Cycling Training for Beginners

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Bike on a sunny day with rock mountains in the background

Whether you are new or have been cycling for a while without any structure, cycling training can greatly increase your performance and enjoyment of the sport.

Very simply put, cycling training is for anyone looking to get better and more confident on the bike. It’s also for those who want to ride longer, faster, alone or in a group. It’s for the weekend warrior and the competitive cyclist. Training is very valuable for the time-crunched athlete, as it provides results without waste of time or energy.

In this post, we will cover:

  • Considerations before the start (bike fit, training zones)
  • When to start training
  • Planning your training
  • Recovery
  • Group rides
  • Zwift races
  • Hydration and nutrition for workouts
  • Hiring a coach
  • Helpful training guides and books

Before you start training

Bike fit

Before you start training, consider getting a professional bike fit at a reliable bike shop. It is the best investment you can make as a cyclist. It can prevent injuries, pain, and make you more efficient on the bike.

If you are new to cycling or have not done a professional bike fit, I urge you to get one right away. The “quick fit” that bike stores usually do for free when you buy a bike is not sufficient and won’t give you the same results.

If you have has a bike fit, it is recommended that you re-do it periodically, as your position on the bike might change overtime as you ride in a more aggressive position, for example. There are two commonly used bike fit methods.

Training zones

As a cyclist new to training, you may consider investing in a tool that will allow you to have some measurement of your efforts, such as a heart rate monitor or a power meter. You could also start by using your own perception of how hard your efforts are, which does not require any tools and is referred to as “Rate of Perceived Exertion” (RPE).

The purpose of measuring your efforts is to organize your workouts and training sessions based on “training zones”. These are discussed in more detail below.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Using RPE can be helpful for the new athlete who does not have the tools to measure power. It can also be useful when an athlete has taken significant time off the bike due to injury or illness and needs to get back into training in a more conservative and progressive manner instead of doing workouts at the pre-illness power numbers.

Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, is one of the methods used to prescribe workouts. It is a subjective scale of 0-10 or 6-20, used to measure the intensity of intervals.

Heart Rate (HR)

It is also possible to train using heart rate (HR) zones. These are calculated using a person’s maximum heart rate (Max HR), which is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity.

Using the popular formula 220 minus your age is not recommended, because each person’s maximum heart rate is unique, and that formula is rarely accurate.

The workouts would then be designed by using a % of Max HR. The downside of using this method is that a person’s HR does not follow the exact trajectory as their effort/power output. There is a lag in HR increase, and therefore there is great likelihood that the athlete following HR only would fall short of the desired effort measured in watts.

Power

Many workout designs are based on a rider’s power training zones. These training zones can be determined by estimating a rider’s Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or Lactate Threshold (LT). There are other ways of estimating training zones, but we won’t get into details here as FTP and LT are the most common.

Graph showing different power-based training zones
Sample chart showing work done in different training zones

Under this scenario, the intervals within a workout are based on a percentage of a rider’s FTP. In other words, a coach may prescribe intervals to be done at specific target watts (% of FTP) for a certain duration.

If you will be following a power-based training plan on your own, you will likely need to do an FTP test before you start.

You will need one of the following combinations to train using power numbers:

  • A bike with a power meter and a bike computer (e.g., Garmin, Wahoo) for training indoors or outdoors;
  • A trainer and a bike computer (e.g., Garmin, Wahoo) for training indoors;
  • A smart trainer and a training platform such as Zwift for training indoors.

When to start a training program

There is no one “perfect” or “recommended” time to start training. Even if you have been cycling for just a few weeks, you can benefit from training. Nevertheless, people new to the sport typically achieve initial fitness gains by simply establishing a consistent riding routine – at least initially. Let’s discuss this in more detail.

The “new” cyclist

The majority of people “new” to cycling will see improvements in fitness by going from not riding (or riding infrequently) to consistently riding a bike a few times a week. That is typically the case with any new sport or exercise routine.

I say “new” in quotes because someone might already be riding a bike a few times a month, so they are not completely new to cycling. They just haven’t adopted cycling as a weekly routine; a sport they commit to participating in.

Establish a routine

Find 2-3 days and times with the least amount of friction on your calendar and block them as your cycling time. Just like a work meeting or a doctor’s appointment, you keep those times and only cancel if something unexpected or major happens.

Then ride 30 minutes each time in the first week, progressively increasing it to 60 minutes. These are not meant to be hard rides. Be mindful of how you are feeling and recovering from these rides. Your muscles, ligaments, and tendons need to develop and get used to the new routine.

