By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
The cheeky answer to, “How many hours should I ride my bike?” is, of course, “As many as possible.” But that really isn’t true. More hours on the bike doesn’t automatically lead to improved fitness, greater weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, reduced chronic disease risk, improved mental health, or any of the other potential benefits of cycling. “Just ride more” can be a recipe for disaster if the activity isn’t supportable by your baseline fitness or your lifestyle habits. There is no perfect number of hours that will be best for all cyclists, but here are some good ways to find the right number of weekly training hours for you.
To start this conversation with a blank sheet of paper, let’s consider a situation where there are no constraints on the time you have available for cycling. Obviously, that’s an absurd scenario because you have other responsibilities in life, but I still start there because it will help you see that past a certain point, unlimited training time wouldn’t make you any faster or stronger anyway.
What are you trying to accomplish?
The best number of weekly training hours depends on your goals.
Health and cardiovascular fitness
For generalized cardiovascular fitness, the exercise recommendations from the World Health Organization are pretty reasonable: 150-300 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise or 75-150 minutes per week if you incorporate higher intensity efforts. So, since cycling is typically a mixed-intensity activity, 3-5 hours a week is a good starting point for recreational cyclists looking to achieve the basic cardiovascular and metabolic benefits of aerobic exercise.
Once you decide to use cycling to improve athletic performance, particularly your ability to ride a bicycle longer and at higher speeds, the number of weekly hours you spend on the bike will need to increase, and you will need to start structuring your rides to address the physiological demands required to achieve your goal. With the appropriate training architecture, 6-10 hours of cycling per week are sufficient to prepare for the vast majority of amateur cycling events. This includes short, high intensity events like criteriums, cyclocross, short-track MTB, and your weekly Tuesday Night World Championship group ride. It also includes 2- to 3-hour events like most amateur and masters road races, cross-country MTB races, and medium-length gran fondos. And, yes, 6-10 hours a week is sufficient to train for longer events like centuries, long gran fondos, gravel events of 100-150 miles, and marathon MTB races.
Training more than 10 hours a week becomes advantageous when your goals are to be at the pointy end of a competitive peloton. Can you win a criterium or the city limit sprint on 6 hours a week? Absolutely. That’s the whole premise of the Time-Crunched Cyclist books and programs, and they work very well. If you want to win the criterium at Masters National Championships, you’re looking more at that 10-hour minimum. Same with a sub-9 hour Leadville 100 MTB finish or finishing near the top of your age group in a 150- to 200-mile gravel event.
Who needs to ride 10 hours or more per week?
If we’re talking ‘need’ instead of ‘want’, then there aren’t that many amateur cyclists who ‘need’ to ride more than 10 hours per week, at least not for the majority of the weeks of the year. Even for high-level amateur competitors and athletes preparing for ultra-distance cycling events, there will only be a limited number of weeks during the year when you need to ride more than 10 hours. Our coaches sometimes refer to this as the “minimum maximum” concept, or the minimum amount of time you need to devote to riding during your period of highest training volume. Put another way, an athlete needs to be able to commit to a minimum of X hours per week for Y number of weeks during a specific period of training before a goal event. Applying this concept to, let’s say at sub 9-hour Leadville 100 MTB finish, and a cyclist who can normally train 8-9 hours per week throughout the year may need to ride 11-13 hours per week for a 4- to 6-week period about 2-3 months out from the event (note, this is just a potential example).
None of the aforementioned recommendations are hard and fast rules. There are exceptions and a lot of individual variability. Cyclists win criteriums training 3 hours per week or get dropped despite training 12 hours per week. You might pull off a sub 9-hour LT100 on six hours of training per week, more commonly it’s people who can train 10-12 hours/week. The group of cyclists that benefits most from consistently training more than 12 hours per week on the bike are elite racers and cyclists who plan on performing at a high level (relative to their maximum potential) for a prolonged portion of the year. If you’re aiming to achieve a big goal in a one-day or even one-week event each year, you don’t generally need to maintain high training volumes year-round. Maintaining a high weekly workload is more necessary for prolonged periods of high performance because it means the fluctuations from baseline or sustainable workload to periods of heightened workload are smaller and more manageable.
How much stress is necessary to improve performance?
Underlying all of the recommendations above is the idea that a certain amount of training stress is necessary to improve performance, and the workload required to induce that stress increases as you become more fit. It’s important to realize that workload is the product of time and intensity, so weekly training hours are only part of the equation. Manipulating intensity and duration is the essence of creating workouts and organizing them into a training plan.
What’s important in the context of this article is that there is always a “minimum effective dose” of training necessary to stimulate your next positive adaptation. If your training stress – directed at a particular aspect of your fitness – is below this minimum effective dose, then it’s insufficient to cause the adaptation you’re looking for. However, at the other end of the spectrum there’s a point at which adding more training stress isn’t going to yield greater adaptations. Riding 15 hours a week is not 1.5x as effective as riding 10 hours a week, and riding 20 hours a week might be too much stress for your current physiology to support.
This is why we, as coaches, spend so much time monitoring your response to training. You may be able to fit more riding into your schedule. You may even be capable of coping with a higher workload. But for maximizing performance, what we want is to apply the minimum amount of training stress necessary to bring about the biggest adaptation we can get. More than that is a waste of energy and takes away from your ability to recover. That doesn’t mean we’ll always stop you from riding more, if that’s what you want to do and it fulfills other needs in your life, but from a purely performance-oriented perspective you want to do just as much as you have to do to get what you want, and no more.
How many hours do you have?
The number of hours you have available each week for training could be a limiting factor, but more and more, with people working from home or staying very active in retirement, available training time may be plentiful. That’s when additional metrics can become useful, like tracking total weekly Training Stress Score in TrainingPeaks, the total weekly work you’re accumulating in kilojoules, and trends in subjective information like perceived exertion, mood, and how you feel on the bike (and off of it). You should be tracking all of those things anyway, but in the case of athletes who have more available time than they know what to do with, these pieces of information can be very helpful for telling you when you’re doing too much.