Life can be busy and it can often seem impossible to find the time to train for the event that fills your dreams. However, it isn’t impossible to reach ambitious goals and sustain a busy life, although of course there has to be some sacrifice.

So, how do you fit your cycling training into your busy life?

  1. Make your training part of your life, so that it is integrated into your day;
  2. Have a plan so that you know what you are doing and don’t waste time procrastinating; 
  3. Focus on the things that will give you the biggest most important gains and don’t get mixed up in the details;
  4. Create good habits and routines and prepare in advance, so that you don’t waste time faffing;
  5. Make your training time sacred – don’t get distracted, you need to stay focused and committed;
  6. Don’t go hard all the time, you need recovery;
  7. Include sufficient rest and recovery;
  8. Make your hard sessions hard and your easy sessions easy, make the hard sessions count;
  9. Look for ways you can cross train – walking can be very effective and if you work in an office with lots of stairs, taking the stairs can be a way of building in extra training

Obviously, it isn’t always easy to find time and it can be daunting to think about, but with some ingenuity and focus on the most important principles it is surprising what can be achieved.

1. Make your training part of your life

Routines and good habits lead to efficiency because by doing similar things each day you will get better at them. This means that if you do your training in the same part of the day, you can learn to get everything in place and ready, so that you don’t waste precious time faffing around, looking for things or procrastinating.

If you have assigned training time as part of your life, you don’t need to waste time deciding when to train, you can get on and do it.

Spend some time reviewing your daily activities by writing a list of what you do as you go through the day, from getting up to going to bed. It is important to physically make a list rather than try to hold all this in your head because it will be much easier to visualise where you can make changes and see where things are probably optimal. It is also a good idea to make the list based on time, so it gives a visual indication of how long you spend on each task, maybe split it up into 30 minute segments at first and see how that works for you.

Try to find one, two or three periods of between 30 minutes and 90 minutes during the day that you have time to use. Don’t worry too much about what to use them for at first, just look for the times and then you can work out a plan.

If your days vary or some days will be blocked off by travel or meetings, you will need to accommodate this in your plan. You can do this by assigning different categories and make your ‘training days’ where you perhaps have more time and your ‘travel/meetings days’ as when you can squeeze in something that takes less time, like a short indoor session, some stretching or bodyweight strength exercises.

2. Make a plan

Now you know how much time you have to train and when that training time is, you can make a plan.

If you are training for an endurance event, it is beneficial to have at least one session every two weeks where you can ride for a representative duration at low intensity.

If you are training for an ultra-endurance event that lasts several days, you will ideally need to assign a few two or three-day blocks to do longer rides. These don’t need to be as frequent and you can get away with 2 or 3 long rides and one block of back to back rides each month you have a basis to work with.

If you build a good base of fitness with shorter workouts, you may be able to get away with less, so don’t be disheartened if you are struggling for time.

Enter some events

A great way to get out for some longer rides is to enter some events. Look for things that interest you and that are progressive towards your goals. Things like sportives, audaxes, gravel events or mountain bike events that allow you to practice all your systems, nutrition and hydration as well as giving you a fixed time in your diary to do a long ride.

If there aren’t any events you can create your own and a good way to incentivise yourself to do them is to arrange to meet someone to ride with or even ride to visit someone. This makes sure you have a date in your diary that is harder to get out of.

Include some high intensity sessions to get fitter and faster

With limited time, assigning some workouts where you ride hard and fast is very important to help you make the gains you want.

Don’t be tempted to try and do everything hard because you feel your time is limited. This is counter productive and will just leave you getting more tired and drifting into a downward spiral of mediocre fitness levels. It takes time to recover from hard training and being aware of this is vitally important to optimal training.

Aim to find two periods during the week, with at least one day between them, when you can do a hard workout. This could be on an indoor trainer at home, on a bike in the gym, by extending your commute a little or something else. You need to be able to ride hard without compromising your safety or the safety of others.

Once you have these times available, you can add some structure to those sessions and make them progressive. Have a look at my article Get fit for cycling using the 5-pace system for some ideas on interval sessions you can use.

If you like to go to gym classes, you can do a spin class as one of your interval sessions but in general, these aren’t as good as a focused interval session, so I would include one interval session as well as one class.

Add as much low intensity training as you can

Two harder sessions during the week are enough to make big gains and for most people, including many elite athletes, two hard sessions is optimal. Remember these sessions need to be really hard and therefore it takes time to recover both physically and mentally.

Another guide, particularly if you have limited time, is that the more low intensity exercise you do, the better you will be. This is with the proviso that you you don’t compromise your health, nutrition, hydration, sleep or otherwise become too tired to do the harder sessions.

Be creative about this, maybe you can walk a bit extra to work and back or walk up and down the stairs rather than take the elevator, both to get to your office and if you have to visit people on other floors. If you can commute to and from work, or part of the way, by bike, that is great and will make a big difference to your fitness.

This exercise needs to be low intensity, so if you are using a heart rate monitor, less than 75% of your maximum heart rate or the pace you can comfortably hold a conversation. Don’t worry, you don’t need to wear a heart rate monitor all the time, you can get a feel for the level of effort. Basically, just keep it very easy because doing it too hard is going to compromise your other training but doing it too easy isn’t.

3. Focus on the 90%

To train for an endurance event you need to prioritise 2 or 3 long rides a month and at least one hard interval session each week for 3 weeks each month. With that, you can get very fit and be prepared to complete most endurance events with sufficient mental strength to keep going. If you want to race, you need to do a bit more but you can only do what you have time for. Be creative and prioritise what will give you the most gains.

I recently read a book by Jim Harmer called Work Energy, it is a great book and worth a read. In the book, Jim talks about working on the 90%, by which he means focus your energy on what is important and only worry about the other 10% when you have the important things in place.