Increases in time on the bike should be slow and progressive. Aim for a 10% increase each week.

Progressively establishing a routine will set you up for success as you master the art of “showing up” for your rides. That will in turn make it easier to transition into training consistently and interval training to advance your fitness.

Benefits of training as a new cyclist

I started cycling and following a training plan at the same time. I wasn’t completely new to cycling, but up until that point, I would just ride my hybrid bike with flat pedals in the forest preserve trails a few times a month. I also practiced yoga and went to gym classes, so I was active for several days a week.

As a result, I discovered many advantages of starting to follow a training plan from the beginning, including:

  • Learning proper position on the bike and pedaling technique;
  • Cadence development;
  • Working at different intensities, which led to rapid fitness gains;
  • Getting the proper balance between hard work and rest/recovery;
  • Support and motivation from coaches and peers.

At first, I didn’t even know where I wanted to take my cycling. I started without any big plans. I just wanted to have a routine and support from knowledgeable people. Eight months later, I completed my first century (100 miles) in under 5 hours with the help of my team at the time. I never imagined this was possible!

In summary, you don’t need experience, big goals or plans to start training. You reason might be as simple as wanting to improve your fitness by following a routine that will make you stronger/faster while avoiding injury and burnout. And see where that takes you.

Building a solid aerobic base

One of the most important things for a new cyclist is to spend enough time in the saddle to build a solid aerobic base. Think of it as the foundation of your training, and also as a springboard to higher fitness and power zones.

The way to build a solid aerobic base is to incorporate into your training easy rides that get progressively longer as you gain fitness. These rides are done at no higher than 65%-70% of your maximum heart rate.

In summary, there are important physiological adaptations that happen with these types of rides, including improvements in muscle energy production, oxygen distribution, neuromuscular efficiency, and more.

The experienced cyclist

Let’s look at the scenario where someone has been cycling for a while. Maybe months, or even years without any form of structured training or coaching. Let’s also say that this person meets with a group of riders on the weekends to ride together.

Very often, such rider has a good endurance base but suffers to keep up with a fast group or a group with lots of surges in speed. Such rider could also have trouble with longer rides and/or varying terrain (sharp hills, long climbs, etc.). This is just one example where training can significantly improve performance and enjoyment.

If you have been consistently cycling for a few years, your focus should be on workout intensity. That is not to say that riding volume isn’t important; it is just less important because you already have a good endurance base.

There are many other scenarios where a training program can help, including:

  • A plateau in performance;
  • Boredom and lack of motivation;
  • Need for expert guidance and advice;
  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Injuries;
  • Starting a new discipline (road, mountain, cyclocross, etc.);
  • Limited time to train;
  • Planning to compete; and others.

Therefore, if you fall into one of the scenarios above, now is probably a good time to start a training program focusing on intensity.

Planning your training

Periodization

Most training plans are based on some form of periodization. The term simply means organizing and planning a training year based on periods that will focus on specific areas of development. The type of periodization will depend on the athlete and the coach/coaching program.

Periodization can be “Linear”, “Reverse Linear”, “Undulating”, or “Block.”

Joe Friel

For new and even intermediate athletes, Linear Periodization is quite effective because it follows a simple progression of abilities from basic to advanced. As such, I would recommend that new cyclists and cyclists new to training follow this approach.

Using Linear Periodization

A simple way to think about using Linear Periodization for your training is to determine your season goals and main events. Keep your key (or “A”) events to no more than one or two.

Once you establish your goals and events, plan or follow a training program that progressively builds volume and intensity over the course of the weeks and months leading up to your main event(s). Your plan should incorporate one of the most important principles of training: progressive overload.

Progressive overload

It is important to keep in mind that the body will improve through adaptation to the stresses (i.e., workouts) that are applied in a progressive manner.

This concept, also known as progressive overload, is based on the scientific principle that training stress must be gradual and must include a period of reduced training (recovery) to allow the body to rebuild, adapt, and get stronger.

Sample chart showing progressive training overload
Sample chart showing progressive training overload

Training stress without proper recovery can lead to a drop in performance, also referred to as overtraining. We discuss recovery in more detail below.

In summary, an effective training plan for beginners must not start with an aggressive schedule of long hours and/or too many high intensity workouts. In addition, the types of workouts or intervals (in terms of duration, power, number of repetitions, etc.) must be tailored to the various phases of the season: from the beginning all the way up to the athlete’s main event(s).

