm up is a personal thing. For me, I’m warm enough to do some work after 20 minutes and fully warm after 45 minutes. Let your body tell you. Usually when you’re warm you will literally warm up (start to feel overdressed) and your heart rate will stop acting sluggish.

Train with a purpose. Every training ride should have a specified intention. Don’t just tell yourself, “I’m going to go out and ride for awhile.” If you do that, you never know when you’re done, you never get a sense of accomplishment, and you can never tell yourself it’s OK to stop. Intentions sound like:

  • I’m going to work on my top-end speed today.
  • I’m going to work on tempo riding on a climb.
  • I’m going to do high-intensity hill repeats.
  • I’m going to maintain a medium-high heart rate for 30 minutes.
  • I’m going to push an unusually big gear.
  • I’m going to see how long I can spin a 95-rpm cadence.

If you don’t have a training goal for the ride, you’re likely to end up riding around at a middling pace that does you no good. The trainer’s mantra is, always ride hard or easy, but never in between. In other words, either be training or recovering.

Be as specific in your training intention as possible—“going hard for a while” doesn’t cut it. There are lots of different elements you can focus on in a given training ride:

  • Tempos: sprinting, pacemaking, long steady riding, spinning, mashing a big gear
  • Levels of effort: recovery, moderate, hard, full-gas
  • Pedaling styles: ankling, down-stroke, up-stroke, scissor kick, standing
  • Time intervals: 30-second bursts, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes
  • Climbing conditions: shallow pitches, moderate, steep, very steep
  • Technical skills: breathing correctly, knees in line, cornering, track stands

You shouldn’t get bored.

Training Methods

Train two separate systems, and train them separately. The magnificent engine that is your body runs on two related but independent systems: your cardiovascular system (your heart, lungs, and blood) and your muscles. It’s possible to work one without the other. If you do slow biceps curls, your muscles will get exhausted while your heart rate will hardly move, and if a deer jumps out in front of you on a fast descent your heart rate will soar without any muscle work. If you go out and ride hard, both systems will get work, but they want different kinds of work, so it’s more productive to train one, then the other:

1. Cardio works over extended time. A cardio workout, as a rule of thumb, should involve at least 30 minutes of elevated heart rate. Muscles don’t care about time. As you know from weight training, you can work a biceps muscle with three sets of 7 hard reps—elapsed time of effort, 21 seconds.

2. Cardio is about maintaining a moderate effort; muscle work is about high intensity. You’ll get a cardio benefit by riding at a brisk conversational pace; muscles are only making progress when you work them hard, ideally to the point of exhaustion, then a bit more.

3. Cardio doesn’t make you sore—your heart and lungs don’t hurt the next day after a workout; muscle work does. You add muscle mass by exhausting the muscle, then applying enough work to tear the muscle slightly, then resting the muscle while it rebuilds the torn tissue. So if you aren’t a little sore the day after a muscle workout, you didn’t work hard enough.

4. Cardio can be done every day—you don’t need recovery days for your heart, because the blood flow to the heart is basically limitless; muscle work necessitates recovery days. The best thing you can do for your heart is work out every day; the worst thing you can do for a set of muscles is work it hard the day after you’ve worked it hard.

5. Cardio is easy to measure—just get a heart rate monitor; muscle work has no objective measure without advanced technology.

The heart rate monitor tells you all you need to know to control your cardio training. There are books and formulae that purport to tell you how to use a HRM, but hearts are individual things and I suggest you find out about your own heart through experience and personal data gathering. After a lot of riding with a HRM, you should know what heart rate constitutes no work, what rate constitutes mild training effect (i.e. adding a little to your fitness), and so on. For me, I know that below 120 beats per minute I’m accomplishing nothing in the way of training, at 120 BPM I’m getting a mild training effect, at 130 I’m doing moderate training, at 140 I’m doing serious work, at 150 I’m probably injuring my heart, and at 160 I’m doing short, maximum efforts and about to black out. If you’re younger, fitter, or more athletically gifted than me your numbers will be higher across the board. I once heard a very fit ex-pro say he was maintaining a easy, steady effort at 163 bpm, which is my absolute limit.

If you read up on training, you’ll see references to PE: perceived effort. Supposedly you can train without a HRM, guided by your subjective sense of how hard you’re working. Typically you’re encouraged to think in terms of a subjective scale of difficulty from 1 to 10, 10 being hardest possible effort. Comparing my HRM data to my PE, I find PE to be useless for cardio. For muscle work load it works well, but for CVS, no.

There is no cheap, easy objective tool for measuring muscle work. You just have to subjectively monitor how your muscles feel—are they working a little, a moderate amount, a lot? At some point your muscles begin to burn (not just be tired) and you realize the amount of time you can keep working this hard is distinctly limited. This is the lactic acid threshold. The only other test is how your muscles feel the next day: not sore means you didn’t work hard enough, crippled means you overdid it, and mildly sore means you did it just right.

