Basic Training Principles for Road Cyclists

Basic Principles of Cycling Training for Beginners

What is the best advice for cycling beginners?

It’s simple: Take action! However, getting started with road cycling and bringing the total return for your effort is not easy. In this post, we’ll go over the basic principles of cycling training and provide some tips to help you get started. So whether you’re just starting out or you’re looking for ways to improve your cycling performance, keep reading!

Therefore, I’ve made this introduction to serious cycling training, helping you step-by-step through the following topics:

Cycling Training Plans for Beginners – Structuring and Planning
The Principle of Super Compensation
Frequency, Intensity, and Duration
Intervals: How to Interpret them
Training intensities
What is the right training philosophy?

Cycling Training for Beginners – Structuring and Planning

One of the best ways to improve fast as a beginner cyclist is to get structure into your cycling. However, building a cycling training plan as a beginner is not easy. Instead, the most effective way to structure is to take advantage of other riders’ proven methods.

My riders have often told me that they feel much more potent when they’ve started on one of my cycling training plans.

In the beginning, they believe that it is because of the unique combination of intervals, but I keep telling them that the single best explanation for their progress is that they now have a structure on their training plan.

If you are a hard-working cyclist, you deserve to achieve good results with your work. You don’t (necessarily) have to train more or harder to achieve better results.

If you get the right structure with proper amounts of interval training on the good days, there is a good chance that you will improve fast and continue doing so. And, yes, I believe interval training should be an integral part of almost any training plan – also part of cycling training plans for beginners.

I like the idea of being more innovative, not training harder. I know it is a cliche, but there is definitively some truth waiting for you in this slogan.

The Principle of Super Compensation

In cycling, as in most sports, there are basic principles that govern how athletes train and compete. One of the most important of these is the principle of super compensation. Understanding this principle can help you to optimize your training and make better race decisions. In this article, we’ll explore what super compensation is, how it works, and how you can use it to improve your performance.

When you’ve performed a hard training ride, your body will have to recover before it gets stronger. How much time you need for recovery depends on the type of cycling training, your overall fitness, and your nutritional status.

Some other factors influence your recovery time, but for beginner cyclists, it is essential to know that hard training takes more time to recover from than light training.

When you have trained for a while, you will start to experience that your legs might feel sore the day after a hard interval workout and feel fresh the day after a light training session.

Thus, you are about to get the idea about super-compensation. To get the best progress, you will need to find the perfect training sessions and recovery combination.

Frequency, Intensity, and Duration (the main ingredients for your cycling training plan)

There are mainly three ways to change the total workload in a training week: Frequency, intensity, and duration.

For example, if you train more frequently, ride with a higher intensity (more races, more intervals), or increase training volume, you will force your body to adapt to these challenges.

This way, you can reach a higher level of fitness, but your body will not allow you to increase the total workload too fast. Good cyclists use these buttons to turn up and down the workload all the time.

Remember that consistency makes you a strong cyclist, not just one hard week of biking. Minor adjustments over time will help you to become a better cyclist.

The most popular training method to improve your threshold power is interval training. It is crucial to know your power output and heart rate at threshold power and use these values to pace yourself throughout intervals at the same intensity. You will have to do a performance test or a time trial as a reference.

The trickiest part of doing intervals is to remain at the right intensity throughout. Going a bit too fast at the start makes it impossible to maintain the right power to the end. On the other hand, if you go too slowly, you will not get the improvements you deserve.

Intervals: how to interpret them

3x (6+4min) Threshold power / active recovery
Interval sessions are one of the main parts of any training schedule.

But if you see them written down, it can sometimes be challenging to understand what they are and how to do them. Some riders are put off by this and left baffled by explanations that resemble complex mathematical formulas.

Take this example interval session:
3x (6+4min) Threshold power / active recovery

It may look confusing and meaningless to the uninitiated, especially if you read it in a book or on the internet, so let me explain.

The equation means: doing 6 minutes at threshold power pace three times with three recovery periods of four minutes in between each effort. (6min hard work, 4min recovery, 6min hard work, and so on)

So you would do the following three times:

  • 6 minutes at threshold power pace, followed by;
  • 4 minutes recovery

In this example, threshold power refers to an intensity you should try to maintain throughout each interval. Although you are unlikely to know your actual threshold power, it will become much easier to pace yourself correctly when attempting these intervals a few times.

It is advisable to do some light pedalling for the recovery periods to remove metabolites and keep your oxygen consumption at a moderate level. Also, it is easier for you to perform the next interval at the right intensity (and get more time at the proper oxygen consumption.

If you don’t pedal in the recovery periods, the beginning of the next interval will become more anaerobic.

Intervals are typically performed at sub-threshold, Threshold, and VO2 max intensity as described below.

Before beginning with interval training, it is good to perform two tests to get a better picture of your current fitness. These tests help you get a better pace during intervals and make tracking your progress easier (and more motivating).

Five-minute and 30-minute performance tests

VO2 Max intensity refers to your avg. Power output (Watts) in 5min test. Threshold power intensity refers to avg. power output (Watts) in 30min test. (30min test might at least, in theory, overestimate ‘functional threshold power,’ but from a practical point of view, you shouldn’t worry about it.)

