Cycling Training Plans for Beginners, Intermediates, and Experts
Cycling Expert and USA Certified Cycling Coach Matthew Schechter answers everything you need to know about training for your next big bike race!
So, you’ve got a 100-mile ride coming up. Or maybe a gran fondo? A race? Or a tough gravel ride with some friends? Whatever your cycling-related goals may be, a well-built cycling training plan can help you achieve them.
But with so many plans, coaches, and ideologies out there, how do you know where to start when it comes to selecting a cycling training plan?
To begin, ask yourself a few basic questions:
1. Do I need a training plan?
If you’re only riding to have fun, are completely new to the sport, or just don’t like a lot of structure in your rides, a cycling training plan may not be for you. Don’t let a training plan ruin the fun if all you want to do on two wheels is cruise around and have a blast. Likewise, if you’re new to cycling, know that it takes time to improve. While a training plan can certainly speed things up, many cyclists can make huge progress in improving their fitness by simply riding more! And if you can’t (or don’t want to) commit to following certain structures in your cycling training, then don’t!
Cycling is about having fun. While some riders find that following a training plan enhances their cycling experience, others find a rigid workout schedule annoying or hard to follow.
2. How much time can I commit to training?
While any cycling training plan takes time to follow correctly, not every athlete needs to spend the same amount of time on their cycling training. Consider these factors when determining how much time you’re willing (and able) to spend on the bike each week:
- What is your occupation and how many hours do you work or study each day?
- What are your typical work hours?
- What sacrifices are you willing to make, if any, in order to reach your cycling goals?
- What are your long- and short-term cycling goals?
- Do you have an athletic background, particularly as it relates to endurance sports like cycling?
- How many hours have you trained per week in the past?
- How many hours do you ride each day?
- What commitments do you have in your life?
- What are the best days for you to train?
3. What are my goals?
Because each athlete has different goals, training plans must suit individual goals, athletes, and events. Someone training for a cross-country mountain-bike race should train differently than someone training for a 100-mile gran fondo. Likewise, an athlete who has only six weeks to train before a race or event should train differently than an athlete with 30 weeks at their disposal.
With all that information in mind, it’s nearly time to select a training plan. But before you get started, it’s important to understand several key terms and topics. Because these training plans follow the general best practices of cycling sports science, this scientific and practical terminology will help you get the most out of your training. Let’s review!
Note: The following plans are all designed to build general on-the-bike fitness—they are not tailored toward a specific athlete, goal, event, or discipline.
Established to provide athletes with a sort of “intensity guide” for each workout and interval. Generally, there are specific training zones to keep in mind:
- Active Recovery / Easy: Low power and heart rate, just spinning the legs, almost feels like no effort at all
- Zone 2 / Endurance: The pace and power you can comfortably sustain all day, even while maintaining a conversation
- Zone 3 / Tempo: Efforts you can sustain for an hour (or longer) but would be difficult to sustain all day
- Sweet Spot: Slightly more difficult than tempo but not a maximal effort; a challenging pace you can sustain for an hour.
- Zone 4 / Threshold: The maximal effort you can sustain for a certain period of time
- Zone 5 / VO2 Max: Extremely maximal, intense efforts that can only be sustained for short periods of time, usually from 2 to 7 minutes
- What is VO2 Max? The maximum amount of oxygen athletes can use during intense periods of exercise! Athletes who can utilize maximal amounts of oxygen during intense efforts have a larger capacity to produce power at those intensities. Individual VO2 Max thresholds are primarily genetically-informed, but increasing your power at VO2 Max can also be trained.
- Zone 6 / Anaerobic: Bursts of power than can be sustained for around 1 minute or under
- Zone 7 / Neuromuscular: Maximal sprint efforts up to 20 seconds long; recruits type II muscle fibers and relies on torque and force rather than endurance
Heart Rate (HR)
Measured via a heart-rate monitor, your heart rate can help you determine which training zones you are riding in. By testing to determine your maximum heart rate, you can then determine your heart rate for each training zone and ride from high-intensity intervals to low-intensity riding.
The amount of force you put into the pedals as compared to the time it took you to put that force into the pedals – measured in watts.
Cadence / Revolutions Per Minute (RPM)
The rate at which you pedal, measured in revolutions per minute (typically from 60-100rpm). It is the number of times your cranks make a full revolution in 1 minute and directly affects the speed at which your wheels turn.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
The highest power you can maintain for 1 hour of cycling—can be measured with a power meter using a variety of tests, up to and including a 1 hour-long “FTP test”.
A series of well-planned training cycles that allow the body to build fitness (training adaptations) and recover from that workload properly before building again.
The level of exertion for a certain workout, repetition, or training session (e.g., “endurance intensity”, “high intensity”, “low intensity”, etc.).
Training at different intensities for a certain duration within a bike ride (e.g. doing three high-intensity intervals of 10 minutes each within an hour-long bike ride). Interval training helps provide your body with varied stimuli to help you make gains in cycling power.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
How hard you feel (perceive) your body to be working throughout an interval, workout, or ride.
