Virtually everyone who rides wants to get fitter. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional, regardless of experience, most of the same rules apply.
Training is a controlled way of challenging our bodies, and regular training allows the body to adapt and get fitter. To keep progressing we need to keep increasing the difficulty of those challenges. This can mean riding further, or riding harder. However, without stressing your body with new physical challenges, your fitness will stop improving or even go backwards.
Improving your fitness requires the right dosage of training. It needs to be frequent enough to apply some stress, but be balanced and with enough recovery to allow the adaptation process to take place.
Frequent short training sessions are more effective than infrequent long sessions. Over equivalent periods, interval sessions improve performance better than steady, continuous efforts.
If you only have three hours to spare per week you will be able to improve your fitness more with three one-hour sessions, or even several 30-minute rides, than just one long ride.
If you only ride once a week, you may be wondering why, despite your regular rides, you aren’t improving. That’s because, after just seven days without cycling, your body will start to lose some of the fitness gains you have made. To keep progressing and improving your fitness, you ideally need to be riding your bike every 2-3 days, even if it’s just a turbo trainer workout. The minimum you can get away with and still see significant fitness gains is three rides a week.
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Cycling for fitness: essential cycling training sessions
Cover off at least one of each of these rides per week and you’ll be on the quickest possible route to fitness.
60 minutes +
Long rides at a conversational pace are the bedrock for improving your endurance. At this pace your breathing is deep, rhythmic and regular, and should never feel strained or ragged. For these rides stick to flat or rolling terrain rather than hills. Focus on keeping a smooth high cadence, and use your long ride to get used to eating and drinking on the move.
This ride will train your body to get used to burning fuel efficiently. It will also help you to improve your riding posture and help you to get used to sitting on the saddle for extended periods of time.
Long gradual climbs are ideal for this session, or they can be done on the flat in a big gear or with high resistance on a turbo trainer. After a good ten-minute warm-up, pedal for five minutes at a pace that feels hard but controllable. You should be breathing deeply and only able to say one or two words at a time. Recover for one minute and then repeat.
Aim for a minimum of 20 minutes at the hard pace per session. If you have more time, aim for ten minutes at the hard pace before your one-minute recovery.
These sessions help to improve your muscular efficiency and will make climbing feel easier.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to boost endurance, increase calorie burn and improve cardiovascular fitness. During the intervals you have to work very hard – it needs 100% effort – but the intervals are very short. After a good ten-minute warm-up, spend five minutes alternating between 30-seconds’ all-out effort and 30-seconds’ recovery. Pedal easily for five minutes and then repeat.
If you are very limited on time then just three sessions of HIIT training a week is the best way to improve your overall fitness.