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The Time-Starved Cyclist: How To Train When You’ve Got No Time

Time Starved Cyclist – How To Train When You’ve Got No Time

Finding the time to train (or simply the time to get out on your bike) is perhaps the number 1 problem experienced by readers of Sportive Cyclist.

(Well, the number 1 cycling problem at least).

I wish I could wave a magic wand and solve your problem. In fact, if I had a magic wand, I’d wave it over me first, and STUFF THE REST OF YOU!

Ahem.

I don’t have a magic wand, so we’re going to have to do this the hard way.

The conundrum is as follows: we’re all busy people, we have jobs, family and a 1,001 other commitments tugging at our shirt sleeves. When we do have time to train, how do we use that time effectively? What gets us maximum fitness bang for our time-strapped buck?

I have no idea. Which is why I’ve found someone that does.

Tomás Swift-Metcalfe is a professional cycling coach, based in the Algarve. After many years as a professional cyclist (racing against the likes of Rui Costa, the current world road race champion), Tom now focuses on making other people cycle faster (using his sports science degree from Loughborough, as well as his professional experience). Tom kindly agreed to write a post for us (me) that focuses on what matters, and what does not, when you only have a limited amount of time in which to train.

Tom’s training company, based in Portugal, can be found at www.swiftmomentumsports.com. But before you head over there to book your sunny cycling training camp, do read the post.

Over to Tom.
====

Why Bother Having A Training Programme In The First Place?

Whether you’re sold on cycling or not, it’s important to be motivated. I’m not going to go into some long-winded explanation of why cycling is great. Instead I’ll keep it simple: exercise improves cognitive ability, strength, endurance and reduces stress. And it’s fun!

And here’s some good news: time constraints need not limit your training. There is no reason why an effective training programme should negatively affect your work or family life.

Whatever training strategy you adopt, there are some key principles which are proved in theory and stand in practice to work, to help you get the most from your time on the bike.

In this post I’m going to run through these principles and give you a basic training programme to work with. After that I’ll look at some additional strategies that will really help you get the most bang for your buck when training on a (time) budget.

Training Principles For The Time Poor

Intensity

Even a professional cyclist only requires about 3 hours a week of cycling at or around their threshold level to maintain fitness. So once you achieve full or near full fitness, it’s relatively cheap (time wise) to maintain it.

Threshold is defined in many different ways. There are a variety of different ‘thresholds’ that aren’t the same thing and usually depend on how it’s measured (blood lactate, expired air…).

Don’t worry about any of this. Think of your threshold level as being the fastest you can cycle that you can sustain for a 20 minute period (so it’s not your sprint speed!).

For the more serious (but still time strapped) cyclist, different training effects can be achieved within the narrow range of effort around threshold.

Sprint training (e.g. 10 repetitions of a 30 second sprint with 4:30 minutes of rest between each one) has a massive effect, improving both aerobic and anaerobic capacity more than steady state training.

Shorter intervals above threshold (e.g. 6 repetitions of 1 minute of maximum effort with 1 minute rest between each interval) also boost anaerobic capacity, the burning of fat for fuel and recovery to a far greater extent than a long aerobic effort.

These sessions are short and easy to fit into a busy lifestyle. Remember though that both of these training sessions should take place after a thorough warm up.

What Is A Thorough Warm Up (And What Can You Get Away With)?

A thorough warm up takes about 40 minutes on the road, with the first 20 mins easy and the second 20 including a couple of 60-90 second progressive accelerations (i.e. gradually accelerating over the course of the 60-90 secs until you hit your maximum) and a couple of 30 second sprints, spaced by 3-5 minutes of easy riding between each effort.

On a turbo, and in other sports, you can get away with a shorter warm up routine.

If you’re super time strapped, cut the warm up to 20 minutes. Over the first 15 minutes increase intensity slowly and progressively. End with a sprint and a couple of minutes spinning in an easy gear. It’s not perfect, but better than no warm up at all!