When you perform one of these tests, try to estimate how much power you can produce for, let’s say, five minutes, and then keep a consistent pace. Of course, it might be necessary to adjust your speed throughout the test, but that’s how performance tests (and time trials) are.

If you use a heart rate monitor as your primary pacing tool, your average heart rate during the last 20 minutes of the 30-minute test is an excellent indicator of your threshold heart rate.

If you don’t know your maximum heart rate, then there is an easy protocol to find out:
1. Warm-up for 10-15 minutes 100-150W
2. Every 2 min, increase workload ~35-50Watts depending on fitness level.
3. Ride until exhaustion. Notice your maximum heart rate.

Training Intensities

Heart rate: Below 65% of maximum heart rate.
Power: Below 55% of threshold power.
The most effortless training intensity. It should reflect that you want to train without conflicting with the recovery process from previous intensive training sessions. Correctly made recovery rides may provide a slight boost to your overall recovery.

Heart rate: 65-80% of maximum heart rate.
Power: 55-80% of threshold power.
Your primary training intensity. Sometimes you can push more power, but you should always maintain this intensity throughout the training session.

Heart rate: 80-87% of maximum heart rate.
Power: 80-90% of threshold power.
This training intensity is just slightly below your threshold power and is a secure way to improve your aerobic engine.

Heart rate: 87-92% of maximum heart rate.
Power: 90-105% of threshold power.
This training intensity is close to your threshold power and boosts your aerobic engine.

VO2 Max
Heart rate: 92-100% of maximum heart rate.
Power: 90-105% of VO2 max power (five-minute maximum test).
This training intensity is close to your VO2 max power and is the most time-effective training for VO2 max gains.

Heart rate: Not valid for pacing.
Power: 90-102% of maximum capacity corresponds to the interval you train duration. For example, if you plan an anaerobic interval of 30 seconds, you should base your power output on your power output in an all-out 30-second sprint. So your target power should be in the range of 90-102% of your power output in an all-out 30-second sprint.

Please note that the training intensities mentioned above are only general guidelines.

As you get used to these different training levels, you might begin to make more training zones, e.g., low-end Threshold power, high-end sub-threshold, etc., as part of your cycling training plan. You can find an example of a 6-week training plan here.

If you feel you can maintain a higher intensity than the intervals prescribed, there is only one way to find out. If you cannot preserve power, you may need to analyze whether there is a good reason for this. Have you fully recovered from your last training session? Are you slightly dehydrated?

If you feel well but have a general problem performing the prescribed intensities, re-adjust the intensity levels mentioned in this article to fit your unique physiology.

In general, the training plan for beginners should be no longer than 8 weeks. Keep it short, and adjust your training zones as you improve your aerobic fitness.

What is the right training philosophy?

Many coaches develop bike training sessions targeted to improve your threshold power. Intervals with an intensity around your threshold power are the most common, and they are very time effective, too. However, other coaches believe in intervals slightly below threshold power – sometimes referred to as ‘sweet spot training.’

As you can see, there are many ways to train to boost your aerobic engine. Some riders prefer a high training volume (LSD cycling training), others prefer structured and focused interval training.

Most of my cycling training plans are built in a way that increases threshold power using a combination of

  • VO2 max intervals.
  • Threshold power intervals,.
  • Sub-threshold power intervals.
  • Endurance rides.

I agree that threshold power is often the most critical parameter for endurance athletes. However, it is essential to remember that most cycling races are not won at an intensity around threshold power.

So don’t forget to train your anaerobic endurance, sprint skills, and VO2 max as well. These skills are all required when to race goes on. However, performing all your training at an intensity below threshold power is insufficient to build superior VO2 max / anaerobic endurance/sprint skills.

Still, as I also wrote initially, the first and most crucial step to getting better is taking action. Structured training plans help you to organize your training, so you become stronger. Being consistent will pay off. Not today, tomorrow, or next week, but very likely in the upcoming months.

Also, it is worth joining a group of other cyclists (both beginners and experienced cyclists). It is a great training stimulus, and you will improve your group riding skills. On longer rides, you will enjoy having good friends around you.

So to sum it up, here are five main points from this blog post about cycling training tips for beginners:

  1. Use heart rate zones to guide training: Heart rate zones can be used as a guide for training intensity, with each zone corresponding to a specific range of heart rate. Beginners should aim to spend most of their training time in Zone 2, which is around 60-70% of maximum heart rate. This will help build up aerobic fitness and improve endurance.
  2. Incorporate strength training: Strength training can help improve cycling performance by building muscular strength and endurance. Focus on exercises that target the major muscle groups used in cycling, such as squats, lunges, and deadlifts.
  3. Experiment with different types of rides: Varying the type of ride can help prevent boredom and keep motivation high. Try incorporating long slow distance (LSD) rides, tempo rides, hill repeats, and group rides into your routine.
  4. Fuel properly before and during rides: Proper nutrition is essential for optimal performance on the bike. Eat a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats about 2-3 hours before a ride. During longer rides, consume carbohydrate-rich foods or sports drinks to maintain energy levels.
  5. