how to train on a bicycle

This is a simple guide to the essential elements of training on a bicycle. Like many of my bike racing colleagues, with that mid thirtyish hanging up of the wheels as speed diminished, boredom led me to a new sport - drinking.  Training with the same dedication previously reserved for the bike I inevitably became a diabetes candidate - 23kg over weight with high blood pressure.

So when enough was enough and keen to ride again, the internet beckoned.  In my absence a relatively new phenomena, cycle coaching for everything from trips to the shops to spin classes has taken hold. Sir Bradley was making the transition from track to tour and Armstrong was busted. It made my dust covered collection of well read training tomes look woefully inadequate.

However, a few years down the line, my conclusion is that there is nothing much new in cycling, there are refinements to equipment (carbon) and training methods (power meters), but nothing so earth shatteringly important that we need to tear up the rule book and start again.

Humans are an adept species and historically we have worked out whats what long before scientists cloud the issue by trying to prove what we already know to be the case. 20 years of  pushing cyclists to exhaustion on static machines whilst measuring oxygen uptake, recording pulse rates and power, sticking pins in fingers to measure lactate and the same training methods apply. Fausto Coppi is generally regarded as being the first cyclist to do race specific training 75 years ago, and his methods are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1941.

Cyclists are suckers for any product that promises to make them faster, it's what makes bicycle development profitable, so an emotive sell from internet coaches promising gains in fitness and stamina from a very modest input from the time poor amongst us is hard to resist.

Instead of "getting in the miles" and enjoying our beloved machines we are encouraged to buy a power meter, calculate our FTP, interval train on the turbo, train our core, peak, reach our VO2max potential, increase cadence, reverse periodise, etc. etc. etc..

suffering on the Valpirola


The basic principle: push your body hard in an activity and it will compensate by making adjustments so that it is better prepared the next time you undertake the activity. Unfortunately these adaptations are temporary, so if we want to keep the adjustments we repeat the activity. Obviously as we are a little bit stronger from before we need to go that little bit harder the next time to force an adaptation and get stronger. How and when you repeat the activity to reach your goals is training.

junk miles

This is a term that covers unstructured miles with unrestricted effort. If you are new to cycling or particularly unfit it takes a few rides before you can ride base miles (the next stage) effectively.  Club runs, commuting and cycling holidays normally fall into the junk mile category. These miles count, particularly if your new to cycling. Go on a high mileage cycling holiday and you will come back knackered, but fitter.

Some riders prepare for events through little more than junk miles and do well. They simply enjoy riding their bikes in an unstructured way and do remarkably well on race day. Cover enough kilometers in a week and you will get fitter - "Whatever does not kill you only makes you stronger."


In a nutshell this is how you organise your day to day, week to week and month to month training activities. You could organise your junk miles - if that's not an oxymoron - so that you gradually increase the time in the saddle and/or the severity of the terrain.

In cycling we tend to start with a large volume of easy miles (base training) over about three months in the winter. We then build up our fitness with more intensive on the bike training, gradually making our routines tougher over the three months approaching our race season.

If this seams daunting, don't panic, if your ambitions are modest and don't involve racing, three months of regular (plan on getting on the bike at least four times a week) base miles, will put you in very good stead. No pain and lots of gain!

base training

All cyclists need base miles. They are enjoyable, easy, mitochondria building, fat burning hours spent just below the gossip threshold, (Paul Koechli La Vie Claire's coach coined this term long before the pulse meter emptied our wallets); it is the point where the effort level goes up and conversation ends. The number of hours you do depends on how much time you can spare and are the foundation for your chosen cycling discipline. Do enough hours and your aerobic system will be in very good shape. It will enable you to cruise effortlessly through a sportive.  

How much is enough? A lot - aim for at least two hours at a time and at least ten hours a week towards the end of a three month base building period. Slow cadence builds strength, fast cadence builds leg speed and economy, the two combined are your power. Some coaches advocate big gears, some small so the biggest gains probably come from pedaling either side of 90-95 rpm - alternate small gears fast cadence one day with big gears slow cadence another to keep the coaches happy. There is no real substitute for base miles.

polarised training

This is where it starts to hurt a bit and a pulse meter comes in handy as it is a useful tool for balancing your effort. Apparently "polarised" training is currently in vogue with the professionals. All speed and no base is not good and riding in the middle some where (so called tempo) isn't specific enough to bring on adaptations efficiently. The high intensity element of polarised training works on VO2 max (as do the base miles) and flirts with the anaerobic systems.

When pulse meters first came out I was first in the queue. Chris Boardman was the Englishman with the plan and doing his stuff with great success, his coach was Peter Keen. Rumour had it in club circles that all you had to do to emulate Chris was Peter Keen's three sessions of two hours a week at what was then level 2 (78% to 83% of MHR*) and is now level 3 and the lower end of so called "tempo".

