If only we had all day for riding our bikes… The reality is that so, so many different things can get in the way. Personal, family and work-related commitments, whether planned or those that spring up on you, limit the time available for turning the pedals and working on your cycling tan lines (well, living in the UK doesn’t help with that either…). There are ways of optimising the content of each of your sessions, as well as improved approaches you can take pre- and post-workout. Here’s how can you make your training as time-efficient as possible…
Have a go at these, but also don’t forget to have a laugh, smash it in the lanes with mates and chat as you nom some cake. Improving your fitness should also be fun because fun is something you'll want more of and you're more likely to stick at it for longer.
Just before we get into how to get fitter, here’s something extra that’s heartening to know. There are also likely going to be points in your life where the goal of physical training is to squeeze in whatever you can just to maintain your physical performance, rather than setting out to make significant fitness improvements.
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Spiering, Barry A. et al., called ‘Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose of Exercise Needed to Preserve Endurance and Strength Over Time' set out to determine the least amount of exercise required. The findings of the study are not the levels of exercising you should be aiming to do, as this won't boost your fitness at all, but it is reassuring to know how doing very little each week is all you need to maintain.
Looking at frequency, volume and intensity, the study found that exercise intensity seems to be the key variable for maintaining physical performance over time, despite large reductions in exercise frequency and volume. Essentially, when you do have time to pull on some lycra, train hard.
“Endurance performance can be maintained for up to 15 weeks when training frequency is reduced to as little as two sessions per week or when exercise volume is reduced by 33–66% (as low as 13–26 minutes per session), as long as exercise intensity (exercising heart rate) is maintained,” the study concluded.
“Strength and muscle size (at least in younger populations) can be maintained for up to 32 weeks with as little as 1 session of strength training per week and 1 set per exercise, as long as exercise intensity (relative load) is maintained; whereas, in older populations, maintaining muscle size may require up to 2 sessions per week and 2–3 sets per exercise, while maintaining exercise intensity.”
What we can take from this is that you don’t need to do huge amounts to maintain your current fitness levels and so when you are even more time-crunched than usual, don’t panic, cut back and do a little, as it can go a long way.
Jonathan Melville of BCA (Breakaway Coaching and Analytics) says: “Normally training is split 80 percent fairly easy, 20 percent fairly hard, but if you only have five or six hours a week to train, that’s not very efficient.
“It would be better to go hard, easy, hard, easy, so it’s more of a 50/50 split. By alternating you are giving yourself a chance to get the most out of each of those hard sessions.”
“If you do only have 30 minutes, try something called a neuromuscular power ride,” Jonathan of BCA recommends. “These are 30-second max efforts, going as hard as you can, and then you repeat these six to 10 times.”
“Although it is only 30 minutes it is one of the hardest sessions you can do. By going max out you’re using up an energy system called ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate phosphocreatine) which you tend to need two to three minutes to recover from. But if you’re only giving yourself 30 seconds, it becomes very difficult. The benefit of doing this session is you improve your body’s ability to turn over ATP and this increases the amount you can store.”
Planning hard sessions such as this neuromuscular power ride (with other examples in red below) between easier rides (example in green below) is what Jonathan of BCA suggests.
Ric Stern of CycleCoach agrees and says it’s best to make each session as hard as possible and do something shorter every day or every other day.
He says: “If you’ve got six hours for training each week, it’s better to do six one hour sessions rather than two three hour rides. It provides a better training stimulus as then you don’t have days and days of recovery between efforts. You can go harder in each of those one-hour sessions than in a three-hour ride.”
His suggested hard workouts include:
Choice one: 10-mins warm-up, 3 x 12-mins at FTP (functional threshold power) with 3-mins easy between efforts, cool down for 5-mins
Choice two: 15-mins warm-up, 5 x 5-mins at 105 - 110% of FTP and 2.5-mins easy between efforts, cool down for ~10-mins.
If you also don’t have time on Saturdays and Sundays to train long distances, Jonathan of BCA recommends replacing the longer endurance rides with tempo work for 1:30-hrs to 2:30-hrs. “It’s not the same as pure endurance riding, but if you are time-crunched it is as close as you can get.”
BCA suggests trying the examples below for the weekend: “These sessions will develop your endurance with less time.”
Ric of CycleCoach recommends building your ‘fatigue resistance’ by doing MIET sessions. MIET is moderately intensive endurance training and is around 85 to 95% of FTP.
Warm-up to zone 2 for 10-mins, do 15-mins MIET, take a couple of minutes easy recovery, then a further 15-mins MIET, and end with a cool down. Over time, Ric says you could build this up to ride one 50-mins block of MIET.
While it’s effective to split your training into lots of short but hard sessions during the week, it’s also important to ride similar distances to the event you are targeting. If that’s a sportive or long distance event then you can’t neglect endurance rides completely.
“If you're training for an event that’s 60 to 100 miles, at some point in your training, and ideally at least once a week, you should complete a ride that’s about 90% of that distance—you can build that up gradually over time,” Jonathan of BCA says.
Aim to do one longer ride a week if training for a longer event. Or if that’s not manageable…
Goals should be ambitious, but also something that you can work towards. If you are struggling to find a chunk of time to ride the distance of your target event, consider finding a new, more appropriate challenge that suits your current lifestyle. Crit, cyclocross and track races, as well as 10-mile time trials, are all events that require less pure endurance work (the zone you have to do a lot of to see improvements) and therefore the training can be slotted into shorter free periods.
Umming and ahhing about what session you are going to do can waste a lot of time and often leads to not riding at all.