Frequency

I recommend a minimum training frequency of three times per week, at high intensity, for fit people. If you’re starting from a lower fitness base, you should see good improvement from training just twice a week.

Sessions need not be longer than 35-45 minutes. ‘High intensity’ is the key phrase: the 35-45 minute session should take place at the intensity level I mentioned above. This kind of punishment takes some getting used to. The good news is you do get used to it and even enjoy it eventually.

[Note from Monty: when Tom talks about ‘intensity’ he is referring to the overall intensity of the session, including the rests. He is not suggesting you go all out for 45 minutes. ‘Intensity’ refers to the overall load of stress that you put on the body when you undertake a training session]

Keep on top of it! Just a week without training is enough for fitness to slip away quickly. Sessions don’t have to be long, but commitment to training is important.

Volume

When I was a professional cyclist, I remember some of the other pros undertaking crazy training volumes, up to 35 hours a week. The extra time spent training resulted in little additional benefit (and often had a significant cost in terms of injury and burnout).

You can achieve a good level of form even with just 10 hours per week and reach nearly 100% of your potential with 16 hours. Beyond this extra gains in fitness are tiny and are linked more to how you train, than how much you train.

[Note from Monty: ‘form’ is shorthand for fitness level in case that’s not clear. Also, Tom isn’t suggesting you have to train for 10-16 hours a week – simply that this represents the upper boundary of what will actually lead to a fitness improvement before the marginal benefits tail off. It’s better to undertake 6-8 hours of high quality training rather than 10+ hours of junk.]

That said, one long ride every weekend (possibly two) is still important… There’s no getting away from that!

How A Time-Poor Training Programme Might Look

Disclaimer alert! Designing a ‘generic’ fitness programme is always a challenge, particularly when you are working to extra constraints (i.e. a lack of time). For my clients, we monitor and adapt programmes as they’re being undertaken in order to deal with changes in fitness, circumstances and goals.

For the purpose of this example, we’ll imagine a potential time-starved cyclist (albeit an ambitious one!):

“Dave is a relatively fit guy, who fit’s most of his training miles in with his commute. He’s just three weeks away from the ‘Haute Route’ in the Alps. He’s beefed up his weekend ride to improve his endurance, after a long build up over a series of months. He’s able to do high intensity cycling every other day.”

[Note from Monty: Haute Route events are 7-day quasi-road races for amateur cyclists, so ‘Dave’s’ training requirement is very much at the upper end of the average sportive cyclist’s spectrum!]

The following is a rather simplistic approach, however:

Imagine Dave does 75% ‘aerobic training’ (the type he can plod along comfortably for 3 hours or so) and 25% ‘high intensity’ work.

To get to that magic number of 3 hours per week at threshold (remember, the amount of time needed by pro cyclists to maintain fitness), Dave needs to complete 12 hours per week. With one 4-hour ride at the weekend, he needs to average just over an hour a day to achieve his volume target (1:20h to be precise).

But Dave uses his bike to commute to work, so the extra time needed for training is reduced. His commute takes 40 minutes by bike versus 20 minutes by alternative transport (Dave lives a blessed commuting existence by modern British standards), he is only ‘investing’ an extra 40 minutes a day – and reaping the huge benefit in terms of fitness gain.

Table 1.) Dave’s weekly training schedule, using the principles outlined above:

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
Easy ride or complete rest dayWarm up, then:6 * 30 second sprint with 4:30 second’ active recoveryGym session, or short cycle or runWarm up, then:4 * 1 min at max intensity with 1 min recovery between eachGym session, or short cycle or run3-4 hours steady with the final hour fast as you can for that hour2 hours with two 12 min periods as fast as you can

Aside from the long ride on Saturday or Sunday, it’s relatively easy for Dave to fit good quality training into his busy lifestyle, even with a tight schedule.

