The cycling community is always evolving, with veteran riders hanging up their wheels and beginner cyclists just starting with training for cycling. We see the complete range at our cycling camps and events, and as coaches we believe teaching the fundamentals is just as important as important as helping athletes take advantage of the latest advances in sports science.
Our relationship with bicycles can grow and change throughout our lives, and for some people that includes a time when you set goals and train to achieve them. Going from a person who rides a bike to an athlete in training doesn’t need to be an intimidating transition. Cycling training doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective, and with the proven information and cycling tips in this guide you can start training and prepare yourself for rides longer than three hours.
Getting Ready to Train For Cycling As a Beginner
Before jumping into workouts or increasing the amount of time you’re spending on a bicycle, there are some tasks and purchases to check off your list. Briefly, these include:
- Take your bike to the shop: Get a tune-up and replace worn parts (potentially brake pads, tires, chain, etc.) so your bike is ready to support your ambitions.
- Get a bike fit: Training stresses the body, and optimizing the way you sit on the bike helps you ride comfortably and reduces injury risk. A good bike fit can eliminate or prevent numbness in the hands, soreness in the neck and shoulders, and pain in the lower back and knees.
- Gear up: You don’t have to kit up like a pro, but padded cycling shorts are essential (go for baggies with a padded liner if you’re not into the skin-tight look). Cycling seats don’t have a lot of padding because they are designed to work with padded shorts. For other apparel, avoid cotton, stick with moisture-wicking fabrics, and use layers so you can adjust for weather conditions.
- Wear a helmet: Don’t be an idiot.
Items You Don’t Need To Get Started
There’s a seemingly endless array of products you can buy as a cyclist, but when you’re getting started it’s important to realize you don’t have to spend a fortune or get everything at once. Here are items people (including bike shop salespeople) think you need that you don’t, at least not right away.
- Power meter: Training with power is wonderfully effective and a power meter is a very valuable tool, but you can make a lot of training progress before needing to invest in one.
- Heart rate monitor: See Power Meter.
- Anything made of carbon fiber: Carbon fiber is light, strong, and expensive. If you want a carbon bike frame, wheels, or components, go for it! If you don’t, more economical options like aluminum will do everything you need.
Your First Week of Training for Cycling
Ride your bike more than you did last week. If you haven’t been riding a bicycle regularly, start by riding three to five times for 30-60 minutes each time. If you’ve been riding recreationally or for transportation, figure out a ballpark for how much time (not mileage!) you’ve been riding on a weekly basis and increase by 10%.
Don’t worry about going hard. Don’t go from zero to four high-intensity spin classes on week one. Don’t start with intensity; start with volume and add intensity later. Your pace on the bike should be conversational, meaning you could speak in full sentences to someone riding with you. This is a moderate intensity level, a 4-5 on a 10-point Rating of Perceived Exertion scale where 1 is sitting at the café looking at your bike and 10 is as hard as you can go.
Your First Month of Training for Cycling
Beginner cyclists who were not riding regularly before starting to train should continue building volume by increasing weekly riding time by 10% each week, over the course of 3-6 rides. Take a rest day – no training – at least one day out of seven. Many athletes quickly reach the weekly maximum number of hours they can devote to training, some within the first month. This is particularly true for athletes who were riding regularly before transitioning to goal-oriented training.
Add longer weekend rides. You can add training volume by incrementally making each ride longer, but many athletes with career and family priorities find it difficult to ride more than 60-90 minutes during weekdays. A more common way to add volume is to add time to weekend rides. (Find out how long your longest ride needs to be) This is also beneficial because at this stage a longer individual ride creates a significant training stimulus (training stress is the stimulus that causes your body to adapt and grow stronger).
Connect with the cycling community. Riding with more experienced cyclists is the best way to learn cycling skills. As with anything else, there is a learning curve to getting started with cycling. Everyone started somewhere, and most are happy to help shorten the learning curve for less experienced riders. The key is to find a group you’re comfortable with, and the best place to start is your local bike shop or cycling club. Many organize free weekly group rides at various skill, speed, and experience levels. Some also organize group training sessions, like a group ride that goes out to ride climbing repeats up a local hill.
If you’re more comfortable training indoors, or the times you have available for training require you to be indoors, you can still engage with the cycling community through apps like Strava and Zwift. (Try these sub-60 minute indoor cycling workouts) These apps are fitness trackers as well as social platforms, and help athletes measure their progress and stay accountable to their training goals. Many athletes who work with coaches upload their training data to TrainingPeaks or similar apps that allow coaches to analyze an athlete’s data and, in conjunction with frequent personal communication, schedule and adjust future training. Fitness trackers are more effective with more data, so if you use one be sure to upload your data.
Your First Three Months of Training for Cycling
Riding more hours can only take your fitness so far, especially once time-crunched athletes hit their maximum training time at 6-10 hours per week. Workload is the product of intensity and volume, and to increase workload without increasing volume we have to increase intensity. That’s where intervals come in.
Interval training is a means of increasing total workload by alternating between periods of higher intensity and recovery periods at lower intensity. Intervals can be long or short, mildly challenging or cross-eyed difficult, and anything in between. There’s an inverse relationship between the intensity of an effort and the length of time you can sustain that effort. The harder the interval, the shorter it will be, and vice versa. Athletes can use this relationship to target the energy system they’re trying to stress with an individual workout, series of workouts, or entire training block.
Generally speaking, here’s how interval duration and intensity correlate with energy systems. There is some overlap, but the larger point is that you can’t do 10-minute VO2 max intervals because you can’t sustain the intensity necessary to target that energy system for 10 minutes. Likewise, very few athletes can sustain 60-minute efforts at lactate threshold intensity. For most athletes 10-20 minutes is as long as they can maintain the intensity necessary to target improved performance at lactate threshold. When intervals are longer than they should be, intensity decreases toward general aerobic conditioning, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not helping achieve the goal of the interval.
|RPE||Energy System||Workout Names|
|20 to 60+ minutes||6||Aerobic||Tempo|
|10-20 minutes||7-8||Lactate Threshold||SteadyState|
|5-10 minutes||8-9||Lactate Threshold||ClimbingRepeat, Time Trial|
|1-4 minutes||10||VO2 max||PowerIntervals|
|<1 minute||10||Anaerobic Power||Sprints, SpeedIntervals|
Tempo is the first interval to add to your training. It is a moderately challenging aerobic intensity interval, meaning it is harder than your cruising endurance pace but not so hard you can’t speak in short sentences. The key to incorporating Tempo into your training is accumulating time-at-intensity. These intervals should be long, starting at a minimum of 15 minutes and progressing all the way up to 60 minutes. Typically, athletes complete one long interval in a Tempo workout. For instance you might ride for 60 total minutes and include one 20- or 30-minute Tempo interval in the middle of it. A 60-minute ride with a Tempo interval produces a greater aerobic workload than 60 minutes cruising at endurance pace.
The next cornerstone interval to incorporate into your training is called SteadyState. These 10-20 minute intervals target your maximum sustainable power output, or power at lactate threshold. Without a power meter or heart rate monitor you can tell you’re at the appropriate intensity if your breathing is deep but labored (not out of control panting!) and you can only speak in short phrases. A cornerstone lactate threshold interval workout is 3 10-minute SteadyState intervals separated by 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery.
Sports Nutrition For Cycling Training
As you increase your weekly caloric expenditure it is important to make sure your caloric intake is sufficient to meet your needs. The vast majority of Americans consume more than enough calories, and one of the big mistakes people make is to increase caloric intake way more than necessary as they start training. At a moderate endurance pace, 500 calories per hour is a good ballpark caloric expenditure during cycling. A hard interval workout for an athlete starting out might push that to 750-800 calories per hour. Use the following guidelines as starting point for personalizing your sports nutrition.
- Hydration is King. Being and staying hydrated takes top priority because it helps regulate core temperature through sweating, helps maintain blood volume to deliver oxygen to working muscles, and helps digest food. Hydration drives nutrition. Your hydration status determines whether your nutrition strategy has a chance of being effective.
- No additional calories are needed during workouts that are 60 minutes or shorter. You start training sessions with 1600-2000 calories of stored carbohydrate energy in your body, as well as tens of thousands of calories worth of fat. You have more than enough readily-accessible energy to fuel a a 60-90 minute workout.
