By Fred Matheny
"If only I had more time to train, I'd be in super shape." Ever overhear that comment on the club ride? I bet you have. You may have even said it yourself. It ranks way ahead of other cycling "if onlys" – wishes for more power, a faster sprint or a lighter bike. Give me 20 hours a week on the bike, we fantasize, and the pros would be in trouble.
Sorry. More mileage, by itself, is unlikely to make us better riders. And that's good consolation for riders fighting a time crunch.
Let's examine why a modest amount of training time allows you to unlock nearly all of your genetic potential. Then I'll show you how to reach a very high level of fitness by training only 7 hours per week.
More mileage doesn't guarantee more fitness
When some people start riding, 10 miles is a real demand. But soon they can ride longer, and their average speed improves markedly. However, after some months they reach a depressing plateau. Average speed stagnates and it's harder to tack an additional 15 miles on weekend rides. Even when they increase training mileage substantially, performance refuses to budge – and it may even deteriorate if they wind up overtraining.
Each of us has inherited limits to our abilities. Simply adding mileage won't shatter that genetic ceiling. In fact, riding too much can slow us down rather than make us faster when we exceed our capacity to recover.
Example! Runners are more susceptible to injury than cyclists because of the high-impact nature of their sport. As a result, runners get harsh reminders from their bodies that they're overdoing it.
There's one more fallacy of wishing for unlimited time to ride: you'd probably get bored with cycling. Isn't gonna happen – you love to ride, right? But if all you did was ride – no weight training, no hiking, no leisurely Saturday mornings puttering around the house – you'd eventually come to dislike the bike.
Deciding how much to train
Pro cyclists often ride 20-30 hours a week. Riders training for ultramarathon events may log even more. Recreational racers (category 3, 4, 5 and masters) usually put in about 10 weekly hours, although some get by on 5 or 7 quality hours if their events are short. Most people with careers, families and other time constraints find that 7 hours a week is plenty of riding to meet their goals. Fast centuries require occasional training rides of 4 or 5 hours, but other weekly jaunts can be shorter.
All of this said, trying to ride a set number of hours each week – and getting frustrated if you don't meet that goal – is exactly the wrong approach.
You're an experiment of one. That's what running philosopher and physician George Sheehan used to say and he was right. We're all individuals. The training program that makes Lance Armstrong fit enough to win the Tour de France would make most of us too tired to get a leg over the bike. The secret? Ride when you can, and have fun when you do. You shouldn't punch a time clock when you get on your bike.
You can get in excellent cycling shape on an average of only 60 enjoyable minutes of riding each day. This leaves plenty of time to mow the lawn, buy the groceries, say hi to the spouse and maybe even hold down a job.
Even though this program allots 7 hours, avoid simply riding an hour each day. That can't give you endurance or recovery. Instead, ride longer some days and take other days completely off the bike. Your personal schedule will determine the exact mix, but most people ride more on weekends when they're off work. They schedule non-cycling days for weekdays. Here's a weekly schedule that works for many riders:
7-hours-a-week training schedule
Remember, intensity is one key to this program. If you could ride 200 to 400 miles per week, sheer volume would guarantee a high level of fitness. But you can't. Instead, make up for missing miles by including intense efforts. Mix short, hard efforts like sprints with longer, steady efforts on hills or into the wind. Spirited group rides raise intensity, too. Aim for efforts at or above your lactate threshold.
Lactate threshold is also called "anaerobic threshold." It's the exertion level beyond with the body can no longer produce energy aerobically, resulting in the buildup of lactic acid. This is marked by muscle fatigue, pain, and shallow, rapid breathing.
The key is varying the intensity during the week. If you always go at a medium pace, your fitness will be mediocre. So, when you go hard, go really hard. When you go easy, go at a pace that Colorado cycling coach Skip Hamilton calls "guilt-producingly slow." You must learn to go slowly.
A second key is sufficient rest. Intense workouts boost your speed and power, but this increased fitness comes at a price. Put the hammer down too often and soon you'll be tired, irritable and slow – all the hallmarks of overtraining. This is why I recommend staying off the bike at least 2 days each week. Lift a little, take a relaxing walk, prop up your feet and read a good book. When the time comes to train hard or to beat up your friends on weekend rides, you'll be rested and ready.
Don't forget to squeeze in some resistance training. Cycling is great in many ways, but it doesn't do much for the upper body. Maintaining muscle volume is crucial as we age. So, cheat on the 7-hours-a-week maximum and find 15 minutes 2 days each week for some basic upper-body exercises. Pushups, pull-ups, crunches for the abs and a low-back exercise (such as back extensions) are all you need. Knock off a couple of sets of each to complement your saddle time. A good time to do this simple-but-effective resistance program is right after easy rides when you're warm.
Are you so busy that finding even 7 weekly hours looks like mission impossible? The trick is to examine your daily schedule and look for small segments of free time. For example:
- Can you get up early and ride before work? With modern lighting systems, pre-dawn rides are safe. It's cooler, less windy and traffic's often lighter, too.
- How about a lunch-hour workout? With a little planning, you can change, get in a brisk 60-minute ride, clean up and be back at the desk in 70 to 75 minutes. Eat half your lunch at your midmorning break and the rest during the afternoon.
- Late evening is a good time for many people to exercise. Dinner is over, you've had some family time and a great workout is a lot better for you than slouching on the couch in front of the cardiac tube. Again, modern lighting systems make after-dark rides a snap.
- Ride indoors. If you don't like riding in the dark or nasty weather, consider pedaling on a trainer. An hour passes quickly if you vary your workouts, use a big fan for cooling, drink plenty of fluids and watch race videos as you pedal.
- Commute. A 5- to 10-mile ride to work with a longer loop home provides an automatic 1 or 2 hours of cycling each day. Why sit in a car and stress about finding time to ride when you could use your bike for daily transportation?!
Finally, ride smart. Is there a negative to this 7-hours-a-week program? Of course. In lengthy events such as centuries or week-long tours, you won't have the endurance of riders blessed with more training time. The solution is to realize your limitation and ride accordingly. Sit in a paceline, back off a bit on climbs, eat and drink often. You'll do fine.
This Signature Series article is provided courtesy of RoadBikeRider.com. It comes from RoadBikeRider's bible of training for cycling, Fred Matheny's Complete Book of Road Bike Training by Fred Matheny.
From the cover: During three decades as a road rider and cycling writer, Fred Matheny has built an international reputation for his contributions to the sport. In this, his thirteenth book, he amasses his knowledge and that of many other experts in what is truly the complete book of road bike training.
RoadBikeRider offers Fred's book, many more cycling guides and even a free weekly e-mail newsletter full of tips and news for aspiring bicyclists.