Resources, Articles, and Workout Tips for Cyclists

Once you start cycling regularly, it is important to determine a training intensity that corresponds to your fitness level.

Finding a cycling speed that feels suitable for you is not usually difficult. A typical mistake for beginners is to bike too fast in the beginning of a session, leading to a slower speed towards the end as energy levels slump. If that sounds familiar, you should keep close tabs on your heart rate in the first half of your training session. Training correctly to increase endurance means keeping exercise intensity at a stable level throughout a session. Intensity may even increase slightly towards the end.

If you have used a heart rate monitor for other types of exercise, determine corresponding heart rate levels as follows: when cycling your heart rate should be around 10 bpm lower than when you run and 15 bpm lower than when cross-country skiing. This is because the upper body doesn't move when cycling, and not as many muscles are, therefore, in use.

Always start a training session with a 10-15 minute slow-paced warm-up, to get your body progressively used to more intensive training. If you feel vigorous after the warm-up, then you can move on to the training session itself. As a beginner you should aim for a stable rhythm and avoid hard or long sprints. You should be able to keep up a good, stable pace throughout your session, and still have some energy left at the end.

Training till you drop is not recommended, as it doesn't improve a beginner's fitness and recovering from such harsh training can last several days. Once your bike ride is over, cool down your pace for 10-15 minutes to start your recovery. Stretching your muscles afterwards is always a good idea, as the repetitive nature of the cycling movement can quickly reduce muscle suppleness.

On uneven tracks, your heart rate will obviously increase when cycling up-hill, but make sure it does not rise above your aerobic threshold (that's when your body starts to produce a lot of lactic acid). If it does, then you are training too hard, and endurance will not develop in an optimal way - and endurance is of utmost importance for a cyclist.

For those who are determined to improve aerobic fitness, training at least 3 times a week is recommended. All training doesn't necessarily have to be on a bike, other aerobic exercise work well with cycling. Runners can replace long runs with bike rides instead. This way the pressure on the legs is reduced while still working on endurance.

When planning your weekly training schedule, keep in mind that to improve your performance, hard training days should alternate with lighter ones. For your performance to improve continuously, your body needs to recover before it takes on another hard session. An over-worked body does not get fitter.

Having good, basic endurance is a requirement for all cyclists.

If your basic condition is not on a satisfactory level, higher-intensity training will have little or no effect. Your body will simply not be able to recover if you are not in solid shape first. The importance of endurance is heightened during long races. Races lasting several weeks and consisting of several legs require good endurance for every leg. This will also reflect on how quickly you recover during legs.

Training to increase basic endurance aims at developing an athlete's aerobic fitness level.

The benefits of increased basic endurance:
Long-distance sessions improve a cyclist's psychological tolerance for "pain" during competition. 5-7 hour rides will train an athlete to recognize personal performance limits, as well as determine ways to exceed those limits, or to at least delay fatigue. This is very often the very skill that wins races.

Endurance training gives results if heart rate levels remain optimal. However, the session will not be spoilt if heart rate levels increase momentarily due to uneven terrain, for example, as long as the more intensive phases do not last too long nor force heart rate above your aerobic threshold.

Long biking sessions in large crowds, on the other hand, may actually result in low-intensity training, especially for a good cyclist. Monitoring heart rate is, therefore, especially important when riding in slipstream to make sure intensity doesn't slide too low. A good cyclist can easily cycle very long distances, but endurance will only improve when heart rate is at least 65% of maximal heart rate.

During long sessions, you should pay extra attention to your pedaling technique to make sure your muscles and nervous system are primed to work continuously in good form. Also, remember that ingesting fluids and solids is imperative during long sessions for maximum results. Consuming carbohydrates during training will speed up the use of body fat reserves.

Road cyclists or mountain bikers rarely do very strenuous anaerobic endurance training. For beginners such training is even more rare. But for top athletes looking to maximize performance, this type of training helps develop the very skills needed for winning races.

Anaerobic training maximizes cardiovascular capacity and oxygen uptake. The body is trained to perform in high intensity at maximum output. Training occurs over the anaerobic threshold, or at 90-100% of maximal heart rate, and in intervals.

An interval lasts typically between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, with recovery lasting at least as long as the interval. In fact, recovery should last longer, especially when the interval is of longer duration, and the activity is at maximum intensity.
Most cyclists bike uphill to reach maximum effect (especially for intervals lasting more than 2 minutes). This way the workload is easily controlled, and the desired intensity zone is reached very quickly.