- Consume carbohydrate during workouts longer than 90 minutes. Performance diminishes as carbohydrate stores run out, as carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel for higher-intensity efforts. For improved performance during longer rides, aim to consume about 20-30% of your hourly caloric expenditure, mostly from carbohydrate. If you’re riding a 3-hour endurance ride and estimating expenditure at about 500-600 calories per hour, aim to consume 100-180 calories per hour.
- Hydration in your bottles, calories in your pocket. Sports drinks are great, but there can be downsides to combining fluids with calories. When you separate the two – water or electrolyte drink in your bottles and food in your jersey pockets – you can increase fluid intake in response to high temperatures or increased exertion without overloading your stomach with more calories than it can process. Read more on hydration/nutrition for hot weather.
- Off the bike, a generally healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and natural fats will do the trick. Cycling training does not dramatically increase protein requirements, meaning most cyclists should be able to meet their nutritional needs through meals and snacks rather than supplementation. The most important component is getting enough energy. Significant caloric restriction, in an attempt to lose weight as you start training, often prevents your body from creating the positive adaptations that enhance your fitness and performance.
Your First Six Months
After improving basic endurance fitness through volume and fundamental aerobic and lactate threshold intervals, it’s time to make your training more specific to the goal you’re trying to achieve. If you’re preparing for a hilly or mountainous event, you’ll want to make your training more specific to climbing and descending. If you’re preparing for an event in flat to rolling terrain and potentially a lot of wind, you’ll want to work on group riding skills like drafting and using a paceline to share the work and conserve energy. If your aim is to get into racing, you’ll need to focus on increasing speed for accelerations and high power efforts.
By 3-6 months, most cyclists with career and family priorities have reached the maximum number of weekly training hours their schedule will reasonably sustain. At this point varying combinations of interval and endurance workouts are necessary to generate the workload necessary to improve performance. While the specifics of individual training plans are beyond the scope of this guide, here are some of the common mistakes athletes make during this timeframe:
- Insufficient rest. Training stress has to be balanced by adequate recovery in order for an athlete to make progress. If you overload the training side with too much stress and don’t take enough time to rest, your progress will stall. Signs that you are not getting enough rest include diminished ride performance, fatigue, irritability, trouble sleeping, lack of interest in riding, and minor illnesses (common cold, stomach bugs, etc.).
- Efforts that are neither hard enough nor easy enough. As you get more fit, your training efforts need to be at intensities high enough – for long enough – to create a training stimulus. Similarly, your easy efforts need to be deliberately easy in order to allow for active recovery. Many cyclists get stuck in a rut where all their rides gravitate toward the middle – workouts that aren’t challenging enough to improve fitness, and recovery rides that are too hard to allow for recovery.
- Scattered focus. In the very beginning of training you can make progress by training with different kinds of workouts all at once. You might ride for endurance one day, do a group ride another, climb hills on a third day, etc. After a few months of consistent training, however, athletes are better served by focusing their training on a specific type of workout for a period of weeks, in order to maximize the training load directed at a specific energy system. For instance, to develop greater sustainable power for climbing, you might focus on 2-3 climbing interval workouts per week for three weeks, in addition to some general endurance rides.
Moving From Beginner Cyclist To Intermediate
Ideally, the experience of getting started with training inspires you to continue developing fitness and participating in challenging cycling events. While you can certainly continue to make progress directing your own training or absorbing information from the cycling community, here are some recommended ways to take your cycling performance to the next level.
- Work with a cycling coach: Professional endurance coaches have degrees in exercise science, licenses and certifications specific to coaching, and careers devoted to improving performance for athletes of all ability and experience levels. Through frequent communication and sound sport science, a professional coach will help integrate training into your lifestyle and guide you through the ups and downs of preparing for your event. Learn more about what sets professional coaches apart from hobbyists.
- Try a cycling camp: Training camps provide time to immerse yourself in cycling. Ride with and learn from professional coaches, including handling skills, group riding skills, training techniques, nutrition strategies, and more. Training camps also provide a significant training stimulus, because you will likely ride more hours than during a normal weekend or week on your own.