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Training on Limited Time For Cyclists

BY Jason Short

Time is the greatest limiting factor for most cyclists. When you have to cut a workout short but still want to get a quality session in, follow these guidelines from coach Jason Short. 

It seems no matter who you are, at some point we all fall victim to life obligations that supersede our training obligations. There once was a time when I could train 20 plus hours a week, now I am limited to 8 to 12 hours a week and still enjoy racing at an elite level. This year, I was faced with an added obstacle of taking on the biggest job of my life as a new dad. I lost a lot of fitness over the past several months and now have to make up with that very limited time. While I’ve got my own schedule limitations, I work with a lot of other athletes who are also on tight schedules. The focus is always on making each ride count while balancing intensity and recovery. Here are some tips, tricks, and workouts that can help you break through the doldrums of training on a tight schedule.  

Train with Purpose

Going into a training program built around a tight schedule really requires you to think about training with purpose. Each workout should have a specific objective that you should be aiming at achieving. When you’re greatly limited on the time you have to train, achieving those objectives can mean the difference between decent fitness and no fitness. When you can ride 15 plus hours a week routinely, you’re almost guaranteed a decent level of fitness no matter what you do in those 15 hours. However, with a focused and targeted training program for those same 15 hours, you should see an even greater level of fitness. This same concept applies to someone just loosely riding 7 to 12 hours a week versus someone training with purpose for those same hours. Who do you think will have the better fitness given they both put in the same amount of hours over the course of two months? The general rule of thumb is as you decrease total time on the bike in a given week, you will need to increase intensity to compensate.

With that said, that doesn’t mean go and throttle yourself every day. You need to find that balance between stressing your body and recovering from that stress which is when you actually rebuild and become stronger. Always allow for at least two to three days in the week to be recovery days. This can be a full day off, a light spin, extra time stretching, or a massage.

Understanding Training Objectives

When you’re thrown a wrench in your day to day schedule that changes your ability to complete a workout in your training program as prescribed, it can get a little tricky trying to still achieve the objective for that day. So, how do you do this? A good place to start is by understanding what the objectives are for the workout. When building a workout coaches are usually targeting either an energy system (or combination of energy systems at one time) or the neuromuscular system. There are four main systems that work in conjunction with each other that are targeted in any given workout:

  1. Aerobic System: Used primarily in long slow rides, typically your endurance rides. This energy system needs oxygen in order to function and can be made more efficient by fatiguing and recovering this system via long endurance rides.
  2. Glycolytic System: This system uses carbohydrates to produce energy and uses less steps in the creation of energy than the aerobic system. It can fuel a harder level of effort that has greater energy demands. Lactic acid is a byproduct of this energy system, as lactic acid builds up, performance becomes hindered as muscle soreness and fatigue set in. This system is used in tandem with the upper end of the aerobic system during tempo intervals and the primary source of energy when doing Lactate Threshold intervals.
  3. ATP-CP System: This system is the quickest source of energy for the muscles, but it is also the quickest to fatigue with only about 10 seconds of use available. This system can be trained to recover quickly, allowing an athlete to repeat potent sprints one right after the other.
  4. Neuromuscular System: While this isn’t an energy system, the neuromuscular system is directly responsible for recruitment of muscle fibers. Simply put, the more muscle fibers that are recruited, the more powerful that muscle group will be. Neuromuscular recruitment can be improved via strength training at the gym or in the form of overgeared low cadence intervals with high resistance focused on pedaling mechanics and a smooth pedal stroke on the bike.

Most workouts will target one of the four areas above. When you find yourself in a situation where you have to change something on the fly, look at the workout and the systems above, think about the goal of the workout, and what system it is working. The tips below will help you target each system and achieve the purpose of the workout on limited time.