“By having clarity with a plan, you are not dawdling over what you’re going to do as you already know exactly what session it is when it is time to do it,” says Jonathan of BCA.
Following a structured training plan can help you make the most of the time you have available. With the session pre-decided it is easier to fit into your schedule as you know exactly how long it is.
Make sure this plan is realistic and takes into account your whole life schedule (such as cooking, cleaning, time with family, relaxing while watching some racing, etc.), not just any free time you have outside of working hours.
Having a plan can also help you achieve some consistency in your training across several weeks in a row. By not overloading yourself each week—so you have time to do your other chores and fun activities—you’ll decrease the likelihood of ending up in catch-up mode and not having the chance to do any sessions.
“Even if you only have 30 minutes you can still get a lot out of that by doing a high-intensity interval session,” Jonathan of BCA says. It’s better to fit in two 30-minute sessions every week than doing four one week, then none the next, as you can put more into each session if spread out.
A personal cycling coach can be a massive help in getting rid of the time-consuming workload of figuring out what sessions to do and when. This way you’ll have more on-the-bike time and it is guaranteed to be used effectively. Psychologically it is also easier to commit to a session that someone else has set—you’ll just get on with it.
Coaches set individualised plans weekly, fortnightly or monthly based on your personal life schedule, how you’ve responded to previous sessions and what level your fitness is currently at.
This is a paid route, but one that will save you a lot of time and ensure you reap the benefits of the time you set aside for bike riding. Coaches offer different rates depending on the amount of contact and how frequently you receive the plans.
If your spare time consists of smaller unpredictable chunks of time or your only available time is when it’s dark outside, indoor training can be an effective way of packing in a session.
There’s a lot less kit that you’ll need to put on (especially compared to winter rides) and you don’t need to keep an eye on the weather and light conditions.
Indoor riding is also far more efficient. There’s no freewheeling down a hill on the turbo and zero disruptions from pulling up to busy junctions or mechanical issues.
Also, Jonathan of BCA notes there are specific sessions that are easier to execute on a stable turbo trainer. “It’s better to do the neuromuscular power rides on the turbo as your sprinting technique and the need to avoid cars can hold you back on the road,” he says.
Even better use an indoor training platform…
Online platforms such as Zwift have workouts available to suit your time constraints. In Zwift, workouts are grouped by time, so you can search for sessions specifically under 30 minutes, between 30-60 minutes, or under 90. It’s quick to pick one and then just follow it on the virtual roads.
Training is good for your health but so is getting outside into the fresh air, and therefore combining the two—where you can—is ideal. Jonathan of BCA sats: “Outdoor work is important for learning how to deal with the terrain to improve your climbing and skills such as cornering and descending.”
One way of making it easier to head outside when you’re time-pressed is to have a nearby, short circuit to pedal around. Plan this loop out now and then whenever you have a tight time slot this can be your go-to route.
If you experience a mechanical issue or you’re riding at a slower average speed than expected, it’s quicker to head home as you are never too far away at any given point.
Knowing this loop off by heart also means that when you’ve run out of time to plan out a new and exciting route on Strava or Komoot, you’ll still have an option for an outside ride.
By adopting this technique you’ll have the confidence to head out on the bike ride even when you have a tight window with an important work meeting or such that it’s essential to get back in time for.
Spend a few minutes the night before making sure that all your kit (lycra, food and drink) is prepped and ready for your planned session the next day. It’s harder to find what you need as you fumble around in a rush and you risk having to cut your session short if you’re spending your time searching for an essential item before you can hop on the bike.
If any of your devices are running low on battery this means there’s enough time to charge them up so they are back up to 100% for when your session comes around. Also, it’s good to get into the habit of looking over your bike to ensure it is in full working order. Check there are no flints, thorns or pieces of glass stuck in your tyres to cause punctures.
If you are time-pressed, you might be thinking that an easy way to fast-track to the hard stuff is to cut down or completely get rid of your warm-up, but this is a big no no…
A warm-up prepares your body for exercise, increases your blood flow and kickstarts glycolysis for fuelling your muscles. Essentially a warm-up gives your body some warning that it needs to start preparing the appropriate energy systems, otherwise it’ll still be in catch up mode when you are doing your quality efforts.
By activating your muscles it can help you perform better during your all-important intervals, as well as reducing the chance of injury.
“I wouldn’t shorten the warm-up; keep it between six and 10 minutes,” Jonathan of BCA says.
Similarly, Ric of CycleCoach says: “I’d suggest doing a 10-minute warm-up that gradually builds up from zone two to threshold, holding that for about 30 seconds, then going steady for a few minutes before getting into the actual meat of the session.”
Then post-intervals a cool-down is recommended. It allows your heart rate and breathing to return to resting levels gradually, as well as reducing the build-up of lactic acid so you are ready to attack your next training session.
Make sure your cadence isn’t too low, but not too high either. Just spin out comfortably in an easy gear.
“If you have to shorten the cool-down from the ride, you could do stretching and flexibility work later on in the day,” Jonathan of BCA suggests.
Fitting time in for your session is essential for getting stronger, but recovering properly also goes a long way towards obtaining the maximum benefits from your workout. Relaxing and getting adequate amounts of sleep are part of this, there are also some worthwhile proactive steps you take.
Refuelling and rehydrating your body is incredibly important for promoting muscle repair and growth, and to boost training adaptation.
Our full guide on how to maximise your recovery and rebuild your fitness, with tips on sleep hygiene, how many carbs and protein you should have and when, as well as the effectiveness of compression garments, bicarb and cherry supplements, can be found here.
Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.