Training weeks

A good general rule to follow when planning your training is to do 3-4 weeks of high intensity and endurance workouts, followed by one week of reduced volume and intensity for recovery. You could start with 2:1 (2 harder, one easy), depending on your current fitness, then move on to 3:1, or even 4:1 depending on your level of fitness and age. Older athletes typically require one recovery week for each 3 hard weeks of training for optimal recovery.

Furthermore, even within a given week of intense training, there needs to be recovery and easy days so that the athlete is not doing back-to-back hard days without proper rest. These in-between recovery days can be days completely off the bike, or be easy rides with no intensity and maybe with some skills (single-legged drills, high cadence at low power, etc.). This of course depends on the athlete and how the training plan is designed.

Sample training week

  • Monday: recovery day (gentle yoga, short walk, easy spin or complete rest)
  • Tuesday: high intensity workout
  • Wednesday: [optional] endurance or skills ride (duration will depend on time of the year and level of fitness)
  • Thursday: high or lower intensity workout depending on athlete’s fitness
  • Friday: recovery day (gentle yoga, short walk, easy spin or complete rest)
  • Saturday: group ride or workout
  • Sunday: endurance ride with skills

Recovery

Time and time again, as a coach, I see athletes who fail to incorporate or follow proper recovery principles. Don’t get me wrong, I was guilty of this myself in my first years of cycling!

It is through recovery that the body adapts to training.

In addition, it is only with proper recovery that the athlete is able to go harder on the next day and have a quality session that is as intense as it needs to be to yield the desired results.

Turtle crossing bike path
Recovery rides should be very slow and easy

From my experience as an athlete and coach, I believe these are the main reasons why cyclists fail to recover properly:

  • Fear of losing fitness
  • Thinking that a group ride or a ride that “did not hurt as much” is a recovery ride
  • Belief that “more is better” and will generate faster results
  • Addiction or guilt (not being able to go a day or more without riding)
  • Failure to recognize that fatigue and/or life stress is impairing performance, thinking instead that they are not training “hard enough”
  • Training while sick or not fully recovered from illness/injury
  • Lack of trust in their training program

These reasons might not be obvious to athletes, who are deeply entrenched in their routines. This is when the help of a coach can be invaluable. A reputable coach will be able to recognize the behaviours and symptoms that can derail an athlete’s recovery and, consequently, progress.

What to do on recovery days

As mentioned above, recovery weeks should be structured as weeks with a significantly reduced training load. What about recovery days? What should you be doing?

It’s great to be active in some way on recovery days. It is also fine to take the day completely off exercise. The choice between the two will depend on many factors, including the athlete’s fitness profile, life circumstances, schedule, and how they are feeling on a given day.

Nevertheless, here are some ideas on what to do on recovery days:

  • Gentle or restorative yoga
  • Short walks
  • Easy spin (think turtle pace, no load, and for no longer than 60 minutes)

You get the idea. No sprints (even if just a few), and preferably no group rides, because it is hard to control the pace when riding with others. Easy means mind-numbing, watching-paint-dry easy.

Keep in mind that a recovery day is also meant to be a mental break.

It takes hard work and focus to train, and therefore shifting focus and relaxing the mind will help you come back stronger and fresher on the next day.

Group rides

Group rides can be the reason many people begin cycling. It can also be the reason people stay in the sport. Group rides can be motivational but can also be frustrating if the group does not work well together. Lastly, some people dislike riding in a group, and that is just fine.

There are several types of group rides, the main ones being:

  • Social rides – typically at a lower or moderate pace, although some might turn into a “hammer fest”
  • Spirited rides – where riders sprint at set points, go for Strava segments, simulate attacks and counter attacks, or simply ride fast
  • Long rides – these are the usually over 3 hours long and the goal is to work together at a moderate pace to achieve the distance or duration goal of the ride

However, keep in mind that a group ride is not the same as a workout and therefore it does not replace structured training. While these rides help develop bike handling skills and pack-riding techniques, they do not improve a rider’s power or speed over time in the way that a training plan does.

Group rides can sometimes be used to build endurance when a training plan calls for long rides. Still, the tricky part is that it’s almost impossible to stick to your targeted power zone when riding with others, even if you go with the “slower group”.

Nevertheless, group rides are social and make cycling enjoyable. As such, keep them on your schedule, but be mindful about doing too many of them if you are looking to progress in your training.

