Improve Your Performance With These Cycling Training Plans

It Really Just Depends!

If I told you I biked 100-miles, would my fitness impress you? Anyone familiar with cycling training should answer: “It depends.” For instance, if it took five days for me to ride 100-miles, you’d be less impressed than if I did it in under five hours. Cycling training is similar. Let me explain.

Great Questions To Ask

“How fit are you?”

It’s a great question, one that can be shrouded in mysticism, like answering deep philosophical questions. Athletes who want to improve their performance need scientific methods to determine their starting fitness level and not just “a feeling.”

The two most popular methods are:

  1. Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
  2. Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

Once an athlete has their starting point with either FTP or MHR, they can create a training plan to zero in on their athletic goals. But it doesn’t end there.

“How’s training going? Are you getting stronger and faster?” Again, excellent questions. Cyclists need to periodically test or monitor their training to make sure they are improving. Naturally, you’ll notice an improvement when cycling becomes not as tiring, but a more accurate method is retesting your FTP or MHR.

Let’s dive into both of these in more detail.

Tour De France Group Ride

FTP Training – What Is It And How Do You Measure It?

FTP is the average watts a cyclist can sustain in an hour. Most cycling training programs use FTP because it gives a more accurate picture of one’s fitness than MHR. The drawback for many cyclists in using FTP is that you will need a power meter, which is not cheap. I’ll explain a way around this in a bit, but for now, let’s assume you have a power meter or will invest in one. Here’s how you determine your FTP:

  • Choose a flat course (you can also do this indoors on your trainer)
  • Warmup for 15 minutes
  • Ride “all-out” for 5 minutes; cool down for 10 minutes
  • Ride at a challenging but consistent pace for 20 minutes; think time trial
  • Cool down for 10 minutes
  • Take power average and multiply by 0.95

If you don’t own a power meter or it’s beyond your budget, here’s my “poor man’s” method, but it’s limited. You will need a speed and cadence sensor ($30) with Bluetooth capability (tip – how to measure cycling cadence). Using an app like TrainerRoad, you will sync your sensor to the program. Next, you enable “virtual power,” and the app converts speed/cadence into power. Although not as accurate as a power meter, you at least get a fitness FTP benchmark. The drawback? You’re limited to training indoors.

FYI: Your FTP number will increase as your fitness improves.

Pros:

  • The best method to test/monitor fitness improvement
  • A “must” if you race or ride competitively
  • Adaptable to most training plans

Cons:

  • Requires a power meter

Maximum Heart Rate

Maximum heart rate (MHR) is the highest BPM (beats per minute) your heart can pump when under maximum stress. The most popular formula to find your MHR is:

  • 220 – age

If you’re 40-years old, you subtract 40 from 220 to get 180. If this is too much math, use Polar’s online calculator found here

These formulas are based on averages and are merely estimates and not accurate. If you want to know your exact number, you’ll need to have a stress test done by a health professional or take a VO2 Max test.

Whatever method you use to determine your maximum heart rate, be sure to consult your physician before starting any rigorous training regimen.

You will also need to know your resting heart rate. As it sounds, your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats a minute when at rest! To find your resting heart rate, strap on your heart monitor when you first wake up and definitely before coffee! 60-100 BPM (beats per minute) is the average, while 40 BPM is what serious athletes have. Basically, they have a very efficient heart! Resting heart rate is key to knowing:

  • If you’ve recovered from a workout
  • If you’re improving with your workouts

FYI: Although your MHR won’t change with fitness, you will be able to maintain your max heart rate for longer periods.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Not the best method to measure work being done
  • HR monitors tend to lag in displaying heart rate effort
Cycling Training Solo Rider

Training 101

Before we look into the different cycling training plans, remember to select a program for your event or discipline. Racers will be focused on endurance at or above their FTP with concentrations on power and sprints. Triathletes need a plan centered on sustaining steady power for long periods. Sportif training will be focused on aerobic work below FTP.

Rest. It’s the one aspect of training most overlook or neglect. Recovery rides and rest days are essential for your muscles and cardiovascular system to recoup from the stress. Recovery is also necessary for your mental health and to keep you mentally fresh. Don’t brush off this all-too-important training day!