Easy speed and race winning prowess? No far from it. Training in the middle isn't extreme enough. Fortunately the seminal book Training, Lactate Pulse-rate by Peter Janssen pointed us in the right direction. Lots of level 1 base (now levels 1 & 2), then level 1 interspersed with level 4 (now level 5) efforts worked well and still work well. The adaptive extremes of low and high efforts are far more effective than a tempo effort and have the added benefit of making you a better rider at tempo.

To "polarise" your training somewhere between 75% and 80% of your ride needs to be base (65% - 75% of MHR*) and the rest is 6 to 8 minute efforts at 89%-93% of MHR (level 5). A level 5 effort is really handy if hills on a planned route are likely to take you over the gossip threshold. Be creative with the level 5 efforts.

This principle can be used to balance training programs over weeks or months. If your lucky enough to live in an area where you can race two or three times a week then balance the racing by including a long midweek base building ride.

*MHR - Maximum heart rate - you need this figure and reliable pulse meters are cheap as chips, so no excuses! Ride fresh, eye balls out up the toughest climb in your area and sprint for the top as if there is a rabid dog after you. Record your maximum pulse and use it as the basis for your calculations.

anaerobic training

If racing is your cup of tea then a little of this (once a week and possibly not at all if you can race two or three times a week) is the way forward. Within a road ride undertake 6 sprints with full recovery, trust me you will need it, in between. From a standing start accelerate as hard as you can and keep riding as hard as you can for 30 seconds on a slight uphill slope if possible. After 10 seconds you should want to stop and the last 10 seconds will seam like an eternity. Depending on your level of fitness these sprints can be up to a minute long for top riders but as they are extremely stressful when done properly, it is wise to build up sprinting time gradually.

Early season a more convivial way to wake up the anaerobic system is to integrate some accelerations into your ride. These mini sprints are no more than 5 seconds long, enough to make the legs ache a bit but leave you with your stomach contents in place and the will to live. Choose an appropriate gear so that you are just on top of it as the effort ends. I find counting 18 half revs is about right. Be creative with them, full recovery, sets of three, standing start, rolling start in bigger gear, up hill but always short and sweet.

core training

Core training is nothing new: it is general strength training aimed at the torso. For cycling a simple 10 minute routine once or twice a week that focuses on the muscles that support the quads, hamstrings, glutes and to a lesser extent the shoulders is sufficient. You do not need weights, you do not need to join a Gym. An exercise ball is handy and learn to love the plough!

power meters and HRMs

If you are already an efficient bicycle racing machine looking to wring that last 1% from your lean physique and are motivated by graphs or inclined to invest in a coach then a power meter is a fantastic tool.  However, consider this: the hours you need to work to buy one of these over priced accessories could do more for your cycling if invested in training time.

An inexpensive, basic heart rate monitor (HRM) on the other hand, is a very affordable, invaluable piece of kit that gives good feedback on effort. An HRM used in conjunction with a basic speedometer running off the back wheel on a turbo enables relative power outputs to be determined for turbo training purposes. (Some turbo’s have this built in). Learn to gauge these efforts and with the aid of an HRM, power meter routines can be applied on the road.

time on the bike

Make time, cycling is an endurance sport so you have to endure! Although FTP workouts and short interval sessions are attractive because they reduce training time they are not the best way to train and will not stop you suffering in a sportive. When you read about a rider who races at elite level on 7 hours  a week it is because he/she is extremely gifted. Some of us would struggle to finish a 4th cat race on the same regime.

Inspite of their protestations Froomey and his professional colleagues are able to do the huge number of kilometers they do because they have a charmed life. They do not have to do a nine to five to pay the bills and purchase bicycles. They do not have to deal with the daily grind of domesticity (they are taken out of it). They spend as much time as necessary (several hours a day in build up phases) on the bike to fine tune their “engines”,  in an activity they love, for a sport they live for. They are fed well and spend the rest of their time recovering.

It is often said that bike racers who are not on the payroll train harder than their professional counterparts.  They are working when the pros have their feet up and they often don’t get enough sleep because there are not enough hours in the day. Certainly the hours pros spend on a bike (check out STRAVA) are incompatible with a normal working life. Factor in the need to breed and .................

putting it all together

Cycle training can be simple or complex as you want it to be. The basic premiss is simple as Coppi said when asked about the secret of his success, "ride a bike, ride a bike, ride a bike".

If you are time poor then a coach will help you make the most of your precious time. To get the most out of a coach a power meter is necessary, as your coach can trawl through your data to see what's going on physiologically. It must also be said that established coaches have reams of data with which to hone their training regimens.

Putting your own schedule together is not difficult. If, however, you want assurances that your doing the right thing, love graphs, like to be told what to do and where to do it and need the threat of a coach setting your pubic hairs on fire to get you out of bed, the coaching route could well be for you.

For further reading the Flamme Rouge web site is my cycle coaching favourite, everything is explained in detail in Tony's inimitable style and the self coach manual is well worth the £15.