Aerobic System

The favorite way to strengthen the aerobic system is through consistent long endurance rides at a pace where the primary system being used is the aerobic system. This is typically why this is the trickiest energy system to improve upon on when limited on time. When the schedule doesn’t permit for a long ride, I always suggest throwing in some tempo intervals into a shorter ride which can either be done outside or indoors. Why tempo? Well, when you look at the energy systems in use while at tempo, the aerobic system is being used up at the top end of it’s capability. By throwing in some tempo intervals, you are fatiguing the aerobic system at a faster rate. While it may not be quite as good as getting in that longer ride, it’s sure better than doing little to nothing.

An example would be if you had a three hour endurance ride planned but when you wake up it’s raining and don’t want to spend three hours riding the trainer. So, you settle on an hour of quality time on the trainer. What you could do in that hour is a 10 minute warm up spin followed by 2×15 minute efforts at tempo with 10 minutes recovery between intervals followed by 5 minutes recovery. If you find you struggle to do 15 minutes of tempo at a time, break it down into 3×10 minutes at tempo with 5 to 10 minutes recovery in between. The goal is to get as much time at tempo as possible within the given time you have while allowing for a warmup and cool down.

Glycolytic System

The glycolytic system is most commonly targeted using a combination of tempo and lactate threshold intervals. Tempo will be working the lower end of the glycolytic system while lactate threshold intervals will hit the mid to upper end of the glycolytic system. With that being the case, if you have some longer tempo intervals scheduled and there is no way you can squeeze them into an even shorter ride, shorten them up a bit and raising the intensity up to a lactate threshold interval. So, if you have 2×20 minute tempo intervals with 10 minutes recovery between intervals scheduled and you can only get in 45 minutes total time on the bike that day, think about changing up your workout to 2×10 minutes at lactate threshold with 10 minutes recovery between intervals. The goal here is bang for your buck, so stress the target system at the upper end by raising the intensity when you’re shortening your workout.

ATP-CP System

Since the ATP-CP system is used for very short and intense efforts, there’s typically no     problem working these types of intervals into a limited training schedule. Your intervals will be short, but have minimal recovery in an effort to improve repeatability of these types of efforts. However, if you’re interested in knowing what a set of intervals targeting this system may look like, Tabata intervals would be a good place to start. One set of Tabata intervals would look like this: 4×20 second intervals at full gas with 10 seconds rest between intervals. You can add additional sets or intervals to each set to adapt them to your ability level. However, because these are so short, they are relatively easy to work into most any training program.

Neuromuscular System

As mentioned earlier, intervals focused on the neuromuscular system tend to be at a higher resistance (like on a climb in a high gear), at a low cadence, and focusing on pedaling mechanics over any energy systems. If you find yourself stuck indoors for this type of workout, just crank up the resistance on your trainer, shift up to a harder gear and complete the interval for the prescribed time (typically 5 to 10 minutes in length). To add more work in this area, you can add sets as needed with recovery equal to the length of the interval.

You can also work the neuromuscular system through strength training in the gym as well. When traveling with only a simple hotel gym at your disposal, you can make the best of that time by focusing on strength training. Take note of the major muscle groups used on the bike and create a plan using the equipment you have at your disposal to target those areas. Focus on lower weight with higher repetitions and always stop when you can no longer maintain proper form.

Even when you’re tight on time, you can still achieve a good level of fitness. The key is making the best of your time, consistently achieving those daily objectives, and being versatile with what your schedule throws at you. Some of you may be working with a coach, and if you are, always run workout changes by your coach. The last thing you want to be doing is raising intensity when your coach has you in the middle of a rest period. However, if you’re using a pre-built training plan or coaching yourself, give some thought to the objectives for that day and adapt the workout to best achieve the objectives based on the time available to you.

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About Jason Short

Jason Short is a coach for Threshold Endurance Sports and has been racing on the road since he was 18. During his career, he has spent time racing in Europe for various European teams as well as some stints in Belgium with the U.S. National Team. Jason holds a B.S. in Sports and Fitness Management, a USAC level 2 coaching certification, and in addition to cycling has a background in corporate health coaching. Learn more about Jason and his coaching at www.thresholdendurance.com.