On even terrain, intervals are usually shorter sprints of, for example, 30 seconds at maximal output, followed by a 30 second recovery before another 30 second maximal sprint. Heart rate usually increases at the end of bouts, and the use of a heart rate monitor is, therefore, highly recommended. Monitoring the workload your body is subjected to without an instrument is difficult.

While doing intervals, keep in mind that an athlete's heart rate reacts with a 30 second delay during maximal exertion. Heart rate corresponding to the workload will only be visible after a while. Using the Polar Power Output Sensor, you can avoid the complications resulting from such a delay, because the Power Sensor registers pedaling efficiency during training.

Allowing time for proper recovery is of great importance when doing anaerobic endurance training. This type of high-intensity training places a large amount of stress on the body, and several days is required for full recovery to occur.

Polar cycling training programs are designed to help you reach your goals.

For a personalized cycling training program, go to the web service. You can choose a training program to improve your fitness level or an event program if you are aiming for a cycling event. There are also specific training camp programs for those interested going on a cycling camp.

The program is based on the Polar sport zones method with all training broken down into five different intensities. This will help you understand what is required in each workout. For more information on Polar sport zones take a look at the article Polar sport zones.

Aiming at an event?
To prepare for a cycling event, choose between a program that prepares you for a one-day event and a program that prepares you for a stage event. Your fitness level will determine the program level most suitable for you. These programs are six weeks long, during which fitness level will increase and event performance is maximized.

Prefer a training camp?
Combine cycling and leisure by selecting a training camp program. These programs give you training instructions for one or two weeks, while still giving you the opportunity to enjoy your surroundings while you cycle. This program is also perfect to get you in shape for the cycling season.

Cycling to improve fitness?
If you want to get fit by cycling but are not preparing for a specific event, choose a program that improves fitness level. These programs last four weeks, after which you can re-profile yourself for a slightly heavier program.

Polar sport zones spell a new level of effectiveness in heart rate-based training. Training is divided into five sport zones based on percentages of your maximum heart rate. With sport zones, you can easily select and monitor training intensities and follow Polar’s sport zones-based training programs.

TARGET ZONE Intensity % of HRmax EXAMPLE
5 MAXIMUM 90-100% 0-2 minutes Tones the neuromuscular system
Increases maximum sprint race speed
4 HARD 80-90% 2-10 minutes Increases anaerobic tolerance
Improves high speed endurance
3 MODERATE 70-80% 10-40 minutes Enhances aerobic power
Improves blood circulation
2 LIGHT 60-70% 40-80 minutes Increases aerobic endurance
Strengthens body to tolerate higher intensity training
1 VERY LIGHT 50-60% 20-40 minutes Helps and speeds up recovery after heavier exercises

Training in sport zone 1 is very low-intensity. Instead of resting during recovery, speed the process up by training in this zone.

Endurance training at an easy pace in sport zone 2 is an essential part of every cyclist’s training program. Cycling long distances in sport zone 2 increases metabolic economy. It helps save glycogen for higher intensities and uses fat as the main energy source.
Aerobic power is enhanced in sport zone 3 with mainly aerobic cycling. Training can consist of long intervals, for example uphill intervals or high-cadence intervals.

Cycling in sport zones 4 and 5 means cycling anaerobically in intervals of up to 12 minutes. The shorter the interval, the higher the intensity. Sufficient recovery between intervals is very important. Polar sport zones makes training easier (planning, controlling and documenting), especially for beginners and intermediate cyclists. Polar sport zones can be personalized by using a measured maximum heart rate.

When cycling in a certain sport zone, the mid-zone is a good target but you don’t need to keep your heart rate at that exact point all the time. Training intensity, recovery level, environmental and other such factors will all contribute to heart rate responses. It is, therefore, important to pay attention to subjective feelings of tiredness and to adjust the training program accordingly.

Cycling Economy is expressed as the number of expended kilocalories per kilometer (or mile). Cycling economy is largely affected by the inclination of the terrain.

On flat terrain, cycling economy values are typically 20-30 kcal/km for bikers of average weight, whereas in 15% uphills, the value may rise above 150 kcal/km. Other factors play in, as well, such as air resistance - i.e. drafting, riding position - and rolling resistance, which is the result of the compression of the wheel, the ground or both.
Riding technique and the bicycle itself also impact cycling economy.

