Cyclingnews TV   News  Tech   Features   Road   MTB   BMX   Cyclo-cross   Track    Photos    Fitness    Letters   Search   Forum  

Recently on

Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

Cyclingnews' Winter Training Series: Part 4

Maintaining fitness, increasing strength and relieving boredom over the winter.

Come wintertime, for the average working-class hero - a.ka. the weekend warrior - motivation is often the biggest hurdle to maintaining one's fitness on the bike. In Part 4 of Cyclingnews' Winter Training Series, Ric Stern from lends his tips on how to get you through the chilly season.

Winter Training Part 1 by René Wenzel, Bike Racing 101
Winter Training Part 2 by Robert Kühnen and Beppo Hilfiker, 2PEAK
Winter Training Part 3 by Eddie Monnier, Ultrafit & Associates

For everyone in the northern hemisphere it's wintertime: that means dark dull nights, crappy weather, muddy, slippy roads covered in leaves, and a good chance to put your feet up and rest. Did you read the last bit correctly?

You did, but you don't think I really believe that do you? Good! While many people think the off-season is a great time to put their feet up and rest, or just indulge in very light training, the simple fact is that with vastly reduced activity or complete rest, you will de-train rapidly and become unfit.

You've spent most of the year working hard, putting in long hours on the bike, sacrificing 'bad' foods to keep your weight down, and done your utmost to get as fit as possible. Surely, that affords you a good rest period; those long training hours must keep your fitness for quite a while, right?

Keep training, and go easy on the ice-cream
Photo: © Giana Roberge
Click for larger image

Actually, studies looking at training and de-training find significant losses in aerobic fitness (such as VO2 max, oxidative enzymes and fuel substrate utilisation) in just three weeks. In fact, some studies show significant decreases in just seven days. Fitness is hard to gain and easy to lose.

What can you do to maintain fitness? Well the obvious answer is to keep training. However, for many people, the off-season will mean a reduced volume and/or intensity of training. Primarily, this may be because of a need to commit to other more important parts of life (family, work, etc.) or because of poor weather.

As a coach, I never suggest that a rider should go training in the dark, after work, as it can be dangerous. Therefore, for many people, this will mean riding an indoor trainer and/or rollers during the week, and outdoors at the weekend, but what about other options?

Cross training

If you're a road racer or a time trialler, perhaps you want a mental break from riding on the road. There's a great choice of cross training you could do to maintain or improve fitness. In no particular order, these would be mountain, cyclo-cross, and track racing/riding. These are the most specific, and indeed the best forms of cross training for a cyclist.

What about other sports?

There's a wealth of sports that can be completed nowadays, from indoor soccer to working out in the gym. But, do these exercises help or increase cycling performance? The simple answer is: it depends! If you decided for whatever reason you were not going to cycle for X months of the year, then yes, these exercises would be good (any exercise is better than no exercise). On the other hand, if you have time to exercise and therefore do some cycling, then for the endurance racer, non-specific forms of cross training are not going to be beneficial, and may even be detrimental.

Many coaches recommend weight training during the off-season. Whilst, my views on weight training are generally well-known, in short, I don't feel that weight training will have a beneficial effect on cycling and is likely to be detrimental (assuming that weight training isn't the only exercise completed in the off-season). The reason why weights is unwarranted in endurance cycling is multifactorial:

  1. The forces involved in cycling are extremely low - at typical TT power for trained riders (250 to 300 W at ~ 90 revs/min), the average force over one pedal rev is ~ 156 Newtons (~ 15.9 kg) to 187 Newtons (~ 19 kg). Even at world record pursuit pace (~ 520 W), the force would be about 243 Newtons (~ 24.8 kg). World pursuit power will far exceed what most cyclists can maintain for 60 seconds.
  2. The benefits of weight training to increase strength are both from neural responses and an increase in muscle cross sectional area (hypertrophy). The neural responses are specific to the joint angle and velocity that they are trained at, which is likely to be significantly different to cycling. Thus, the only benefit from weights would be to cause a hypertrophy of the muscle, which will mean an increase in mass and more power needed when you have to go uphill (think track sprinters). The increased strength will only increase peak (sprint) power. Therefore, any short term gains in peak power will be vastly offset by increases in mass.
  3. As the muscles cross sectional area increases, there's likely to be a relative decrease in capillary and mitochondrial density resulting in a decrease in aerobic fitness. By the time you've trained hard enough to increase the capillary and mitochondrial density of the new area of muscle, you'd have lost the muscle because you wouldn't be able to weight train and do intense cycling as it would take more than several months to achieve.

If you wanted a break from cycling and wanted to participate in other sports, then any aerobic sport will be good; this would include running, cross country skiing, swimming and team/game sports such as soccer.

Stick to the bike

If you stick to the bike (as I'll be doing), the specific forms of cross training (e.g., MTB, track, etc.) will be great. The scope of training for these is, however, beyond this article.

If you use an indoor trainer and many do; then the following four exercises are all good:

  • For most endurance cyclists, I recommend during most parts of the season what I term time trial intervals, which consist of one to three x 15-30 minute intervals once or twice per week at ~ 95-100 per cent of TT power or zone 4. During the off-season, the intensity, the frequency and possibly the duration (I suggest not going below 15-mins) can be reduced a little from in-season efforts.
  • Another great session that can be done on the trainer is what some people refer to as 'tempo' work. This is zone 3 intensity. Specifically, I recommend 65-70 per cent MAP [maximal aerobic power] intensity for one hour. I frequently do this as 2 x 30 minute intervals with a short recovery section in between (mainly to relieve the boredom).
  • Undoubtedly, it can be boring on a trainer, so to get in a longish steady effort, I select a specific power around the top of zone 1/lower end of zone 2, and select a gear that gives a low cadence (~ 70 revs/min). Every five minutes, I change down my cadence/resistance on trainer and increase my cadence by five revs/min until I get to 110 revs/min, at which point I have a five minute recovery effort and then go the other way (start at 110 revs/min) and work my way down to 70 revs/min in five minute intervals. This gives you just over 90-mins with a short warm-up and cool down.
  • If the weather is abysmal and I want a tough endurance session, I ride at zone 2 (aiming for the mid-point, i.e., 55 to 60 per cent MAP) for 1-3 hours. Every 10 to 20 minutes, I 'climb a hill', which involves upping the resistance and/or putting the bike in a big gear (53 x 13, for example) and riding at ~ zone 5 for 60-180 seconds at a low cadence (e.g., 60-70 revs/min as you would encounter when out on the road). I then recover on the 'descent' for ~ 50 per cent of the duration of the 'climb' by putting it in a low gear (e.g., 42 x 21) and just turning the pedals at low power.

If you ride indoors, you'll need towels or something similar to place on your bike to prevent the extra sweat from corroding or damaging your bike. A drink (I frequently use an energy-electrolyte drink), a cloth for wiping your face, and a mat to place under your bike to collect any dripping sweat. The room should be well ventilated and you should have a fan blowing over you to prevent you from overheating.

On a separate issue, modern cycle clothing is extremely good at keeping you warm in the winter, so try not to let the cold put you off too much!

Ric Stern can be contacted by phone: +44 (0)1443 222718, email:, or via his web site:

More fitness features