Get fit cycling to work: Training drills cyclists can do on their daily commute

From building leg strength through low-cadence drills to endurance sweet spot training, a ride to work is the perfect time to cram in some extra training

Clock12:01, Monday 13th May 2024
Use your commutes to work as an opportunity to train

© GCN

Use your commutes to work as an opportunity to train

On the face of it, commuting by bike is a functional activity about getting from A to B. Break things down a little further and it’s far more than just that, providing a fun alternative to driving that is more environmentally friendly.

A cycling commute can also be the perfect time to cram in some all-important training, especially for time-strapped cyclists who would otherwise struggle to fit meaningful workouts into their schedules. These workouts can vary from lung-busting hill reps and sprints to easier endurance training, so there are potential benefits for every type of commuter.

Here are some of our top tips for training on your commute, plus some handy exercises you can incorporate into your rides to work.

Read more: Top tips for cycling to work: Beginners guide to commuting by bike

How to train on a cycling commute contents

Why you should train on a cycling commute

It’s important to reiterate from that outset that you don’t have to use a commute as an opportunity for serious training. For many commuters, their ride to work isn’t about building up fitness, but simply enjoying being outdoors and enjoying some steady exercise, and that’s fine.

However, if you want to make larger fitness gains, a commute is the perfect time to cram in extra training. After all, if you’re already riding to work on a regular basis anyway, it’ll fit neatly into your schedule. That often can’t be said for other rides, which can fall victim to everyday life, like work and family events. A commute to work isn’t something you can avoid or cancel, so it's a great way to plan consistent training.

Commuting can sometimes become a little monotonous too, depending on the route. We’d always recommend varying routes to spruce things up, but training is another great way to freshen up your rides to work and add a little extra motivation.

Of course, the amount of training you can fit in will depend on the length of your commute, but don’t be afraid of adding a little extra distance on too.

Read more: 8 commuter hacks that make cycling to work easy

Top tips for training on a commute

Hopefully you’re fully on board with training on your commutes, but before you go sprinting towards any street signs, there are a few things you may want to consider.

  • Don’t overtrain - Once you’ve started, it’s easy to fall into the trap of turning every ride to work into a leg-sapping effort. This is a sure-fire way to burn yourself out and even cause injuries. Make sure you don’t raise your training load too quickly and keep it comparable to what you’ve done in the past, before slowly building the workload up. Use a training app if you need help.
  • Evenings or mornings? - You don’t need two intense workouts in a day, so choose either your ride to or from work for your training session. Some people have personal preferences for this, but if you don’t it may be better to train on your way home. That way you won’t be too tired when you arrive at work.
  • Listen to your body - If you’re an experienced cyclist, you should have a good read of your body. Those newer to cycling may overlook important signs of overtraining or oncoming injuries. Try to pay attention to any discomfort or pain, and ease back if it is necessary.
  • Fuel your rides - Your body needs adequate nutrition to fuel rides and recover from them. So, make sure you eat a fuel-boosting breakfast and take lunch with you to work. To learn more about the best nutrition for cyclists, check out our complete guide.
  • Stay safe - Don’t get caught up in a training bubble or too obsessed with the numbers on your bike’s computer. You need to remain aware of your surroundings and continue to follow the rules of the road, which isn’t easy if you’re overly distracted. You can mitigate some of these concerns by picking a quiet cycling route.

With that out of the way, here are some workout ideas for your rides to work.

Endurance training: Consistency is key

We’ll start with endurance training and there’s good news here as you won’t need to add any lung-busting efforts to your rides or torture yourself on hills.

The key to improving endurance is regular steady riding and this is also a key tenet of polarised training. Polarised training is championed by many, including Tadej Pogačar ’s coach Iñigo San Millán, and splits riding between 80% at lower intensities and 20% at high intensities - middle intensities don’t feature as they are deemed as ineffective.

It’s a good model for commuters to follow, as it’ll ensure maximum gains while preventing overtraining. Plus it’s really easy to split commutes up until low and high-intensity training. For example, if you commute five days a week, that equals 10 rides. Only two of those rides would need to be at a high intensity, while the others should be easier endurance rides. Relatively easy, that is. Ideally you should aim for around zone 2, which is an effort you should be able to sustain for long periods, but it will still leave you breathing quite heavily.

Check out our complete guide for a full breakdown of training zones, here.

HIIT hill reps: Conquer the climbs on your rides to work

If you’re blessed with a particularly hilly route, you can take advantage of the favourable parcours for some tough workouts in the form of hill reps. And even if your route doesn’t usually traverse any climbs, why not take a slight detour onto something lumpier - as long as it doesn’t add too much distance, of course?

The chances are you won’t encounter any major climbs during your commutes, but that doesn’t matter as you can still reap plenty of benefits from hill reps on short ascents. These benefits will vary depending on how hard you make the efforts, which in turn is influenced by the length of the climbs too, but for shorter climbs the idea is to ride at a high intensity, usually at VO2 Max or higher. Riding at these high intensities will improve aerobic capacity, anaerobic ability, improve your FTP and, of course, boost climbing performance.