Cycling Efficiency expresses energy expenditure converted into the power that propels the bike forward. In other words, cycling efficiency represents the efficacy of skeletal muscles to transform the body’s stored biochemical energy into mechanical movement, while the remainder of the energy is lost as heat. The higher the efficiency, the more power one can produce to ride the bike with the same amount of energy and oxygen. This is vital for success in cycling races and other long-distance events.

Cycling efficiency only used to be measured in laboratory conditions. Now measurements in the field are easily conducted using Polar products featuring the cycling efficiency function.

Cyclists’ gross efficiency values typically vary between 17% and 22%. Therefore, even small changes in efficiency can mean the difference between success and failure. Efficiency can be improved even after years of training whereas e.g. maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) is usually achieved within a few months to two years of skillful training.

In general, factors such as body size, gender, fitness level and skill affect individual differences in efficiency. Pedaling technique and breaks in continuous pedaling also have an effect.

It makes more sense to compare your current values to your earlier ones, and not to the values of other cyclists. Cycling efficiency values are especially helpful when they are measured over a longer period of time.

LR Balance (Left/Right Balance) measures the power produced by each leg independently, and then tells you how evenly you pedal with both legs. Left/right ratio is calculated by recording the maximum powers reached by the left and right pedals during a pedaling cycle.

LR Balance is a valuable tool for enhancing your pedal stroke and optimizing muscle output. If you learn how to distribute power evenly between both legs, you will generate a more consistent power output and, importantly, delay fatigue. Ideally, cyclists should always aim to distribute power output equally between both legs.

It is especially beneficial to monitor LR Balance closely when recuperating from leg injuries. After an injury, it is common to compensate for the weaker leg by overburdening the stronger one, which may cause further injury. Training with reduced intensity and pedaling evenly with both legs by monitoring the LR Balance will help you avoid additional adverse effects while you recuperate.

Cadence is the rate at which you crank the pedals, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm), and is a central factor in improving cycling performance. A higher cadence reduces the force needed for each pedal stroke, and thus improves overall performance.

Experienced cyclists are more efficient at higher pedal rates, and tend to ride at a cadence above 90 rpm, whereas recreational or novice cyclists usually keep to lower rates. Like speed, cadence is commonly lower during uphill stretches than during long flat roads. Body weight also plays a role. Lighter cyclists tend to have faster pedal speeds than heavier cyclists.

Cadence is normally kept above average levels during cadence technique training sessions and at a much lower level during sport-specific strength training.

In experienced cyclists, increasing pedal cadence encourages recruitment of type I muscle fibers (slow-twitch), minimizing type II fiber (fast-twitch) recruitment. Individuals with a higher percentage of type I muscle fibers tend to be more efficient cyclists.

During long sessions, cyclists can forget to monitor cadence. Using a monitoring instrument to set value limits enables cyclists to easily keep track of cadence goals.

Pedaling Index (PI) is the ratio between the minimum and maximum forces of a single pedaling cycle. A pedaling cycle begins when a magnet on the crank passes a relay on the circuit board, and ends when the magnet passes the relay again. The resulting ratio is averaged from the most recent pedaling cycles.

PI helps optimize pedaling technique by measuring the ‘roundness’ of force distribution, or how evenly the power is produced – the higher the PI percentage, the better. Values of 30% or more are very good. Breaks in continuous pedaling affect PI values adversely.
At the crest of a pedaling stroke, there is a weakening, or a "dead spot", in pedaling force before another stroke begins. Developing an even rotation helps maintain consistency over the whole circular pedal stroke, and produces a fluent, forward thrust.

PI enables continuous monitoring of pedaling technique. This is especially helpful at different intensity levels, since pedaling technique tends to become challenged at higher intensities.
A common technique is to use clip-less pedals to help maintain a constant force, also during the upward stroke, and by ‘spinning’ the pedals at a higher cadence using a lower gear instead of ‘mashing’ the pedals at a higher gear. Other methods to smooth-out the pedal stroke include changing the length of the cranks to better suit one’s physique or trying to eliminate the dead spot by using variable geometry chain rings or other special products that change the geometry of the crank and bottom bracket.

At higher speeds, pushing against the force of the wind by ‘mashing’ at every pedal stroke will result in a small but constant fluctuation in speed. In races, even minor increases in speed will sharply increase wind resistance, or aerodynamic drag, which requires substantially greater effort to compensate for. Because of that, cycling with small but frequent variations of speed will be less energy-efficient than maintaining an even pedal rotation with constant power and speed, even if the overall average speed stays the same.

It is useful to compare average PI results between different exercise sessions when assessing long-term development.

