While long rides are critical to building endurance, efficiency and confidence, you don’t have to put in double-figure distances to reap those benefits.
By managing the training time you do have and making minor adjustments to your busy lifestyle, you can efficiently build your fitness levels to ensure you peak at the point you want to.
“Sometimes we think that unless we can do two-, three- or four-hour training rides then it’s just not worth it,” says Tim Lawson, former national level cyclist and founder of performance nutrition firm Science In Sport. But research shows how even short workouts can be effective, especially in conjunction with the right exercise and dietary conditions.
“Just doing 20 minutes for six days in the week is two hours more than you would have done,” continues Lawson, “and it will contribute to your fitness and endurance levels in the short and long term. If you have the money but not the time then a Wattbike indoor trainer will help optimise workouts, but there are plenty of spin bikes, even reconditioned ones, that will do the job,” he adds.
Finding the time to train
In Lawson’s book, going like the clappers during those precious minutes is one valid form of attack. “Studies show that two lots of seven minutes’ training can be as beneficial as much longer sessions at some training variables. If it’s done in a low carbohydrate state and the intervals were 20 seconds full gas, 10 seconds off, you’ll reap rewards in no time – even 30 seconds’ sprinting every two minutes can be effective over a short time.”
Other coaches plot a different course. “If you’ve only got 50 minutes at lunchtime in the working week then you need to look at ways you can make that time count most effectively towards your goal,” says Ruth Eyles, a British Cycling Level 3 coach in road and time trial. “If that goal is a sportive then short bursts of interval sessions aren’t going to develop your endurance levels the way a steady 50-minute session at a continuous pace will.”
As much as you’d like to squeeze a steady 50-minute ride on the open road into the middle of your working day, the truth is that, for many, the stationary bike at the gym is the closest they’ll get to sandwiching a ride into their day.
Can't get a ride like this in on a lunch break? Make the most of a stationary bike workout instead
“Building those stamina levels means working on the stationary bike at a brisk top end of your maximum heart rate,” says Eyles.
Recent research from the Odense University in Denmark demonstrates how steady workouts can have a more beneficial effect on a rider’s stamina too. After five weeks, cyclists who’d ridden steadily – at 80 to 90 percent of their VO2 max for 30 minutes per workout – measured a six percent increase in their VO2 max scores against a group who did interval sessions and failed to raise their aerobic endurance at all.
Paul Mill, of Elite Cycling Performance Coaching, specialises in bringing the best out of those who are strapped for time when it comes to training. He coached Reza Pakravan to a world record crossing of the Sahara desert by bike on less than 12 hours per week.
The idea of shortcutting your endurance is something most coaches laugh at, but Mill understands the demand for fast-track ways of preparing the body for the bigger challenges. “The word ‘endurance’ really is associated with hours in the saddle – and for riders with some blocks of time to commit, then endurance-boosting should be built upon steady, aerobic-based rides. The key is that you train at an aerobic level – this means training at a degree whereby you’re still able to hold a conversation.”
But if, as according to Mill, going at a higher intensity because you have limited time does have its merits, why doesn’t everyone just do it this way and save time? “Because one major drawback with working at even a slightly higher intensity is that you become fatigued more rapidly than a rider training at a slightly lower level,” he explains. If you’re squeezing training around a full-time job in a ‘little and often’ pattern, you’re going to need the energy to train consistently.
“Session-wise you can either just do your set as one long period at a higher rate or you may wish to break this into segments, especially if you’re just starting out,” he suggests. “The key thing is to set goals such as keeping a steady heart rate throughout and, as you progress, you begin to decrease the rest period in between the intervals so you can then string them all together into one piece.”
Shortcut to hill domination
During that golden time when you are in the saddle, Eyles suggests using interval work in the way that can prepare you for the longer haul. “If you’re looking to increase your pace or practise for climbs, then intervals can play their part – working short intervals into an hour ride when you put in a much higher intensity for a short period.
“For UK hills such as the Chilterns or Mendips, you can replicate these by interspersing your ride with smaller chunks of flat-out riding that would mirror those hills – but it’s going to need much more if you’re looking to train for much more demanding continental climbs,” she points out.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to improve your climbing ability is something you don’t need to bike for specifically. “It may be better to be thin than fit – or ideally both – when it comes to the hills,” says Lawson.
