Building structure and focus to your cycling can help you get fitter and faster but doing formal structured workouts all the time can take some of the fun out of it and limit options for more social rides. Fortunately, you don’t need to do formal interval sessions to build structure and focus into your riding. You can gain many of the benefits with a little ingenuity and planning.
So, how can you get faster at cycling by adding structure to your rides? By having a focus for each of your rides you can include elements that address your goals. For example, if you want to get faster at riding up hills you could find a hilly route and decide to work really hard on short hills and/or ride at a sustained but hard effort on long hills, recovering on downhills. This is like doing a hill interval session but can be mixed in with a normal ride and can be a social ride with a bit of competition mixed in if you like. If you work with a power meter or heart rate monitor, you can focus the intensity of your efforts to what you need and see how well you have done by analysing your data.
By thinking about what you want to improve and mixing it into your usual rides, or doing rides that work best for your needs, you can make amazing improvements with almost no change to your usual routine.
Having said that, it is much better to spend some time thinking about your needs and planning how to meet them than randomly choosing something at the start of a ride and trying to fudge something together.
What do you need to do to get faster?
At first, you will get faster by just riding your bike. You will improve your stamina by riding further and as you ride more and more you will gradually get faster. However, at some point your improvement will slow down until it seems like you are at a standstill. In fact, on some rides you will be faster and on some you will be slower.
At this point, you will have to do something more specific to improve on your weaknesses and stimulate your body to build more fitness. This is where you need to start training specifically to improve rather than just going out and riding your bike.
If you are happy to be fit enough to ride with your friends at your current level, maybe occasionally waiting for some of them and others waiting for you, that is great and you have no need to read further, other than for interest.
However, I assume you are reading this article because you want to get faster and therefore making some changes to what you do to build your fitness, power and therefore speed is your aim.
What you need to do to improve is to stress your system more than you are doing already. Basically, to upset the status quo that you have settled into. You can do that by doing more at a similar intensity or doing the same amount and including some higher intensity workouts like tempo and interval sessions.
You may have reached a plateau because you have done too much and therefore you are over tired. There are many good articles about over training and if you think there is a chance you are experiencing symptoms of chronic fatigue, you should ease off until you feel better. A good indication is that if you feel tired all the time and don’t want to ride your bike when it used to be something you loved, you may be doing too much and it is time to take action before things go really wrong.
Assuming you are at a plateau for the right reasons, here are the things you can do.
To a certain extent, the more you ride the fitter and faster you will become. So if you have reached a plateau, adding some more cycling time will probably result in some improvement as long as you don’t over do it by building up too quickly or riding too hard for too long.
It is easy to say ride faster but having some idea of what faster means and how much faster is important to get the most out of yourself.
The best way to define the intensity of your riding is by using training zones that are based on heart rate, power or perceived exertion (how hard it feels). Training zones are usually based on some kind of threshold, you may have heard people talk about FTP (Functional Threshold Power), Critical Power, Critical Pace, Anaerobic Threshold, etc, these are all similar and for most practical purposes. This article explains how to calculate your FTP or heart rate threshold and also how to calculate training zones. There are many different sets of training zones, so you need to choose what to use and ideally stick with it.
We like to use the training zones derived by Andy Coggan for cycling, see the table, which is taken from an article by Andy Coggan on the TrainingPeaks blog. You can read the article here, which is a good explanation of the zones and the expected physiological gains. The article is based on power, but is just as relevant to you if you use heart rate or perceived exertion.
For best results it is a good idea to ride in all the training zones up to and including zone 5 (Max Aerobic), varying the emphasis to address your goals.
If you are training for events that require you to work above your threshold power or heart rate and recover repeatedly, you need to include some anaerobic capacity efforts and if you need to sprint, you will need neuromuscular power as well. These sessions are harder to prepare for within your general rides. This is the case particularly for neuromuscular power, which requires long recoveries and maximal efforts to be effective.
Where to place the emphasis?
To get faster using structured sessions it is best to think about specifically where and when you want to be faster.
When do you get dropped from the group, or when do you struggle to keep going if you are on your own? Do you struggle with short hills, sustained efforts or keep going towards the end of hard rides? Thinking about these things will help you identify where you need to focus your training.
Improving your FTP is the thing most likely to help you go faster because it means you aren’t having to work as hard at any given speed, even slower speeds, and you aren’t using up as much of your anaerobic reserve for efforts above your FTP because it is higher.
However, if you are okay on flat sustained rides but struggle on rides with lots of short hills with the same group of people, it may be that you need to improve your anaerobic capacity.
As a starting point, it is usually best to aim to do work out how you can include some Lactate Threshold and Max Aerobic training into your routine because these will lead to an increase in FTP and you are probably doing some tempo training if you go out with a group that pushes you to work hard.
What rides work well for added structure?
Lactate Threshold sessions are often easier to perform uphill or into a wind where there is an additional resistance to work against. You need to do efforts of between 8 and 30 minutes. If you do shorter efforts, you need to keep recoveries quite short so that you are giving your body a reasonable continuous stimulus. However, recoveries are important to give you the best chance of spending more time in your target zones.
If there are big hills where you live, you can do longer efforts and recover on the downhills, maybe you could find a circuit with around 3 x 10 to 20 minute hills in zone 4, or something like that depending on the hills. Getting 30 to 60 minutes in zone 4 will be a great way to build your fitness.