We’re not suggesting here that you go up and down the same climb as that will add some distance and time to your commute, although you can. Instead, repeat the efforts on each climb that you encounter.

Best hill reps for a cycling commute

If you want to keep things simple, all-out hill reps are great. The task is simple: ride from the bottom to the top as hard as you can. This pace will need to vary depending on the length. You won’t be able to sustain the same pace for 1km that you can for 100 metres.

  1. Make sure your body is warmed up for at least 5 to 10 minutes. Take it easy on any climbs before then.
  2. Once you get to the climb, it’s time to put the gas down. Go as hard as you can for the duration of the climb.
  3. Take time to recover at the top by easily spinning until the next climb, when it’s time to repeat the effort.

Improve your sprint ability through a cycling commute

When you sprint, you enter the anaerobic zone. At this intensity, the body can’t fuel exercise using oxygen any more and it instead starts burning glucose from the muscles. Like anything else in cycling, sprint/anaerobic ability can be improved through training - unfortunately that involves lung-bursting sprint intervals.

A warning here that sprinting is an all-consuming intensity that can easily distract you from your surroundings. So, reserve these for quieter stretches of roads and avoid them in bad weather. All of the suffering will be worth it, though, as on top of improving sprint power, intervals will also boost muscular endurance and your body’s ability to recover and repeat hard efforts. A study in the American College of Sports Medicine also found that eight weeks of sprint training can also increase muscle mass, as well as maximal cardiovascular capacity.

So, sprint intervals are a worthwhile addition to your commuting training schedule.

Best sprint intervals for a cycling commute

Sprint intervals vary in length, but the premise for all of them is the same: repeat short, all-out efforts with short periods of recovery between them. Here’s an example of 30-second sprint intervals that you can incorporate into your rides to work. You can do these in the saddle or while dancing on the pedals, but we’d recommend the former if you’re wearing a weighty backpack.

  1. These are all-out efforts, so make sure you complete a thorough warm-up first.
  2. Complete a 30-second all-out sprint.
  3. Recover for four minutes by flicking into an easy gear and spinning the legs.
  4. Repeat the sprint and recovery around four to six times, although you can add more if you have the time and fitness levels.

Sweet spot training during a commute

Sweet spot is a training zone that is below FTP but above the endurance zones. It offers a relatively high level of intensity for training gains without the sore muscles associated with the hardest intensities, hence why it’s become so popular.

This also makes it a great option for commuting, as it shouldn’t create sore muscles for the ride home or the next day’s commute.

As this study from the National Centre for Biotechnical Information shows too, sweet spot training has many more benefits for a rounded training plan. It enhances aerobic capacity, endurance, and threshold power. It also helps cyclists to build strength efficiently, improve race performance, and minimise overtraining risks.

GCN’s best sweet spot training session for rides to work

Here’s an example of an easy sweet spot training session consisting of 10-minute efforts. You only need to cram one in, but can add more if you have the time.

  1. No guesses for the starting step: complete a thorough warm-up before starting.
  2. Ride at the sweet spot training zone for 10 minutes. Save the effort for a long stretch of road without interruptions - the fewer traffic lights, the better.
  3. Recover for the rest of your ride.

Strength training: Riding to work in a hard gear

Cyclists aren’t exactly known for their strength. There are some exceptions to this, but many live up to their weedy reputations - GCN’s presenters have done little to debunk this view on the occasions that we’ve tasked them with some core exercises.

Like our presenters, most cyclists avoid strength training at all costs, partly as it’s associated with gym work. There are other ways to build strength, though, including on the bike.

On-bike strength exercises are really easy to incorporate into a commute as you can do them regardless of the terrain, and they’re not too taxing. They’re worthwhile too, as they’ll build leg strength which, considering the nature of cycling, has obvious benefits.

The best way to improve leg strength is through low-cadence drills. As the name suggests, it’s all about riding at lower cadences. This takes more of the strain away from the cardiovascular system and loads it onto the muscles. It will prove beneficial when you ride at higher intensities, at which point your muscles can call upon more muscle fibres developed through strength training.

It can also improve pedalling efficiency.

GCN’s low-cadence strength drills for commuters

This session can be completed on any terrain, but it will be easier on hills. It consists of short 10-second accelerations at low cadences.

  1. Complete a steady warm up.
  2. Once warmed up, slow down your pace and your cadence. You may need to shift into a small cog on the cassette - the idea is to start your effort in a hard gear.
  3. Accelerate for 10 seconds. Your cadence may increase throughout the effort as you get on top of the gear.
  4. Recover for a little bit then repeat. Aim for around five to 10 efforts.

Recovery rides for a cycling commute

We’ll end with a final reminder to incorporate plenty of recovery rides into your schedule.

Fail to add recovery rides and your body won’t have enough breathing space to adapt, which is essential if you want to make meaningful performance gains. Recovery rides should be easy from start to finish, so avoid the temptation to sprint to a traffic sign or accidentally creep into a higher training zone. Keep the ride to the easiest intensity possible.

Have a favourite training session that you use on rides to work? Let us know in the comments.

Check out GCN’s best training sessions and training advice

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