There is a way to measure objectively how much a muscle is working: the power meter. It measures wattage, which is literally how much power you’re putting out. It allows you to control your muscle work the way a HRM lets you control your cardio. But it’s expensive ($400 to $1500) and it’s more information than you need, unless you’re a pro or serious racer. See more on PM’s in the Accessories chapter.

6. With cardio, more is better; with muscle work, too much is disastrous. You can work your CV system for 24 hours straight if you want to. The normal muscle routine, on the other hand, is to work a specific muscle group hard for a brief amount of time (1-20 minutes), then rest it for at least two days. Trying to do more is begging for injury. Similarly, it’s hard to overstress the heart by riding too hard, as long as you’re heart-healthy and below age 50 (see the disclaimer at the beginning of the chapter)—you gasp for breath, your heart pounds, you see stars, you collapse on your bars, but there’s no harm done; but it’s easy to push a big gear so hard that you strain a muscle.

By the way, the two-day recovery period doesn’t mean you can only work on the bike once every three days. Just make sure that you’re targeting different muscle groups on back to back days.

You only get stronger at what you train at. When you exercise, your body doesn’t get strong all over. It only gets stronger at the precise behavior you’re doing. When you work your legs, your arms don’t get stronger, obviously. But it’s much more than that—when you work your sprinting muscles, your climbing muscles don’t get stronger. When you work your in-the-saddle muscles, your standing muscles don’t get stronger. When you work your downstroke muscles, your upstroke muscles don’t get stronger. And, as every cyclist knows, when you work your riding muscles, your stair-climbing muscles don’t get stronger.

If you do weight training at the gym, you know this. One exercise machine works one set of muscles, another works another. You can work the biceps until they’re like Arnold’s, but the triceps are still noodles unless you’ve been working them separately.

This truth leads us to two simple training principles:

  1. Vary your training. Don’t ride along at the same pace using the same pedal stroke on the same road. Mix things up. Vary your tempo, your road conditions, your effort load, your muscle groups.
  1. Train by isolation. The body is too complex to work all of it at once. So identify what skills and muscles you want to work on, and invent exercises that target those skills/muscles and only them.

Isolation takes discipline, because your brain knows that you could make the riding easier by just bringing the rest of your body into play. When you’re out doing a long rec ride, sharing the work is sound practice. But when you’re isolating, sharing the work is missing the point. For instance, when you’re standing, you can make the upstroke easier by rocking the bike and the downstroke easier by throwing your body weight down on the pedals. Both techniques are sensible on long rides, but in training they just prevent you from fully working your quads and hamstrings, so consciously avoid them when you’re targeting your legs.

But be careful—isolation can be so intense as to be damaging to the body. Some riders do single-leg riding—riding with one leg off the pedal—to isolate one leg or the other. Some swear by it, but others say it’s an invitation to injury and should be avoided. I don’t recommend it.

Build training around intervals. Intervals are no more than brief periods of intense effort, with recovery riding in between. The theory is obvious: to progress you need to do hard efforts, but it’s impossible to sustain a hard effort for very long, and you can’t get a workout by going hard to exhaustion once. So you work and rest, work and rest.

Intervals can be anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes, and because we want variety we’re going to do those and every duration in between. A good rule of thumb (if you’re doing intervals less than 3 minutes) is, try for at least six reps, or do them until your performance (speed) falls off dramatically despite your best efforts.

Intervals are traditionally measured by time (2-minute intervals, 5-minute-intervals), but I hate staring at a computer ticking off seconds when I’m riding hard, so I prefer measuring mine by pedal strokes—10 pedal strokes, 100 pedal strokes—for anything shorter than 5 minutes. It works just as well, and I can keep my eyes on the road.

Muscles recover best, not when they’re idle, but when they’re doing light work, so spend the minutes of recovery between efforts doing easy riding, not coasting or stopping.

Ignore mileage and riding time when you train. Most training is intense and relatively brief—you can tire yourself out in twenty miles or an hour of hard work and be ready for a recovery day. So you can’t train and maximize your mileage total or total hours on the bike at the same time. That’s a problem if you’re a cyclist who obsesses about their annual mileage totals. Which is almost all of us. But you must choose: train, or rack up miles. One year I decided to maximize my mileage, so I rode almost every day of the year, and it left me with lousy fitness, because I never did any intensity.

Train your weaknesses. However much you love sprinting or climbing, you can’t just sprint or climb—you have to get over the hill to get to the sprint, or stay with the pack to get to the hill. We’re all forced to be all-rounders. So know what you’re bad at, and focus some of your training on that. I love to spin and climb, so I have to focus training on mashing big gears and high-speed flat riding.