Power Measurement indicates the intensity of the cycling performance in watts. Power output provides an objective tool for tracking training progress very easily. The results can be analyzed and compared between cyclists and different exercises.

Where heart rate monitoring provides performance feedback with a short delay, power measurement enables accurate monitoring of performance output — instantly. This is especially beneficial during interval training, for instance, when feedback is required immediately.

Changes in performance due to weight fluctuations are also instantly discernible. Even small changes in aerodynamics are easily detected by measuring power output, since in comparable conditions, an increase of speed at the same power output level means better aerodynamics.

All in all, power measurement is a helpful and versatile tool for enhancing performance and keeping you in control. In addition to pedaling power, Polar Power Output Sensor measures Cycling Efficiency, Pedaling Index, LR Balance and Cadence.

In cycle racing, as in many other endurance sports, speed is all-important. An efficient speed training zone lies between the aerobic and anaerobic threshold, or around 80-90% maximal heart rate.

The aim of speed training should be to push the athlete's anaerobic threshold upwards (the level at which the body produces more lactic acid than it can eliminate) as much as possible. For most athletes, the anaerobic threshold is 20 bpm below maximal heart rate. In other words, a cyclist with high aerobic threshold will rarely need to exceed it during races.

Another important goal when training for speed is to maximize the duration that the athlete is able to remain inside the speed training zone. This ability to work long periods close to the aerobic threshold is often crucial for winning races.

Speed training usually takes the form of interval training. Individual laps range between 10-30 minutes, and the entire session usually lasts no longer than 50-80 minutes. The number and duration of intervals can vary greatly depending on fitness level. Recovery lasts 5-20 minutes depending on interval duration and fitness level. Most importantly, heart rate should never exceed the anaerobic threshold during intervals. Otherwise, training becomes too heavy and exhausting and will not improve speed.

Speed training can be performed on different types of terrain. Cycling fast on even terrain will work the muscles, while also developing the nervous system necessary for speed cycling. Speed training in the mountains will put strain on the heart and other cardiovascular system, while muscle work is slightly lighter in high altitudes. This, in turn, will enable also a less-fit athlete to train for longer periods of time.

Most top cyclists use the bike for their strength training. Typically, they cycle uphill sitting down on the saddle and using a higher gear than normal. Cadence is at a much lower level than normal, approx. 60 rpm instead of 90-100 rpm.

A larger drain is placed on energy reserves than during regular cycling. Monitoring your pedaling rhythm during training is easy with the Polar Cadence Sensor.

Performance intensity is not a high priority since developing muscle strength is the aim of such training. Heart rate is at about the same level or slightly lower than when training for speed (approx. 80-90% maximum heart rate). An individual interval lasts between 1 and up to 10-15 minutes, with a varying amount of repetitions depending on fitness level.

Recovery should last at least as long as the interval, but cadence should remain high to improve the nervous system as well as muscles. Efficient strength sessions usually last 30 minutes. For optimal results, strength training occurs during intensive periods.

If your cycling posture starts to feel uncomfortable during a ride, try pedaling standing up for a while. This way you use a slightly different set of muscles, while relaxing your buttocks for a moment. If your discomfort is persistent, you might want to adjust the height or position of the saddle or handlebar. Consult a bicycle or sports equipment dealer for more detailed advice on this subject.

Central to good cycling technique is correct transmission or gear use. A typical mistake made by beginners is to use a far too high gear for your fitness level, reducing pedaling cadence too much. Also, using a high gear places too much pressure on the knees and the achilles tendons.

For a more appropriate heart rate level, increase pedaling rhythm. Typical pedaling rhythm (cadence) for racing cyclists is 80-100 rpm. This corresponds to optimal power output. The high speed of top cyclists is not necessarily appropriate for beginners, but especially if you are using clip-less pedals, you should try to bike hard at least for a part of your session.

For correct pedaling technique, work your foot throughout the pedaling cycle. In other words, don't just push the pedal down, pull it up, as well. For this you will need clip-less pedals. Your technique will improve quickly if you keep your pedaling rhythm high. It helps if you make a conscious, mental effort to keep your feet pedaling smoothly and regularly. Thinking about how your body is moving will speed up the learning process, and before you know it, pedaling in circles is second nature. Once you have mastered correct pedaling technique, you will be cycling much more efficiently while using an increased number of leg muscles simultaneously.

The simplest way to continuously monitor your pedaling rhythm is to invest in a Polar Cadence Sensor that comes as an accessory to your heart rate monitor or cycling computer.