Fall is the perfect time to start your journey as a cyclist. The weather calms down a bit and the stress of the race season is over. And you finally made the decision now. You’ve got yourself a bike and went out for your first ride. The wind blew against you and your bike, while you pushed the pedals. It wasn’t a long ride but it was exhausting.
Cycling, indeed, is an endurance sport. As beautiful as it is as difficult this sport is.
Slowly socializing and connecting with like-minded people you find out about a group ride taking place on Saturday. The only problem is your lack of endurance. You can’t keep up with the group and frustrated you came home and think about whether the decision to start cycling was a bad one.
But don’t bury your head in the sand. Here are 8 ways to improve your cycling endurance as a beginner to strive in your group ride.
Let’s take these one by one, and then tie them all together.
1. Start Easy
No matter what endurance sport you start you wanna make sure to start easy and reserved. Think one ride at a time. And make them easy and enjoyable.
If you ride your bike once a week or twice a week for an hour then try to add some slight progression during a block of 4 weeks, for example. This is called progressive overload. To progressively overload the system you can either increase volume or intensity or both.
You increase your training load week after week for three consecutive weeks and take the fourth week as a rest week, where you reduce your volume to 50-60% of your common volume to shed off the fatigue you’ve built over the weeks.
As a beginner, you may want to start just with easy endurance rides. So, you just increase the volume slightly week after week. For example, from riding twice a week for an hour you can ride your bike three times a week for an hour. And then four times a week and so on.
But we wanna ride at a low intensity. Imagine building a house. You can’t place the roof if you don’t have a strong foundation. That’s why some coaches refer to endurance rides as foundational work. Build your base first and build the rest upon.
2. Ride Consistently
Another key to improving your endurance on the bike as a beginner is riding more consistently. What I mean by this is sticking to your weekly riding schedule as well as possible.
Of course, sometimes life gets in the way. If this happens try to return to your daily grind of cycling asap.
Because if you wanna see consistent progress with your rides sticking to a good frequency is crucial. It’s even more important than hitting it long and hard once a week.
The first step is to assess a realistic schedule of how often you can jump on your bike per week. If you can handle it 4 times a week then stick with it and make it into your routine. Allow for deviations only during rest weeks.
Once you’ve mastered this step, climb up the ladder and progress. Your endurance will thank you for it.
3. Go Long Once a Week
When you manage to ride consistently and at low intensity, it’s time to step up again. When you have the time on the weekend then try to get in 1 long ride per week.
Why? Because muscle fatigue has a similar effect on muscle fiber recruitment as work intensity has. During a long ride, your enduring slow twitch type 1 muscle fibers become fatigued.
As a result, your fast twitch type 2a fibers get recruited to keep work intensity up. By training adaptation, these type 2a fibers become more fatigue resistant and enduring. Hence, your fat oxidation and endurance increase.
For a beginner, this could be a 2-3 hour ride. A more experienced novice could even try to go for a 4-hour ride. The key here is to work at your level of fitness.
4. Include Interval Workouts
When you get those long rides in it’s time to increase the intensity and enter the world of interval training. Now, as a beginner, you want to start with aerobic intervals to build a bigger “aerobic engine.”
Tempo intervals are a perfect way to start. These are done at 85-90% of your FTP where you still work aerobically from a physiological perspective. If you’re unfamiliar with the concepts of FTP click here. Again practice progressive overload. For example, start with 2x5min at tempo once per week with 5min of recovery between sets. And during the block progress up to 5x5min at Tempo and up to 2 times per week.
These intervals will increase capillarization and mitochondrial density in your fast twitch type 2a fibers. Thus, the perfect aerobic endurance booster.
5. Get into a Strength Routine
Another way to boost your endurance as a beginner is strength training. Working out with weights has been shown to improve fatigue resistance, and therefore endurance, in several studies.
Because again we see a conversion of muscle fiber types. This time from fast twitch type 2x fibers into more fatigue-resistant type 2a fibers.
If you have no gym experience learn the basic movements like squats, lunges, bridges, and deadlifts with body weight. And again progress over time. Slowly, incorporate weights.
In addition, you may want to add a core session to your strength routine. There’s evidence to suggest that core training prevents injuries. Therefore, add some push-ups, planks, crunches, and others into your program.
6. Track Your Fluid Intake
While it may not directly improve your endurance, your fluid intake could drastically harm your endurance performance. Especially, during a long and hard group ride, this could be a critical factor.
By just losing 2% of body weight as fluids endurance performance is drastically reduced.
So, make sure to drink steadily during your rides and check the weather to pack additional drinks. And yes even during cold days like in fall and winter you need to drink. You may not be as thirsty but you’ll still sweat under all your layers. A good indicator of your hydration state is your urine color. Pee light and you’re good to go.
As the adage goes: “Drink before you’re thirsty.”
7. Eat Lots of Carbs!
One topic where I couldn’t find any contradictive results on the positive effects on endurance performance is carbohydrates.
Even a meta-analysis on the effects of carbohydrate supplementation on endurance performance came to a similar conclusion: Carbs in an appropriate composition have large effects on endurance performance.
How does this translate into real-life cycling?
For different kinds of training rides you wanna follow different eating patterns:
1. For easy rides up to 90min you don’t need food. Just pack an emergency gel.
2. For long rides over 90-120min eat 30g of carbs per hour of riding.
3. For interval workouts aim for 60-90 grams of carbs per hour of riding.
One thing to keep in mind with carbs is that you need to find your sweet spot of how many carbs you can consume per hour. It’s individual.
And if you go over 60 grams of carbs then make sure to use a 2:1 glucose-to-fructose ratio because our body is only able to absorb 60 grams of glucose per hour and fructose takes a different transport pathway.
As the adage goes: “Eat before you’re hungry.”
8. Manage Your Fatigue
All these training tips only show their real strength if you have great fatigue management. Because adaptations take place during recovery. You get better during the time off the bike.
That’s why it’s so important to take rest days and recovery weeks. Those are the days and weeks when the seeds you’ve planted with all the rides, can grow into a beautiful and strong plant.
So, make sure to add 1-2 rest days per week and include a rest week every 2-4 weeks of hard training.
Putting it all together
If you’ve chosen to ride your bike, you did so because you like it. Always make sure that you like what you do. In my opinion training enjoyment is one of the most important principles there is.
If you start as a beginner and you hate your workouts, you will soon spend your evenings in front of Netflix instead of on your bike. Put differently, if you enjoy your rides you can’t wait to get back to cycling. So, first of all, start with easy rides you enjoy doing and be consistent with training week after week.
Test yourself and go for a long ride to challenge your comfort zone. Once you progress and get fitter include aerobic intervals like tempo or sweet spot 1-2 times a week. Build a strength routine to become stronger and more fatigue resistant. And do it all with a focus on fluid and carb intake.
If you manage your fatigue well with rest days and rest weeks, you’re primed to improve your endurance as a beginner.
- Training Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers: Why and How
- Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training?
- What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?
- Effects of acute carbohydrate supplementation on endurance performance: a meta-analysis
- Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists