How to improve endurance on the bike without doing long rides

With a well-structured training plan, you won’t have to ride for hours to build endurance.

Clock11:00, Wednesday 12th July 2023

Endurance is about being able to ride further, faster, and more efficiently. It’s the key to smashing loads of cycling goals, whether that’s ticking off your first century, or taking on a truly epic ride.

The traditional advice for building endurance is pretty simple. We think that Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, put it best: “Ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike.”

And he was right: long, steady-pace hours in the saddle are going to cause physiological adaptations that’ll make you a better cyclist. Your red blood cell count will increase, as will the mitochondrial density in your muscles, which will help you turn the oxygen you breathe into energy. Plus, long hours in the saddle will strengthen your heart, and condition your body to get used to sitting on a bike. All in all, long, slow rides are going to help you ride harder, for longer.

That’s all well and good for those of us with the luxury of time, but what about everyone else? Can time-strapped cyclists still build these adaptations without a huge quantity of training? In short, yes. With an intelligent approach to riding, and using the principles of polarised training, you can improve your endurance without doing long rides.

Polarised training combines lots of 'zone 2' riding with some high intensity riding

What is polarised training?

There’s been loads of research performed in recent years testing different training plans, and one has emerged as the stand-out winner: polarised training.

For polarised training, you only ride at two intensities: high and low. Middle intensity riding, sometimes known as sweet spot or tempo, is taken out of the picture completely.

So in a polarised training plan, you’d spend 80% of your training at a low intensity aerobic zone - sometimes described as ‘zone 2’ - then 20% at a very high intensity.

Indoor trainers are great for time efficiency

Five-hours-a-week polarised training plan

Polarised training is used by some pros who often train up to five hours per day, but how does it work if you're only doing five hours per week?

With five hours' training time, you're looking to spend up to an hour at very high intensity with the other four spent recovering. This could be done with a couple of HIIT sessions in your week with short intervals, and one longer steady ride of about two to three hours with some sprints thrown in.

Think of it as pushing and pulling: all that slow easy riding is slowly pushing your endurance upwards, whereas the high intensity is pulling your ceiling up higher. Stick to this plan, and your endurance will improve, even if you can't train 30 hours a week like the pros.

Some high intensity riding is essential for a rounded training plan

High-intensity session ideas

A really effective high-intensity workout to try is 10 x 30-second max sprints with more than two minutes rest in between each set. It’s tough, but it’ll really boost your fitness.

Here’s another one to try. Ride four minute blocks of high intensity, in which you sprint for 20 seconds, then recover for 40 seconds. After each four minute block, take a ten minute break. Three repetitions of that will give you a really effective session.

Try 4 x 30 second sprints in your long ride with lots of recovery in between, and then try to add one or two more in each week up to a maximum of around ten.

Since these sessions are going to put a lot of stress on your body, it’s really important to take at least a day in between so you can recover.

Most of your training should be at lower intensities

Low-intensity session ideas

In between your high-intensity sessions, you can enjoy the rest of your riding at a moderate aerobic capacity. The aerobic zone is at the top of the moderate-intensity exercise zone, so it should be about 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. At this intensity, you should just about be able to talk normally, but you might be a little bit breathless.

Indoor sessions are far more time-efficient than outdoor rides

Indoors or outdoors?

You can train well either indoor or outdoor, but some sessions are better suited to each type of riding.

Being indoors allows you to get your head down and go hell for leather, without worrying about traffic and distractions, so for intervals or high intensity sessions, indoor can be better.

For your moderate-intensity rides, it’s great to get outside for these, and even better in a group. These rides are a good opportunity to make the most of the social aspect of cycling.

Top Tip

If you’re out on the road, make sure you’re on an appropriate section of road for high intensity efforts. A good idea is to find a climb – it’ll push you to keep up that high intensity, and it’ll also strengthen your climbing ability.

With a clever training plan, even time-starved cyclists can reach peak fitness

Train right and it can be done

So, can a busy cyclist improve their endurance with only a few hours training a week? Absolutely. All it takes is a smart approach. With a polarised plan bringing together high- and low-intensity riding, your endurance and general fitness is going to skyrocket.

There’s still a place for longer rides too, if you can squeeze them in. That’s because cycling endurance is also about being comfortable on your bike – you need to get used to your saddle, and condition your body to adopt a riding position.

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