[Note from Monty: bear in mind that Tom’s example is a little extreme, but the principles hold true for the more mediocre cyclists amongst us (i.e. me!) – training is about quality rather than quantity]

Tactics To Supercharge Your Training

For the time-poor cyclist, another key watchword is ‘leverage’: turning a small time investment into the largest possible fitness gain.

In the section above we dealt with the foundations of a training programme. In this section, I set out some tactics that, with a little commitment, can multiply the fitness benefit of the basic training schedule.

Diet… (I Had To Say It)

This won’t come as news to most people, nonetheless it’s the point most often ignored!

Fat is dead weight.

Obviously a non-competitive cyclist isn’t concerned about getting super thin, but a change from 15% (which is slim for a sedentary person) to 12% makes a big difference.

Staying slim is half the battle when it comes to training. Slim people come into form much quicker that people with an extra bit of fat. So even if your fitness is a little off, it’s worth staying slim.

Incidentally, there are many, many diets and fads out there. The only diet that seems without a doubt to be healthy on an epidemiological scale is the ‘Mediterranean’ diet. It’s a safe bet.

[Note from Monty: not that Tom, being based in the Algarve, has a vested interest in promoting the Mediterranean diet ;-)…]

Usually cutting something like sweets (or beer) from your diet is sufficient to bring fat down.

Training Camps

If you are doing a tough sportive like the Étape du Tour, or maybe even one of the multi-day Haute Route events, a week away from work to tune up the form is ideal. This should take place about two weeks before the event, giving you a week to taper.

If you’ve kept up the quality training and are relatively thin, this week will give you that bit of endurance that may otherwise be missing and tie the whole thing together.

[Note from Monty: even if you’re not doing a super tough sportive, I’ve found that a foreign training camp (otherwise known as a family holiday to Majorca) is a great way to make up for a sporadic (and frankly insufficient) training regime – my Balearic trip in July 2013 was one of the main reasons I got around RideLondon without too much drama.]

Many ardent cyclists appease their cycling widows by training at dawn whilst on holiday. This has the added benefit of avoiding the daytime heat and going head to head with sightseeing coaches on picturesque climbs. The other solution is to spend your non-training time handbag shopping and arranging massages (not for yourself)…

Competitive Element

Setting training goals (realistic ones) is great for motivation. Your goals should account for your limitations (time, equipment, etc).

Going faster on the same course or climb, is the usual goal, but improving quality of training is one you should consider. Say you are doing 4 times 4 minute repetitions, why not try to achieve the same level of effort and performance in each one?

I remember my first coach (in athletics, but no matter) would tell us to pay particular attention to the penultimate rep. The penultimate one, being close to the end but not the final one, often saw a lapse in concentration and a slip in performance. The goal was simply to make sure the exercise was done as well as possible.

Cross-training

Cyclists tend to hate cross-training (i.e. training in another discipline) and especially hate running, yet it’s important to keep a bit of running in the program.

Running is important for bone health and biomechanics. It trains muscle groups such as the hip adductors, which go unused and tend to waste away relative to the main cycling muscle groups.

The impact from running causes harmless microfractures in the bone which leads to a great deposition of calcium in the bone and hence greater bone strength: In cycling, bone mineral density becomes reduced.

Running also happens to be super cost-effective when it comes to time.

If you’re not currently running, do build it up gently, in order to avoid picking up an injury.

Strength training is another aspect worth training at least a couple of times per week in season.

Even in endurance athletes, strength training has a big effect, providing you do it consistently. It increases muscle volume, absolute strength and aerobic power increases and, most importantly for cyclists, increases muscle efficiency.

Short gym sessions can be done relatively quickly and are easier to fit in than biking for many people, particularly if the gym is in or near your place of work.

The Commute: Use it!

The Grimpeur wrote a post about this on London Cyclist last year, which is worth a read.

Training Before Breakfast

Training after an overnight fast (before breakfast) has a positive change on your metabolism: It doesn’t make you faster per se, but shifts your body towards using fat rather than sugars for energy when riding at lower intensity levels.