Slimming down is a shortcut to improving your climbs
Eyles agrees. “Improve your climbs by losing weight on the flat – it’s a hard truth for some, but it’ll help with the hills.”
Riding in the fat-burning zones can help you reduce your body mass and prove more time efficient (see Phil Batin’s experience, right), while biking into work and having breakfast when you’re there may help reduce fat levels and so boost your hill climbing.
Studies carried out by researchers from the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow reiterate the science, which says training on an empty stomach can raise your calorific burn – an unfuelled workout may fire up the fat-burning process to torch an additional 1,000 calories a month.
Picking up the pace
You can use those short spurts of training time to get faster, too. But Mill warns that cyclists short on time need to think about the true definition of speed and how they can work on improving it. “One major mistake that riders make is to think of speed as getting from A to B as quickly as possible,” he explains.
“Speed is a technique that means the use of a faster cadence.” Improving your cadence – the number of pedal revolutions per minute – and being more efficient as a rider will subsequently mean you go quicker. “The first step is to recognise what your natural average cadence is over a period of rides. By using the same intensity and increasing this number, even by five revolutions per minute, you will increase your speed.”
Once again the use of interval training is seen as a sure-fire path to picking up the pace by some tutors. “Intervals like 20 seconds just above threshold and 40 seconds just below it for six minutes can be really effective,” insists Lawson. “These 20/40s are used a lot by pros and you can do them on the trainer as well as outdoor.
“A high nitrate diet will improve efficiency too,” he says. “Eat spinach, rocket and beetroot juice, or use nitrate source gels, which can up your pace by one to two per cent over just a few days. And use caffeine as a stimulant to kickstart training sessions.”
“Never underestimate the benefit that comes with small chunks of exercise,” says endurance coaching specialist Joe Beer. “Even if you’ve only got a short commute of 15 or 20 minutes a day, or a short ride to a station, don’t miss the chance to get those legs and wheels turning.
“If you’re able to ride for five or six hours a week, that’s great, but look to use the other 160 hours to your benefit too,” says Beer, who adds that you should sweat the incremental stuff, like taking the stairs instead of the lift, never taking the car when a walk, run or bike will suffice, and even doing muscle stretches as part of your morning shower routine.
The importance of recovery
“Many cyclists don’t realise what it means to recover properly,” says Eyles. “Going shopping isn’t recovering. Doing housework or DIY isn’t recovery. These activities use muscles and burn off calories.” You may not be too popular around the house, but when you’re recovering you really should be doing as little as possible.
Recovering means doing as little as possible
“Learn about recovery bio-markers too,” suggests Jeff Davis, sport scientist with recovery specialist restwise.com. “Use apps to help check your hydration levels, body weight, resting heart and oxygen saturations levels – these give clear indicators of your recovery status.”
Doing post-ride stretches can reduce muscle stiffness, keep you supple and iron out the lactate produced by the body. Massage will also stimulate blood flow in your legs that will help speed up the recovery process in your muscles – helping to ensure you don’t miss a session through muscle ache.
“One of the main sources of recovery is taking carbohydrate replacement within 30 minutes of finishing exercise,” adds Lawson. “Miss this window and you’ll regret it.”
There are numerous recovery products on the market, including carbohydrate drinks with protein, with a ratio of carbs to protein of at least 2.1, up to 5.1. Those with added glutamine will help your immune system recover from stressful workouts.
“You’ll still feel hungry,” says Lawson, “but be wise with your choice of foods. Try to add a portion of protein to your post-ride session with the majority balance in favour of carbohydrate.
“Another great way of helping your muscles recuperate is to use a cold gel to ease the swelling within the muscle wall,” he continues. “Gels, such as Nuflex, are formulated so the molecular structure is small enough to penetrate directly into the muscle, helping fast recovery.”
Finally, make sure the precious bike time you have is enjoyable too. “Find like-minded riders who share similar goals to you,” says Beer. “Enjoy your rides, don’t flog yourself to exhaustion, and use training rides to work out the best format for your personal refuelling – energy bars, gels or drinks, or a mix – and when you should take them.”