Zwift races

With the popularity of Zwift, more and more riders are participating in virtual races. It’s a safe way to experience the thrill of racing at a time that conveniently matches a rider’s schedule.

Zwift race

However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you plan on racing in Zwift:

  • Races are not workouts. They are an opportunity to practice your skills and put your training to work in a competitive scenario. Sure, you work hard, but they do not replace training sessions because there is no focus or targeted stimulus in the way that workouts do. This applies to all races, indoors and outdoors.
  • Be cautious about racing weekly for several months in a row and/or year-around. Doing so can result in chronic fatigue and likely compromise the quality of your training sessions (in addition to missed training sessions). This is when riders start to see a plateau in performance.
  • You might need additional recovery time after races, so your training schedule will need to be adjusted for this.

Lastly, know that racing in Zwift is not the same as racing “in real life”. Zwift’s algorithms are not able to accurately replicate what happens outdoors when you and your bike interact with the elements, terrain, and riders around you.

Hydration and nutrition for workouts

When I first started training I did not think too much about what to eat and drink before, during, and after workouts. As it turns out, how you fuel can make a big difference on how well you perform and recover. Below is a simple, straight-forward summary of what you need to know about fueling for your workouts.

Hydration

Proper hydration is extremely important, and it becomes even more crucial when training in high temperatures and indoors.

Your body uses most of its energy to keep you cool. Only about 25% of the energy the body produces is converted to mechanical work (e.g., to move your legs); the remaining 75% is heat.

USA Cycling

Therefore, if you are not well hydrated, your blood volume drops, your heart rate increases, and you have less oxygen delivered to your working muscles. Even a 10% hydration deficit can compromise performance.

Hydrate all day

As an athlete, make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day so that you start your workout well hydrated and replenish fluid loss after your session. In addition, focus on additional water intake in the hours leading up to your workout.

During workouts

Pure water is fine for workouts lasting no longer than 90 minutes under normal temperatures. For workouts lasting longer than 90 minutes, or if you lose a lot of sodium during workouts (i.e., you are a “salty sweater”), I recommend that you add electrolytes to your water.

Electrolytes help your body replace fluids faster, deliver oxygen to your working muscles and keep your engine running smoothly. Water alone won’t have the same effect when the sweat rate is high, the workout is long, or the temperature is high.

Nutrition

As a general rule, you will need to eat carbohydrates before high intensity workouts. Aim for about 60 grams of slow-release carbs and eat them with 10-20 grams of protein 60-120 minutes before such workouts.

Examples of low-release carbs are oats, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, and quinoa. My favorite pre-workout snack is a combination of banana, oats, whey protein and almond butter, as shown below:

If you workout early in the morning, make sure to eat carbs the night before. You could then eat something small before the workout such as bananas with almond or peanut butter.

Food during workouts and rides

You won’t need to eat anything during workouts lasting up to 60 minutes. You might consider eating 30 grams of carbs during very intense workouts lasting 90 minutes.

For workouts and rides longer than 90 minutes, plan to eat about 60 grams of carbs every hour. I like to eat smaller amounts more often, usually every 40 minutes. See what works best for you. These are just general guidelines, so feel free to adjust as needed.

Good examples of what to eat during workouts and rides are bananas, energy bars, baby potatoes, and home-made rice cakes.

Hiring a coach

Should you hire a coach? The answer can be very individual and can vary over the course of an athlete’s journey. A significant advantage of hiring a coach is to have an expert do all the thinking and planning for you.

If you are like most amateur cyclists, you lead a busy life and have many competing priorities. Making time to be on the bike alone requires planning. As such, hiring a coach or group coaching service will ensure that your time on the bike is purposeful, productive, and you are making progress.

Additional advantages of hiring a coach:

A coach will also help you with the following:

  • Design the plan or series of plans that will best meet your short and long-term goals
  • Guide you on how to:
    • Adjust your schedule after interruptions in training due to illness, travel, work/family commitments, etc.
    • Incorporate races (Zwift or outdoors) and other rides/events without overtraining
    • Stay motivated and on track
    • Prepare you so that you are fresh and ready for events and races
    • Fuel and hydrate before, during, and after workouts, and many more

Feel free to contact me if you are interested in working with a coach. I have successfully coached hundreds of athletes who were completely knew to training.

That is not to say you couldn’t train alone. With so many training software and plans available, it is possible to do your own training with careful planning. If you do, I strongly encourage you to incorporate the fundamental training principles discussed in this post and in the training guides listed below.

Useful Training Guides

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