What this means is that when you line up to do a 4-5 hour ride all carbed up, you’ll have more glycogen (the simple sugars stored in your muscles) to put towards the ride.

In Summary:

  • Training improvements take a lot of time, stick with it
  • 10-12 hours total volume is a good amount but don’t worry if you can only do a smaller amount – be as effective as you can be in the time you have available
  • High intensity intervals are much more effective that ‘steady’ miles
  • Sprint training improves endurance capacity (counter intuitive I know!)
  • 1-2 long rides per week (>3h) is sufficient to build your endurance level
  • Use your commute to train; bike type doesn’t matter, if your commuter is a mountain bike, train on that
  • Training fasted benefits ‘fat’ burning
  • The turbo is a fantastic tool for getting a short high intensity ride in
  • Eat well and try to stay trim…
  • Do your best!

Finally, Do Get In Touch

That was a long post. I hope you enjoyed it and are now armed with the knowledge that will boost your performance, on and off the bike. I have given you a few ideas for improving your training. Should you like to improve it further, then get in touch with me at www.swiftmomentumsports.com.

My latest project is a ‘lab’, based on the sunny Portuguese Algarve, for testing both the physiology and biomechanics of cyclists in order to improve their performance. With my new system I can provide analysis of riding position and power production in order to make sure that all the effort that you put into training translates directly into performance.

If you fancy a great training week, on smooth roads, with warm weather, testing and coaching, as well as some great food, visit my website and drop me a line.

Are you struggling to find the time to ride? Trying to shift some of that middle age spread? Not sure whether you should climb in or out of the saddle?

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Kristian says:

    Wow, good article, I’ll read this a few more times just to get everything sink in.
    And change my ‘training’ accordingly 🙂

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Perfect Kris. And after you’ve completed the Etape, perhaps you can come back to tell us whether you can attribute part of your performance to Tom’s advice? Good luck with the training.

      • Kristian says:

        Well, its 2weeks after Etape but even before it, I noticed the change of how my body/legs reacted to certain training loads, and (as I didn’t experiment with anything else but that specific interval training described in the article) it certainly benefited my performance.

        Went out in total 9x till today to try and do the 6 repetitions of 1 minute of maximum effort with 1 minute rest between each interval at Richmond Park, London. In May I foolishly thought that after a few months of ‘training’ I will be able to perform. Because of various ‘excuses’ I will not get into I never managed to do an interval session 100% as described (thank God, as it is pretty tough training or I’m just a … erm, kitty)

        Did try to get away with a proper warm-up, it certainly helps, and you really need those 40min to get your system, not just legs working. Also I had to have breakfast and chill for 30min and then hit the warm up, otherwise I was feeling a bit sick during all that go-stop-go-stop.
        Started with a 3x 1+1 and then a 1.5min to a 3min rest, usually tried to time the interval to start at a flat to uphill bit and when hit a downhill-ish spot used it for the recovery but sometimes just could not/did not want to push. 1min active rest is just not enough. Tried to always do 6x or 7x repetitions every time I went out, so 1-2more repetitions and then headed back home which was another 30mins.
        (noticed that the load going uphill felt different when went on the flat, it still felt heavy but different heavy-ness in legs, don’t know why and not sure what suits me better either, just a thought)

        To keep it short-ish, the main difference is that my legs got more accustomed to lactic acid buildup. It still kicks in and hurts, but I can keep pushing and not just simply keeping up, or slowly slowing down as the seconds pass. Also after a big climb legs are able to recover faster and better then before, both in ride and after a few hours in the saddle too.

        P.S. Don’t practice in cold air outside. You will be gasping air almost non-stop (if you do it right, unless me) and your throat and lungs will get a beating. Don’t watch your speed, account wind into the effort (backwind means you got to push higher gear) and keep your mind focused, watch your breathing and pedaling technique too, you are pushing max effort, not destroying yourself.

        ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
        all that above is a very subjective opinion/experience and I cannot be held liable for your own failing. Train harder 🙂
        If you happen to do all this easy-peasy I will, however, to protect my ego, consider you a doper and am denying you any bragging rights 🙂
        In the unlikely case of all this making some sense and even sort of being useful, I will be happy and having a good nights sleep, and an ‘energy drink’ of my choice if we ever happen to meet.
        Over

        Kristian

  • Mike Smith says:

    Great article!
    Now what I need is a massive overdose injection of motivation and liposuction to provide the instant loss of about 20 kilos so my wheels don’t develop flat spots while I’m riding!
    Oh the joys of an overweight late middle-age…..
    Cheers, Grimp.

  • christopher says:

    This is great! I usually muscle my way through these kinds of articles, only to be completely confused by the end, but not this time. This is excellent! Appreciate it guys!

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Thanks Christopher – really pleased that it made sense – that’s definitely what Tom was aiming for.

  • Mike says:

    Haha! Well, the intent is there……

  • Gavin says:

    A great read, packed with detail and exactly what I’ve been trawling the internet for. A big “thank you” goes out to Andrew and Tomás.

  • Simon Wilkinson says:

    When training fasted at what point can you start to “fuel” without losing the benefit of the fasting? For example, if you eat a banana or cereal bar immediately before you start your training session will this reduce the effect of using fat for energy?

  • George says:

    What do I do if my morning commute is 2-2.30 hours (55km), should I fuel up mid ride or fast all the way? Thank you

  • […] The Time-Starved Cyclist: How To Train When You’ve Got No Time […]

  • Andrew Howe says:

    Do various disciplines change the strategy for commuting with the aim of training for the weekend race? Like right now it’s cross season and during summers, I like to do crits as well as longer distance / multi-day races. I have about an hour commute (~15 miles with 1k feet of elevation) each way.

  • Chris says:

    A very good and in a way, common sense article, though how many of us are still stuck in the “more is better” mentality.

    And for the even more time strapped persons, I have found that skipping, is not only a very cheap alternative to running (no expensive trainers) but exercises all of the cycling muscles and joints, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, feet and toes plus balance and stamina if you want to push it. 15 mins of steady but intensive skipping will soon have you blowing with little injury risk.

  • Kristian May 13, 2014, 9:58 am

    Wow, good article, I’ll read this a few more times just to get everything sink in.
    And change my ‘training’ accordingly 🙂

    • Andrew Montgomery May 13, 2014, 2:08 pm

      Perfect Kris. And after you’ve completed the Etape, perhaps you can come back to tell us whether you can attribute part of your performance to Tom’s advice? Good luck with the training.

      • Kristian July 30, 2014, 6:46 pm

        Well, its 2weeks after Etape but even before it, I noticed the change of how my body/legs reacted to certain training loads, and (as I didn’t experiment with anything else but that specific interval training described in the article) it certainly benefited my performance.

        Went out in total 9x till today to try and do the 6 repetitions of 1 minute of maximum effort with 1 minute rest between each interval at Richmond Park, London. In May I foolishly thought that after a few months of ‘training’ I will be able to perform. Because of various ‘excuses’ I will not get into I never managed to do an interval session 100% as described (thank God, as it is pretty tough training or I’m just a … erm, kitty)

        Did try to get away with a proper warm-up, it certainly helps, and you really need those 40min to get your system, not just legs working. Also I had to have breakfast and chill for 30min and then hit the warm up, otherwise I was feeling a bit sick during all that go-stop-go-stop.
        Started with a 3x 1+1 and then a 1.5min to a 3min rest, usually tried to time the interval to start at a flat to uphill bit and when hit a downhill-ish spot used it for the recovery but sometimes just could not/did not want to push. 1min active rest is just not enough. Tried to always do 6x or 7x repetitions every time I went out, so 1-2more repetitions and then headed back home which was another 30mins.
        (noticed that the load going uphill felt different when went on the flat, it still felt heavy but different heavy-ness in legs, don’t know why and not sure what suits me better either, just a thought)

        To keep it short-ish, the main difference is that my legs got more accustomed to lactic acid buildup. It still kicks in and hurts, but I can keep pushing and not just simply keeping up, or slowly slowing down as the seconds pass. Also after a big climb legs are able to recover faster and better then before, both in ride and after a few hours in the saddle too.

