Ask a coach: 'How can I get fit on three workouts a week?'

Squeeze maximum performance out of minimum training time with these pre-season sessions for the time-crunched

A man cycling up hill in the countryside
(Image credit: Future)

Many of us lead increasingly busy lives with plates to spin, mouths to feed and all those other things that skew the work-life-cycling balance and conspire to stop us from spending as much time on our bikes as we might ideally like.

So, if we can only fit in three workouts per week, what exactly should we be focusing on? Which sessions should be indoors and which ones outdoors? What sort of intensity should we be aiming at?

Coach Alex Welburn is on hand to help the time-crunched to get the most out of their three rides per week, with a mini-programme that will help you optimise the rest of your winter training and then will sharpen you up for early season competition or faster riding.

Alex Welburn
Alex Welburn

Performance cycling coach Alex Welburn is one of the experts who will be answering your questions in Cycling Weekly's Ask a Cycling Coach series, online every Wednesday. He's currently completing a PhD on Critical power and W' at Loughborough University whilst also managing the Performance Project, in which he coaches athletes and provides consultation.

First of all, let's make the assumption that you probably have a couple of hours for a ride at the weekend and two 60-90-minute sessions during the week. 

We're going to split these sessions into ‘Winter Training’ and ‘Pre-Competition’. 

Winter sessions

Winter training aims to drive up the volume of your steady Zone 1 and Zone 2 riding. However, being time-crunched doesn’t allow for a large volume of training. So, the focus is on the quality of these sessions. The aim is to work below your threshold with a strong and predominant aerobic focus.  

How do you know if the training is working and you're improving? If we visited a performance laboratory, as a marker we would be looking for what is called your LT1, the first rise above your baseline values. While there are many definitions used, we use your baseline plus 0.4. 

But, as we don’t all have the luxury of going into a lab, here are a few simple things you can look at. HR should decline over time for the same power: you can do average HR compared to average power and use this to track your efforts. Or for the same HR, you should see a small increase in your power output. If you're not using a power meter or at heart rate monitor, assess your efforts using an RPE (rate of perceived exertion).

In the zone

Training zones refer to different levels of training intensity, zone 2 being very easy, and zone 5 very hard. Zones can be set using rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, or power - read more here.

Winter session 1: zone 3 blocks

* Warm-up – 5 minutes zone 1 then over the next 10 minutes ramp it up each minute with the final 60s at your FTP/CP

* 5 minutes easy riding

* Main workout – 4 x 10 minutes zone 3 with 5 minutes recovery.

* Cool down – 5-10 minutes zone 1

Winter session 2: sprints into zone 3

* Include the same warm-up

* Main workout – 3 x [8-second sprints with 12 seconds recovery] But after the final effort you have no recovery and go straight into 9 minutes of zone 3

* 5-8 minutes of recovery

* Cool down – 5–10 minutes zone 1

Winter session 3: endurance

A staple to any winter plan is zone 1-2 endurance rides. Look to keep the cadence at around 90 rpm. While this can be a hard one to transfer onto the turbo as it can be a long time on the turbo (I recommend 2-3 hours at least), ultimately, cycling is an aerobic sport, and some volume is required. 

But there are a few indoor additions you can implement to help pass the time. You can vary the cadence every 5-10 minutes to mimic rolling terrain. Increase it by 5-10 rpm until you are around 15-20 rpm above your preferred cadence and do the same until you are below. 

Another variation is to include some pace variation such as 20 minutes zone 1, 10 minutes zone 2, and 5 minutes zone 3 before working back down the zones. These can make it more interesting than just a straight endurance ride, especially when outdoor riding just isn’t an option.

Pre-competition

This block aims to prepare you for your early-season races and introduces speed/above threshold work. This allows you to get familiar with that intensity and accustomed to it. This is often a fun phase, especially as you are working a little bit harder and once you get into the first couple of weeks, you can feel the benefit of the winter in your legs.

As a word of caution, you may be tempted to add ‘more’ and increase the intensity. It is a long season from this point and pushing on too hard can increase the chance of burn-out and too much fatigue building. 

It is a good idea to assess your FTP/CP before and after starting this block to ensure your zones are correct and to assess your improvement.

Pre-comp session 1: critical power (CP)/functional threshold power (FTP) work

* Warm up – the same as above, but include 3 x 30 seconds at your 5-minute power with 30 seconds recovery between them and 5 minutes of easy riding after. This is due to the higher intensity of the session, so we need to do a little more to prepare for the session

* Main workout – complete  4 x 8 minutes at CP/FTP with 4 minutes recovery between each one

* Cool down – 10 –15-minutes zone 1

Pre-comp session 2: under-overs

This is a session better suited to the indoors, but equally can be completed on the road with some careful route planning.

* Complete the same warm-up as before

* Main workout – 3 x [3 minutes just below your CP/FTP 85-95% then 60s at 100-106% of your CP/FTP]

* 8-10 minutes recovery then complete this 3 times in total.

* Cool down – 10 minutes zone 1

Pre-comp session 3: hill repeats

With the wonders of indoor trainers and online platforms, this session is easily done indoors or outdoors. Completable on an endurance ride if you have more time or keep it short and indoors if time is limited.

* Complete the same warm-up.

* Main workout – 4 x 5 minutes at 90-105% of FTP/CP but complete the first and last 15s out of the saddle and over target 120-140% of FTP/CP

* 5-minute recovery between each effort. 

* Cool down – 5-10 minutes zone 1

These are a few of my favourite sessions I recommend, for each of these periods. They can be completed indoors or outdoors. Sometimes you may need to be a little bit creative. Also know that sessions can always be flexible, if you have a climb that is only 4 minutes, rather than 5 minutes, just change it to 4 minutes. Sessions will often be harder to do outside and not as clean, but that is OK! 

And as usual, don't forget to enjoy these sessions.

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