If you don’t have hills around, then finding somewhere to do 3 or 4 x 8 minutes in zone 4, a little above FTP, with 2 minutes recoveries will work well. This session is a bit shorter in duration but you can do it a little harder. Because the efforts are shorter, it is better to keep the recoveries short, whereas for the longer efforts, the recovery durations aren’t as critical.
You could do the longer style zone 4 efforts as a group session where weaker riders stay at the back and stronger riders work as a chain gang to keep a fast pace. This has the bonus of helping your riding skills as well as adding interest. You could also do this as a handicap style set of short time trials to spice things up.
Max aerobic sessions are probably the most effective at building FTP and also giving you some anaerobic capacity. These sessions are also much easier to do with friends because the recoveries are longer and give you a chance to regroup.
Max aerobic sessions are easy to plan and work really well on hills. They are also a very effective way at helping you get better at hills.
The aim is to do efforts of 1 to 5 minutes with recoveries of the same durations as the efforts. If you can find a hill that takes around 3 minutes to ride up as hard as you can, you can just do hill repeats at your zone 5 intensity and then freewheel back down, wait until your 3 minutes recovery is finished and go again. Alternatively, you can mix a session like this into one of your normal rides.
The durations of the efforts and recoveries aren’t critical, just do efforts of 1 to 5 minutes and have around the same durations to recovery. Stop when you have done 12 to 20 minutes of hard efforts or when you can’t get into your training zone 5.
Group rides and club rides
Riding with a group of people, particularly one with faster riders is a great way to build fitness and endurance as you work to hang on to a group. This comes with a caveat, in that you should respect and follow the etiquette of the group. If it is a social ride where riders are supposed to stick together, you shouldn’t be pushing the pace and splitting the group. There are times and places for working hard in a group and plenty of opportunities to join a group where you can push yourself.
The best way to do this is by looking around for clubs in your area and finding out what their club rides are like. For larger clubs, rides are usually designated according to the average pace and distance of the group so you can get an idea of how well it will suit you. Keep in mind that how hilly the route is when deciding what pace you can ride and also that if you are in a group you can usually go a little faster.
The best thing is to find a group that you are confident you can stick with and ride with them until you feel it is time to step up to a faster group. Starting the other way round can be demoralising and upset other members if they have to wait for you and compromise their training because you chose the wrong group.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ride with a club if you think you are going to slow them down, there are rides for everyone and the slowest club rides are usually designed for everyone, including beginners, so get out, ride your bike and you will soon be moving up a group or at least keeping up comfortably.
Longer rides don’t need any particular emphasis to build your endurance, just think about your goals and build up the durations of the rides until you are comfortable you can do what you need.
If your ultimate goal is an endurance event, long rides are perfect opportunities to practice pacing, nutrition, hydration and make sure all your kit works well for your main event.
If your event is a multi-day ultra-endurance event, you probably won’t be practicing the full distance but you can do something representative and develop a routine. Routine and logistics are everything (along with mental and physical toughness of course) in these events.
How much and how often?
Higher intensity training is hard and can be damaging to your body, so it is important not to do too much and to take sufficient recovery between your harder rides. If you don’t take enough recovery, you may even get slower and you certainly won’t make the gains you want.
Being properly rested before a hard training ride will allow you to work at the higher intensities needed to stimulate gains in fitness. If you are too tired to work hard enough, all that happens is you get more tired.
As a rule of thumb, it is best to take at least one day of rest or easier riding between rides in training zones 4 or 5. Most people can only do 2 or 3 good quality zone 4 or 5 sessions each week and a good routine is to aim to do 2 rides at this intensity and maybe one Tempo (zone 3) ride each week. Giving yourself an easier week every 3rd or 4th week.
The gains in fitness happen during recovery, as your body builds up stronger, adapting to the stresses of your harder training sessions.
Remember to enjoy it
Remember that you will ride more and probably faster if you are having fun. Unless you are a professional athlete, your cycling is a hobby, although it may be a very serious one, the aim is to enjoy it and benefit from the freedom that it gives you. So, make sure you don’t get hung up on numbers, speeds, Strava segments – enjoy the journey and make sure you still do the things you love about your sport.
How do I check whether training sessions are effective? The most important factor in getting a training effect is the amount of time you spend in any given zone. If you want to check whether your sessions are having the effect you want, you can look at a chart that shows how much time you have spent in a given zone. For an endurance ride you would expect to be mostly in zones 1, 2 and 3 (easy, endurance and tempo), if you want to do a threshold session you would be aiming to spend at least 30 minutes in your training zone 4 (lactate threshold) and if you want to build your power at VO2max or improve your VO2max you should aim for 12 to 30 minutes in your zone 5 (above your FTP).
Why am I slow on hills? Being ‘slow’ on hills can be for several reasons and isn’t necessarily because you aren’t good at hills. If you are having to work hard to stay with the group on the flat, you will be depleting your energy reserves and when it comes to a hill, you won’t have anything left to give, this means you won’t be able to stay with the group but it is because you were having to work too hard to stay with them on the flat. To improve this you need to improve your FTP and speed in your Tempo zones. If you can easily stay in the group on the flat but get dropped on short hills or when the pace picks up for a short time, it might be that you don’t have much capacity to ride above your FTP, your anaerobic capacity. Doing some intervals in your zone 5 (max aerobic) and some flat out efforts of 3 to 8 minutes with lots of recovery will help you improve your anaerobic capacity and also help raise your FTP.