        P.S. Don’t practice in cold air outside. You will be gasping air almost non-stop (if you do it right, unless me) and your throat and lungs will get a beating. Don’t watch your speed, account wind into the effort (backwind means you got to push higher gear) and keep your mind focused, watch your breathing and pedaling technique too, you are pushing max effort, not destroying yourself.

        ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
        all that above is a very subjective opinion/experience and I cannot be held liable for your own failing. Train harder 🙂
        If you happen to do all this easy-peasy I will, however, to protect my ego, consider you a doper and am denying you any bragging rights 🙂
        In the unlikely case of all this making some sense and even sort of being useful, I will be happy and having a good nights sleep, and an ‘energy drink’ of my choice if we ever happen to meet.
        Over

        Kristian

  • Mike Smith May 13, 2014, 10:56 am

    Great article!
    Now what I need is a massive overdose injection of motivation and liposuction to provide the instant loss of about 20 kilos so my wheels don’t develop flat spots while I’m riding!
    Oh the joys of an overweight late middle-age…..
    Cheers, Grimp.

    • Andrew Montgomery May 13, 2014, 2:07 pm

      Thanks Mike. Glad you enjoyed it. Time to put some of it into practice…?

  • christopher May 13, 2014, 1:34 pm

    This is great! I usually muscle my way through these kinds of articles, only to be completely confused by the end, but not this time. This is excellent! Appreciate it guys!

    • Andrew Montgomery May 13, 2014, 2:06 pm

      Thanks Christopher – really pleased that it made sense – that’s definitely what Tom was aiming for.

  • Mike May 13, 2014, 2:12 pm

    Haha! Well, the intent is there……

  • Gavin May 14, 2014, 5:43 am

    A great read, packed with detail and exactly what I’ve been trawling the internet for. A big “thank you” goes out to Andrew and Tomás.

  • Simon Wilkinson July 1, 2014, 8:39 am

    When training fasted at what point can you start to “fuel” without losing the benefit of the fasting? For example, if you eat a banana or cereal bar immediately before you start your training session will this reduce the effect of using fat for energy?

    • Andrew Montgomery July 1, 2014, 10:35 am

      Hi Simon. My understanding is that you wouldn’t fuel at all before an exercise session in order to get the fasting benefit. You would just make sure you’re hydrated. Also, a fasted session is not the time to do a long or intense effort – the lack of carbs/fuel will compromise any fitness gain. You’re probably aiming at up to an hour of effort at a low to moderate intensity.

      This looks like a credible article on the topic:

      http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2013/sep/19/fasted-training-eat-before-exercise

  • George January 8, 2015, 5:26 pm

    What do I do if my morning commute is 2-2.30 hours (55km), should I fuel up mid ride or fast all the way? Thank you

    • Andrew Montgomery February 15, 2015, 9:11 pm

      Wow. A 55km commute! I’d fuel before and during the ride if it was me…

  • Andrew Howe September 30, 2015, 4:06 am

    Do various disciplines change the strategy for commuting with the aim of training for the weekend race? Like right now it’s cross season and during summers, I like to do crits as well as longer distance / multi-day races. I have about an hour commute (~15 miles with 1k feet of elevation) each way.

  • Chris May 8, 2016, 11:41 am

    A very good and in a way, common sense article, though how many of us are still stuck in the “more is better” mentality.

    And for the even more time strapped persons, I have found that skipping, is not only a very cheap alternative to running (no expensive trainers) but exercises all of the cycling muscles and joints, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, feet and toes plus balance and stamina if you want to push it. 15 mins of steady but intensive skipping will soon have you blowing with little injury risk.

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