High intensity intervals or long/slow distance? Where do you start if you’re looking to transition from “just riding” to “training”? Before we get there, let’s begin with a more basic question, “Why train”?
Step 1: Answer the “Why train” question
“Training” is different from “riding” in that it’s planned and purposeful. In a practical sense, cyclists train even when they don’t feel like riding. Training is about reaching for goals beyond your current ride or level of motivation.
Why train? Do you want to be more competitive among your group of friends? Are you preparing for an upcoming cycling vacation? Hoping to jump into your first criterium? Make a list and be specific.
On a personal level these are some of my “why train” answers:
- Be competitive in races
- Be fit enough to keep up with my friends
- Experience forward progress in a demanding sport
Your answers might be different but the concept stays the same. If you want to start training, you’ll need a list to keep pushing through days when riding doesn’t sound like much fun.
Step 2: Be consistent and sign up
Intensity and volume get most of the attention when it comes to designing a training plan, but the driver of long-term progress on the bike is consistency. Day after day, month after month. How do you become more consistent?
In my experience working with athletes, the greatest predictor of training consistency is an event scheduled on the calendar, period. Your event doesn’t have to be a race. Fondos or scheduled group rides serve as great motivators to stay consistent. Look for something in your area and sign up. Adding external pressure to your calendar is your greatest asset in becoming more consistent.
Step 3: Assess your time
If you’re hoping to get more out of the bike you need to know exactly where your time will come from. For every day of the week, assess the realistic amount of time you have to train.
Think you don’t have enough time? I doubt it. Researchers recently found significant health benefits using a 10-minute structured ride . Yes, 10 minutes of total ride time. Even small windows of time can be worthwhile. By identifying exactly how much time you have to ride you’ll create a realistic foundation for a great training plan.
Step 4: Understand progressive overload 
If you want to get better on the bike, you’ll have to progressive push yourself further (volume) or harder (intensity) than you have in the past. So which strategy is better, volume or intensity?
If you’re short on time, your surest bet is to focus on intensity. If you’re training with power this path is pretty straight forward. You’ll need to progressively push higher power outputs in your weekly workouts. If you’re doing consistent 20 minute intervals in your training this is how a progressive increase might look, assuming your volume stays constant.
If you’re got more time to train, progressive overload can come in the form of volume. Rather than a singular focus on intensity, you’ve got additional options like riding more frequently or longer, as you increase your overall volume.
This is what a progressive volume increase might look like demonstrating a similar increase in power as our performance metric. Same progressive overload delivered through a different mechanism.
So which approach is better? It depends. Short on time? Focus on intensity. Lots of time? Focus on volume while sprinkling in regular intensity. Whichever path you choose, don’t expect progress without overload. It takes something different to get a different result.
- Answer the “why train” question. More answers are better. If you’re stuck on the question forget the “training” talk and just ride your bike. Training is impossible unless you’re committed.
- Be consistent. Training is hard and often miserable. You need a system of external pressure to help achieve consistency. The best external motivation is an event on the calendar. Sign up for something now.
- Assess your time. Carve up your week identifying realistic time slots you have to train each day.
- Apply progressive overload to your training using volume, intensity, or both. Recognize that without overload you’ll never get better.
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1. Gillen, J.B., et al., Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PLoS ONE, 2016. 11(4): p. e0154075.
2. McArdle, W.D., F.I. Katch, and V.L. Katch, Exercise physiology : nutrition, energy, and human performance. 7th ed. 2010, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health. p.