Cycling is one of the most adaptable and easily accessible forms of exercise on the planet. Pedaling is a low-impact, joint-friendly activity. Expansive gear ranges and electric assist bicycles make steep hills and longer distances accessible for more people. Engaging indoor options make cycling accessible and social for people in busy cities and far-flung rural areas. Improving cycling fitness doesn’t need to be complicated or intimidating, either. Doing the following 10 things will improve your cardiovascular fitness, make you faster and stronger on the bike, and make cycling more fun.
These steps are not chronologic, nor do you need to implement them all simultaneously. You may already be doing some of them. They are also not ordered by priority. Depending on your current fitness and experience level, some areas may be higher priorities for some people compared to others. Instead, it’s best to consider each of them one by one, determine whether you’re already doing a good job with it, how easy or hard that behavior would be to change, and the potential benefit for the effort.
Build up to riding 4 times per week
Consistency and training volume are two of the most important components of building cycling fitness. Before even thinking about what to do during your rides, the first step is just riding frequently enough for the training stress from easy- to moderate-intensity endurance rides to build upon each other. If you can only fit in three rides per week, that’s fine.
How long should your rides be? The short answer for beginners is to build up to riding 60-90 minutes per ride. Try to extend 1-2 rides per week to be more than two hours. Over time, increasing a weekly “long ride” to 3-4 hours could be a long-term goal. For more details on this, read “How many hours should I ride?”
Add one interval workout per week
Once you are consistently riding 3-4 days per week for at least a few months, incorporate intervals into one of your weekly rides. You do not need to add a training day to the week to do this. Just include the intervals within an existing ride on your schedule. Interval workouts focus training stress on specific regions within the intensity spectrum to stimulate meaningful adaptation that give you the physical tools to go faster or longer or both. Intervals can be long and relatively easy (e.g. 30 minutes at a challenging aerobic pace), medium length and strenuous (e.g. 10 minutes at your fastest sustainable pace), or short and hard (e.g. 3-5 minutes as hard as you can go). For more information on interval training, read this guide.
Different intervals serve distinct purposes. In the beginning, 15 minutes at a challenging aerobic intensity is enough. How do you do that? Your cruising endurance pace should be about a 4-5 on a 1-10 scale of perceived exertion. You should be able to carry on a casual conversation. At “Tempo” intensity you should be at 6 out of 10 and be able to speak a few sentences at a time.
Consume at least one bottle per hour on the bike
Staying adequately hydrated while cycling is crucial for health, enjoyment, and performance. One full water bottle (20 ounces or 500ml depending on the bottle) per hour while riding is the baseline recommendation for fluid intake. Often, consuming up to two bottles an hour is even better, but the volume of fluid you should drink depends on several factors. In hot environments – either high temperature outside or limited airflow indoors – fluid intake should increase with increased hourly sweat rate. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t try to) replace every ounce of fluid you lose through sweat. But a third bottle in an hour isn’t out of the question in hot and humid environments.
What about sports drink? Drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes can be beneficial. However, water takes priority in your bottles because you can consume calories and electrolytes from food as well. Separating fuel from fluid also allows you to increase water intake as temperatures rise, without overloading your stomach more calories than it’s prepared to process per hour.
Consume carbohydrates during rides
Speaking of fuel, you should consume 40-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour on the bike during rides that are longer than 60-90 minutes. For shorter rides, you typically start with enough blood glucose and muscle glycogen to fuel a high-quality ride. For early-morning rides or rides after work (e.g. several hours after lunch), a small snack beforehand or at the beginning of the ride may help sustain focus and motivation. To learn more about the role of carbohydrates for cycling performance, read this guide.
You may see recommendations for 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour, or even up to 120 grams/hour. These are advanced recommendations that require training the gut to handle that rate of consumption. It’s also only beneficial or necessary for high-volume or high-intensity situations.
Sleep at least 8 hours per night
Sleep is the absolute best thing you can do to recover from rides and give your body the opportunity to adapt and grow. There are a ton of “recovery hacks” out there, but so far nothing is more effective than consistently getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Quality matters, too. To improve your sleep, make sure the room is cool, quiet, and dark. Establish consistent nighttime and morning routines, and at least a consistent wake-up time if you can’t set both bedtime and wake times. Try to shut down all screens at least an hour before going to sleep, as well. For a great guide to sleep for endurance athletes, read this guide.
