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 only’s”—wishes for more power, a faster sprint, or a lighter bike. Give me 20 hours a week on the bike, we fantasize, and Sagan 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 top fitness by training only seven hours per week.
More Mileage Doesn’t Guarantee More Cycling Fitness
When some people start riding, 10 miles is a real chore. 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 10 or 15 miles on weekend rides. Even when they increase training mileage substantially, performance refuses to budge.
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 due to the high-impact nature of their sport. As a result, runners get harsh reminders from their bodies that they’re overdoing it.
Sports scientists agree that the injury rate for many runners jumps sharply at about 30 miles per week. Stay below that number and most runners can perform almost as well as they would at 50 or 70 miles a week—and have a far lower incidence of injury.
Because cycling is a compliant, non-impact sport, we don’t get such a dramatic warning that we’ve reached our mileage limit. But current thinking places it at about 110 to 150 miles per week for people who work for a living. That’s six to nine hours of riding.
As 1984 Olympic cycling champion Connie Carpenter Phinney has noted, “If you work full time, ten hours of riding each week is a lot.”
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 as a Cyclist
Pro cyclists often ride 20 to 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 five or seven quality hours if their events are short. Most people with careers, families and other time constraints find that seven hours a week is plenty of riding to meet their goals. Fast centuries require occasional rides of four or five 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 made Chris Froome 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.
Top Cycling Fitness in 7 Hours a Week
You can get in excellent cycling shape on only seven enjoyable hours of riding each week. That’s an average of a paltry 60 minutes per day, leaving plenty of time to mow the lawn, buy some groceries, say hi to the spouse, and maybe even hold down a job.
Even though this program allots seven hours, avoid simply riding an hour each day. That can’t give you endurance. 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 midweek.
Here’s a weekly schedule that works for many riders:
MONDAY: Rest day with 15 minutes of resistance training.
TUESDAY: Ride 1 hour with 3-8 sprints or other short, hard efforts.
WEDNESDAY: Ride 1 hour at a steady, moderate pace.
THURSDAY: Ride 1 hour including about 20 minutes of any type of hard effort.
FRIDAY: Rest day with 15 minutes of resistance training.
SATURDAY: Ride 1 hour at an easy pace.
SUNDAY: Ride 3 hours at a varied pace: group rides or hilly courses are good choices.
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 those missing miles by including intense efforts at or above your lactate threshold. Mix short, hard efforts like sprints with longer, steady efforts on hills or into the wind. Spirited group rides raise intensity, too.
The key is varying the intensity during the week. 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 have to learn to go slowly. If you always go at a medium pace, your fitness will be mediocre.
The 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.
So, stay off the bike at least two 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, but it doesn’t do much for the upper body. Maintaining muscle volume is crucial as we age. So cheat on the seven- hours-a-week maximum and find 15 minutes two 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.
Here’s one of our guides to core strengthening exercises for cyclists.
Are you so busy that finding even seven weekly hours looks like mission impossible?
The trick is to examine your daily schedule to look for small segments of free time.
- Can you get up early and ride before work? With today’s bright and long lasting LED lighting systems, pre-dawn rides are safe. It’s cooler, less windy, and the traffic is often lighter early in the morning.
- 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 morning 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 your favorite race video as you pedal. Using Zwift, TrainerRoad and other smart trainer apps can actually make indoor riding fun.
- Commute to work or school. A 5- to 10-mile commute with a longer loop home can mean an automatic one or two 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 seven-hour-a-week program? Of course. In lengthy events like centuries or weeklong tours, you won’t have the endurance of riders blessed with more training time. The solution is to realize your limitations and ride accordingly. Sit in a paceline, back off a bit on climbs, eat and drink often. You’ll do fine.