Train by recovering. To every novice’s surprise, muscles don’t grow from exercise—they grow by repairing the damage done by exercise. You work out, gently tear the muscle, and your body builds new muscle to fill in the tears. You destroy the rebuilding process if you go out and use the muscle vigorously when it’s mending.

Again, muscles recover best, not when they’re idle, but when they’re doing light work, so if you have the self-control, light riding is better recovery than lying on the couch. Don’t do recovery rides with buddies—they’ll corrupt you because they won’t want to ride at 12 mph. But recovery rides are a perfect time to ride with non-cyclist partners.

You would think that the easiest rule to follow in cycling would be “Don’t ride hard today.” But it turns out it’s one of the most difficult, because riding hard is fun. So riders with the best intentions tell themselves on recovery days, “I’ll just go out and spin for a while,” and end up hammering. If you can’t ride unnaturally slowly without losing control, use your HRM to keep your effort low-key, or stay off the bike.

The older you are, the more recovery you need. Young riders may need a recovery day after every 2 or 3 days of training; an old rider may need as much as a recovery day after every training day.

Most recovery therapies don’t work. Many time-honored aids to post-ride recovery—stretching, massage, cooling down with light riding for 10 minutes after a workout, bathing in ice, applying heat, wearing compression garments, foam rollers—have one thing in common: according to recent research, they do you little if any good. Do them if they’re fun or they feel good, but don’t feel obliged. I discuss the pros, the cons, and the hows of stretching and massage in the chapter on Physical Therapy, Injury, and Illness.

Perhaps most common and most pernicious of recovery practices is the use of NSAID’s like Ibuprophen. Many athletes pop Ibuprophen as a matter of practice, before, during, and after training rides, and jocularly call it “Vitamin I.” I’ve done centuries where it was prominently set out along with the food at the feed stops. This is more than unwise. NSAID’s not only do not help with recovery; they positively obstruct it. And long-term use will destroy your liver or your kidneys, depending on which NSAID you favor.

Fuel during and after your workout. We talk about this in detail in the Nutrition chapter, but for now:

If you’re going out for an hour, you can get by with nothing but water. Beyond that, follow these 2 rules, and follow them with increased care as the ride gets longer:

1. Eat and drink every fifteen minutes or so, consuming mostly carbs, and electrolytes as needed. Some riders like a little protein; some don’t.

2. After the ride, eat a lot of carbs with substantial protein (essentially, a meal) within 30 minutes of the end of the ride.

Whether you do this in the form of real food or made-for-cycling supplements is up to you. Proprietary cycling supplements have several advantages over food: 1) they’re handy—easy to grab, stuff in a pocket, and eat while rolling without mess or major garbage; 2) they have (theoretically) everything you need, including ingredients real food may not be able to duplicate, like magnesium or querticin; and 3) they’re right there after the ride (in the form of recovery drinks or powders), so the thirty-minute rule is easy to follow.

If you fuel with liquids only (which is nutritionally possible), your brain tends to think it’s starving, so most riders like something solid now and then.

There are also supplements that are marketed as pre-ride training boosters, but I’ve never heard anyone in authority back up their claims.

Training indoors. This comes in three forms: riding in your house on a stationary bike or a trainer, riding on a stationary bike at a health club, and taking a spinning class, where a teacher runs you through a workout routine as part of a group.

Some people prefer spinning classes or riding in their home on Zwift to road riding, for lots of reasons: you’re safe from muggers, bike thieves, rain, wind, potholes, railroad tracks, and traffic, and you’re in a group with an instructor, so you’re motivated, supported, and directed. The training effect is real and transfers to road riding well, if you watch your HRM and make sure your heart is working hard enough. I’d rather ride over potholes in heavy rain in hostile traffic through throngs of muggers than spend an hour on a trainer or in a spinning class. To each their own.

Get motivated by Strava segments. Strava is a ride-mapping and sharing site with a feature that has brought an entirely new form of motivation to cyclists: the Strava segment. Segments are sections of routes designated by Strava users for the competitive comparing of times. It’s like this: you’re riding along on a 40-mile route, and suddenly you are notified that the next mile or two is a Strava segment. You can record your time on the segment, post it on the leaderboard for that segment, compare your time to your PR (personal record) for that leg, strive to set the CR (course record), and so on. If the segment is a climb, the leader is that segment’s KOM or QOM (King of the Mountains or Queen of the Mountains). People now search for segments where the CR is low and train for that segment in an attempt to bag the CR for themselves. It’s a way of making intensity training social, varied, and rewarding.

Ignore training zones and thresholds. Formal training programs structure their work-outs around heart rate zones (levels of effort) and zone thresholds (heart rate levels at which the zones begin).