Having trouble getting to sleep after a big day of exercise? Here’s why, and what to do about it.
Eat enough food every day
The longer version of that statement is: meet your total daily calorie requirement. This means consuming enough total energy to meet the sum of your basal metabolic rate (e.g. the energy you need for basic bodily functions) + energy for daily activities (e.g. your voluntary work and lifestyle energy needs) + exercise energy expenditure. What you eat doesn’t matter all that much until you consume enough energy to meet or exceed this sum. An undernourished athlete will not have adequate energy to support the immune system, cognitive function, high quality workouts, high quality recovery, muscle repair, or cardiorespiratory system adaptations to exercise.
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What if you want to lose weight? Your first job is to eat enough to support your lifestyle and training. When you focus on gaining fitness and fueling your body for performance, you increase your capacity to use energy to fuel your muscles. As a result, improved fitness gives you the tools to burn more calories per hour. We recommend focusing on fitness first because weight management often happens naturally, if it’s warranted. And in most cases, training has more of an impact on a cyclist’s performance than weight loss.
Consume all three macronutrients daily
Although carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to consume during bike rides longer than 60 minutes, athletes are best served by consuming carbohydrate, protein, and fat as components of their daily diet. Nutritional strategies that eliminate or severely restrict particular foods or macronutrients are not necessary or beneficial for endurance performance. At best, high-fat low-carbohydrate strategies like ketogenic diets could work as well as a mixed macronutrient strategy for some athletes, some of the time. On the other hand, mixed macronutrient dietary strategies are more adaptable to rides and events away from home, have higher rates of compliance, and allow you to perform at your best at all intensity levels.
Learn to ride indoors, outdoors, and with groups
Increasing your range of riding options is the best way to make sure you can ride consistently. To ride four times per week, you might ride outdoors on your own one day, indoors on a smart trainer another, with a group ride on a third, and with an indoor group cycling class. If you are only prepared to ride outdoors with a particular partner, it’s easy for that ride to get cancelled by scheduling conflicts or bad weather.
If you’re an outdoor-only cyclist now, consider a modern smart trainer and one of the training apps like Zwift or Wahoo SYSTM. For cyclists who have only ridden indoors, learning to ride outside broadens your horizons and opportunities. Gravel cycling and mountain biking may be appealing to riders who don’t want to mingle with traffic. And if you only ride solo, learning to ride with the local group ride is a great way to make social connections and create some accountability that might help when your motivation wanes.
Learn to pace by perceived exertion
Cycling can be a data-intensive activity, but it doesn’t need to be. Power meters, heart rate monitors, GPS cycling computers, and wearable sensors can be great training tools, but when it’s time to perform you need to rely on your internal intensity gauge. Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) seems rudimentary in a high-tech society, but your internal sense of how hard you’re going and the sustainability of that effort level is remarkably accurate. What’s more, it remains accurate as variables around you change, like temperature, humidity, altitude, hydration status, and the distance you’ve already traveled today. As coaches, one of our biggest goals is to use high-tech training tools to teach athletes how to perform without them.
Keep it fun and simple
To get better at cycling you need to enjoy riding your bike. You’re going to spend a lot of time riding and doing all the things mentioned in this article. They’re only worth doing if riding your bike brings you joy. People who stay engaged with cycling end up getting faster and stronger because of the cumulative effect of mileage and hours on the bike. If you love the process of training you’ll stick with it and get better at all the things that make cyclists faster.
Bonus Tip: Work with a CTS Coach
The caveat to everything in this list is that improving cycling performance is simple when everything goes right. In the real world, life is unpredictable and messy. You have career and family priorities. You travel for work or pleasure or both. At some point you’re going to get sick or drop a bowling ball on your foot. Or maybe you’ll sign up for an audacious goal like the Leadville 100 or Unbound Gravel or a cycling tour through the French Alps. CTS Coaches have worked one-on-one with tens of thousands of athletes just like you. What you’re experiencing for the first time is something we’ve seen and guided athletes through hundreds or thousands of times.
We have the coaching repetitions to get to know you, analyze your specific scenario and build the one-on-one coaching relationship that will help you overcome your challenges and achieve your best performance. Your app won’t do that, and neither will a cookie-cutter training plan or a hobbyist coach fresh out of a weekend seminar. When you’re ready to talk with a professional, sign up for a free consult with a CTS Coach.
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