Focus on improving yourself and not how you stack up against others. Yes, competitive cyclists need to know how they stack up against the competition, but if one isn’t careful, constant comparison can lead to burnout, apathy, or over-training.

Lastly, ready to take your training up a notch? You might benefit from enlisting the help of a cycling coach.

Tried And Tested Cycling Training Plans

Zone Training

As the title implies, zone training exercises in various zones to improve your fitness and critical aspects of your future cycling event. Zone training typically uses either your maximum heart rate or FTP. Some zone training programs use seven zones, but the majority use five zones, which we’ll examine.

The maximum heart rate (MHR) zones are as follows:

  • Zone 1 50-60% MHR
  • Zone 2 60-70% MHR
  • Zone 3 70-80% MHR
  • Zone 4 80-90% MHR
  • Zone 5 90-100% MHR

Here is what the FTP zone training looks like:

  • Zone 1 56-75% FTP
  • Zone 2 70-90% FTP
  • Zone 3 91-105% FTP
  • Zone 4 106-120% FTP
  • Zone 5 121% FTP

In a nutshell, here is how the zones break down per cycling effort and training.

  • Zone 1 & 2: warmup and recovery
  • Zone 3 & 4: endurance/tempo
  • Zone 5: high-intensity interval training

How you use these zones in cycling training will come down to what you’re training for and your base fitness and age. Keep in mind that when riding outdoors, your data can be affected by:

  • Training with a group versus riding solo
  • Weather and wind
  • Terrain (hills or flats)

If you’re training for a race or wanting to improve your speed, you will want to consider sweetspot training. Sweetspot training is between Zone 3 & 4 and puts you in that “sweet spot” where you’re putting out more effort than you can sustain for long periods. 

Check out this video for details and training tips using sweet spot training.

Base Training

Before you launch into power sprints and hill intervals, make sure you have a good aerobic foundation or base. Base training is what I do in the winter to get ready for spring, but you can start base training at any time of the year. You will want to ride in Zone 2 or 3 (depending on your fitness, FTP, MHR) for an hour or two and should get at least three rides in a week. It typically takes 6-12 weeks to build a good aerobic base, so be patient and make your rides fun and social! Trust me; once you dive into zone training, you will miss these more leisurely days!

A term that is becoming popular again is LSD. Back in the ’80s, a friend asked if I wanted to go on an LSD ride. I pictured us indoors listening to The Doors while incense burned, and we “biked our consciousness.” I was clueless! 

LSD stands for “long, steady distance” and is superb for building your aerobic base. My hero, Greg LeMond, logged a minimum of 1,000 LSD miles before working on speed and power. That’s extreme for us non-professionals, but you get the point.

HIIT Me, Please!

Once you have your aerobic base set and you’ve checked out zone training, you may want to include HIIT training. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is self-explanatory and is terrific for:

  • Time-crunched individuals wanted concentrated workouts
  • Boosting aerobic and anaerobic fitness
  • Burning fat
  • Maintaining/building lean muscle
  • Making you faster

Most spin classes are HIIT focused, but there are also off-bike HIIT workouts that incorporate kettleballs, weights, ropes, and steps.

Here’s an example of an indoor cycling HIIT:

  • Warmup: 10-minutes zone 1-2
  • HIIT: 5-minutes zone 4
  • Recovery: 5-minutes zone 1
  • Repeat HIIT & Recovery 5 times
  • Cooldown: 5-minutes zone 1

HIIT training is not the end-all for training, and you should only do two a week. Because these are taxing, be sure you incorporate rest and recovery, or you can get burned out.

Indoor training programs like TrainingPeaks, TrainerRoad, and Zwift offer HIIT training along with endurance (base) and zone workouts. There are some online videos you can train with to help with motivation and plan of attack.

Road Cycling Race Riding Group

Hit The Road, Jack!

I hope this post helps you understand some of the training terminology floating around and gets you excited to take your cycling to the next level. When in doubt, heed the advice of famed Belgium cyclist Eddy Merckx: “Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.”

If you’re ready for your next big ride, check out our tips and tricks for your first Gran Fondo!

Thanks for reading and please feel free to ask any questions below!

Part time TCP contributor, full time cycling enthusiast! I am USAC qualified cycling coach - my forte and passion are working with new or inexperienced cyclists.

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