There are three popular thresholds. One is LT, the lactic threshold (or lactate threshold), the heart rate level where your muscles start to burn from “lactic acid build-up.” It isn’t really lactic acid you’re feeling, but everyone calls it that. The second is AT, the anaerobic threshold, meaning the threshold where your muscles “go anaerobic” (have to function “without oxygen,” which is what “anaerobic” literally means). At this point your muscles start using oxygen faster than your cardio-vascular system can resupply it, you begin to go into oxygen debt, and you know you’re draining your reserves faster than they can be replenished. The third threshold is the red line, which is roughly 90% of your max heart rate and is the edge of the red zone (90-100% of max heart rate).

Supposedly, you can calculate these zones via formulas that consider your max heart rate, your age, your gender, and a few other parameters. Then you can micromanage your training by choosing which zone to train in on any given ride. In reality, it’s almost impossible to determine with accuracy where your zones are, and even if you could, the knowledge doesn’t turn out to pay much in the way of training dividends. Unless trying to formulize bodily processes turns you on, I encourage you to forget the whole maddening mishegoss. Instead, just think in terms of working, working hard, and working as hard as you can, note when your muscles start to burn and you start breathing hard, and train to that point often and occasionally beyond it briefly. You really can’t do more than that.

Cross train, but not to help your riding. Run, hike, swim, play tennis, do yoga, or run up stairs, but don’t do it to improve your cycling. Cycling is so muscle-specific that doing anything else will have little impact on your on-bike performance. All those other forms of exercise are great for general health and fitness, so cross train as a smart lifestyle choice, but it won’t help you go faster on the bike.

Use PR Lotion. There is an endless list of “performance booster” products you can buy and ingest or smear on you. They all promise to deliver huge performance gains. They’re all bunk, or illegal, or dangerous. Except one—PR Lotion by Amp Human. You smear it on your muscles before riding. It’s basically baking soda, and it curbs lactic acid burn (seems preposterous, I know). It won’t make you stronger, but it will let you ride longer without that burning sensation that makes you back off the effort level.

Quit if your body says quit. There will be days when you go out to do a training ride and your body (or your legs or your calves or your HRM) tells you, “This is wrong.” Listen to your body.

I know, “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, “Pain is temporary but quitting is forever,” etc. etc. Nevertheless, unless you know you’re a wimper-outer who needs to be bullied and driven, honor the wise voice in you that says today you’re meant to take it easy. This bailing is different from sitting in your living room and thinking, “I don’t feel like riding today”—that message you’re wise to ignore; this is on the bike, trying to go hard and getting signals that it’s not a good idea.

Especially, listen to your hear rate monitor. If you find yourself unable to push it up to normal workout levels, or if it’s running high without you doing any work, that means you’re ill or getting ill and you need to rest.

Find time for fun rides. There are a couple of problems with the general training picture laid out above: 1) If you train four times a week and recover twice, that’s six days, leaving you only one day to do that thing you’re doing all the training for: recreational rides, rides with buddies, rides with your local club, centuries. 2) If you train your climbing 3 times a week, your sprinting 3 times a week, and your long-distance tempo riding 3 times a week, and also do recovery rides, you need about 13 days in every week. Most of us don’t even have 6 days a week to ride.

Something’s amiss. The only solution is, train less. If you do nothing but train, there’s no point in training, and besides you’ll almost certainly get bored, burn out, and quit. So go for the fun ride. Maybe squeeze in some short intervals or practice out-of-the-saddle climbing or push a big gear for a while during the ride—sneak in a little work. Or don’t. Remember, you’re training to increase your fun, not eliminate fun from your life.

A Basic Cycling Training Plan

So, given all of the above, a training regimen for a non-compulsive, non-racing cyclist with a job would look like this:

  • Ride three times a week for at least 50 minutes, including 30 minutes of effort.
  • Do different types of riding: flat riding, steep climbing, climbing out of the saddle, long rides, high-tempo short rides, sprints.
  • Use a mix of intensity levels—moderately hard, hard, very hard.
  • Build most of the workouts around intervals with recovery in between.
  • Involve different kinds of pedaling efforts—spinning, big-gear mashing, standing—and various sorts of muscle group isolations.
  • Fuel during and after the ride.
  • Every third or fourth day, stay off the bike or go for a one-hour, low-key spin.
  • Do it all in a spirit of experimentation and game playing.

Here’s a fall-back training ride that I do on days when I don’t have anything more creative in mind:

Warm up for twenty minutes with easy riding.
Ride for 40 minutes, some days on the flats and some days on a hill, cycling through the four pedaling actions in the Advanced Skills chapter while varying the level of effort and maintaining a moderately elevated heart rate (which for me is 125-140). Do each pedal action for 10-30 pedal rotations. Cool down between sets if your body tells you to.
Afterwards, cool down with easy riding for a few minutes or until your heart rate drops to 110.