24-hour periods of time within a training week where you chill out, stay off your bike (no easy spinning!), and take it easy to allow your body to recover from training!
The measure of power, used to describe training zones.
Each training plan below covers one week of cycling training (without strength training or gym work, which is also an important part of cycling training and producing higher on-the-bike power). This week of cycling training should serve as an example of a well-designed training plan.
So let’s take a look! Below, you’ll find three examples of cycling training plans. One plan is designed for beginners, one for intermediate riders, and one for more advanced riders.
These examples are designed for those who work a traditional Monday-Friday work week with Saturdays and Sundays off. Custom plans—which take into account athletic goals, events, work schedules, injuries, and a multitude of other factors—should be arranged by a professional cycling coach. And, while cross-training (running, weights, swimming, or other sports) can be beneficial in your cycling training, cycling-specific training is the most important factor in improving your on-the-bike performance. That’s what we’ll focus on here!
- Monday: Rest Day, completely off – recover and recuperate.
- Tuesday: 1-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with two, 10-minute efforts at “sweet spot” power / HR in the middle of the ride. Take a 5-minute break between the first and second intervals.
- Wednesday: 1-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with two, 15-minute efforts at tempo power / HR in the middle of the ride. Take an 8-minute break between the first and second intervals.
- Thursday: 1- to 2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace. And have fun in the saddle – this is a great opportunity to do a group ride or go out with a friend!
- Friday: Rest Day, completely off – recover and recuperate.
- Saturday: 2-hour group ride – have fun and feel free to go hard when it feels right!
- Sunday: 1- to 2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace.
- Monday: Rest Day, completely off – recover and recuperate
- Tuesday: 1 1/2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with four, 10-minute efforts at “sweet spot” power / HR in the middle of the ride. Take a five-minute break between each interval.
- Wednesday: 1 1/2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with two interval types. After a 30-minute warmup, complete two sets of six maximal / VO2 efforts. Each effort should last 30 seconds. Take 30 seconds rest (spinning the legs at a high cadence but low power) between each VO2 interval. Take 3 minutes rest between the two VO2 interval sets. Then, following the second VO2 interval set, complete a 25-minute effort at tempo power / HR in the middle of the ride. Then cool down.
- Thursday: 2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace. Complete five maximal-effort, high-cadence, neuromuscular sprints in the second hour of the ride.
- Friday: Rest Day, 45 minutes of Zone 1 spinning – extremely easy, low RPE, high cadence.
- Saturday: 3-hour group ride – have fun and feel free to go hard when it feels right (complete sweet-spot pulls at the front of the group, put in some efforts up the climbs, etc.)
- Sunday: 2-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace.
- Monday: Rest Day, completely off – recover and recuperate.
- Tuesday: 3-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with two, 20-minute efforts at “sweet spot” power / HR in the middle of the ride. Take a 10-minute break between each interval.
- Wednesday: 3-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride with two interval types. After a 30-minute warmup, complete three sets of six maximal / VO2 efforts. Each effort should last 30 seconds. Take 30 seconds rest (spinning the legs at a high cadence but low power) between each VO2 interval. Take 3 minutes rest between each of the three VO2 interval sets. Then, following the third VO2 interval set, complete a 60-minute effort at tempo power / HR in the middle of the ride. Then cool down.
- Thursday: 3-hour endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace. Complete six maximal-effort, high-cadence, neuromuscular sprints in the second hour of the ride.
- Friday: Rest Day, 90 minutes of Zone 1 spinning – extremely easy, low RPE, high cadence.
- Saturday: 4-hours or longer group ride – have fun and feel free to go hard when it feels right!
- Sunday: 3-hours or longer endurance / Zone 2 ride. Keep a high cadence (spin your legs quickly) throughout the ride. Maintain a relatively easy pace.
Putting It into Action
So, you have an idea of what a week of well-structured cycling training looks like. What’s next?
Use this information to inform your own training!
Begin designing a training plan for yourself that follows the principles outlined in this article. Do your own research! And remember – progress isn’t made in just a week of cycling training. A proper training plan applies these principles to weeks or months of training in a row.
Hire a professional, certified cycling coach to plan your training with you
While these examples of a training plan can help you understand the basics of proper cycling training, a cycling coach creates personalized training plans and workouts for you. A good cycling coach not only helps plan your training around your job, schedule, and commitments, but also knows sports science, can help you address injuries or over-training, and can even work other sports—like running and swimming—into your training plans. If you’d like to contact me about cycling training, please do so here!
Play it safe: avoid injuries and over-training
If you’re new to structured cycling training, take small steps. Don’t jump into a high-volume plan too quickly! Take rest weeks where you ride a lot less and take things “easy” every fourth week of training. And if you’re feeling bad or sense an injury is coming, pull the brakes and don’t be afraid to take time off to recover properly! Always listen to the advice of medical professionals, like your doctor.
Get in touch!
If you have questions about anything cycling-related, chat with me or another Cycling Expert here on Curated. I’m a USA Cycling certified cycling coach, so please, ask away!