To train for an endurance cycling event, your 90% is the long rides and the hard rides. If you can do one long ride and one or two hard and focused interval sessions each week with appropriate recoveries, you are hitting your 90% and well on your way to success.

Making your plan work

You now have a plan that should take you to your event with stepping stone events to build your endurance and test all your kit, nutrition, hydration and pacing.

You also have a weekly routine and plan that includes hard sessions that will progressively develop your fitness to ride faster and longer at lower intensities and includes some low intensity exercise as well as perhaps some strength and stretching work.

To a large extent, this is the easy bit.

Planning is exciting and is relatively easy. Training is often hard, can be boring and to make it work you need to do it consistently, sometimes when you would rather be doing something else.

Taking steps to remove barriers to doing your training and make it a habit will make a big difference to how successful you will be. I wrote an article about creating good routines and habits that you might find useful.

The following things will be helpful:

Be prepared

Get everything prepared and know what you are doing for each workout in advance. Look at your plan so that you know all the details of what you will do and where you will do it.

Make sure you have the right kit, the right bike and if you are going outdoors that your tyres are pumped up properly and any maintenance that needs doing is complete, so you are ready to go without messing about and wasting time.

Each time you do a similar training session, take note of where you could have saved time, write it down and make sure you implement the changes for next time.

Make your training time sacred

Assign high priority to your training time. Put it in your diary so that others can see you are busy at that time and only make compromises if it is absolutely essential. Most demands on your time can be scheduled to accommodate the small amount of time you have assigned to your workout and you can be strong and explore these.

Don’t get distracted, you need to stay focused and committed

If you are thinking about making a compromise or sacrificing an important training session, think about your goals and remember that each training session is a stepping stone towards your goals. If you miss training you might not achieve your goal, so make every session count.

Compromising or skipping sessions can quickly become a habit and small things can quickly knock you off your routine. If this happens, you can easily persuade yourself to take the easy way out, tell yourself that your goals and dreams aren’t really important and when your event comes round you might be sitting watching television, feeling unfit and wishing you had stayed committed.

Remember, it takes commitment, not just motivation to stick with a plan. Motivation is based on emotion and can quickly change, be committed to your plan and stick to it, make changes and adjustments if necessary but don’t give up.

Don’t go hard all the time

We have covered this earlier but it is worth reiterating that it is important to realise that going hard all the time is counterproductive.

You can’t force yourself to get fit, you have to provide a stimulus and let yourself get fit. Once you have done a hard session, your body needs time to adapt to it so that it is prepared for the next hard session that will stimulate further gains in fitness. If you are unsure about how this works, I have explained this in another article: why you need rest and recovery to get fitter and faster.

Include sufficient rest and recovery

This is partially covered in the previous paragraphs but it goes a little further. You need to stay healthy, eat properly and get enough down time and sleep to refresh both mentally and physically.

When you do your time plan to make training part of your life, make sure you schedule time to do the things you need to stay healthy.

This is vitally important, not just to your fitness but also to your health. Training for an endurance event puts significant load on your body and you need to account for that or you could easily end up in a state of mild or chronic overtraining that could take weeks, months or even years to recover from. At best, this will compromise your training, possibly lead to failure to reach your goals and at worst, have a significant negative impact on your day to day life and work.

Make your easy sessions fun and easy

Don’t get hung up on the intensity of your easy training sessions, make them fun and sociable if you can, or get out on your own and give yourself time to reset. If you have a busy life, these sessions can give you important personal time that allows you to escape and come back to the rest of the day refreshed and ready to get going again.

These sessions can be mentally and physically refreshing and promote recovery as well as making a significant contribution to your aerobic fitness. The more fun you make them the more you are likely to do them and the more you do, within reason, the fitter you will be.

When things don’t go to plan

Things never go completely to plan so if you miss a session or even a week or two of training due to illness or other things you can’t control, or even things you think you could have controlled, don’t worry.

Each training session is a step towards your goal but missing a few is to be expected. These missed steps aren’t part of the plan but they are implicit in all plans.

Spending some time to think about and write a list of things that could go wrong with details of what you will do if they happen gives you a strong chance of quickly getting back on track.

It is also worth having a plan for if something you haven’t planned for happens. I like Steve Peters’ acronym, NEAT, from his book, The Chimp Paradox. NEAT can be paraphrased in this situation as: ‘it is Normal for some things not to go to plan, therefore it is to be Expected and Accepted but you can Take care of it and move forward with a new and modified plan. You might also like AMP, also from Steve Peters, Accept and Move forward with a Plan.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found the ideas useful as well as providing you with some confidence that you can achieve a lot in very limited time.

Now Prepare to Live Your Dreams – you have no excuses!

Remember that you will ride more and probably faster if you are having fun. There is also significant evidence to suggest that you will recover faster and be at less risk of overtraining if you are enjoying what you do and taking control and ownership of your goals.

Related questions

Should I train if I have a cold or other illness? There is a lot of speculation about this and unfortunately I can’t give a definitive answer. I am not medically trained, so you should make your own decision but my experience is that you shouldn’t train hard, i.e. long duration or high intensity, if you are ill. My understanding and experience is that low intensity exercise isn’t likely to inhibit recovery and may help you maintain some fitness. The important thing if you are ill is to get better as quickly as possible and make that he focus rather than worrying about training and maybe making yourself more ill.

Should I include strength work? If you can find time to do some strength work then go for it but do it instead of your main cycling training. Doing some exercises and stretching in the office when you go for a coffee break can be a great way to build in some beneficial strength work without taking up too much time.

John Hampshire
Post by John Hampshire
February 6, 2020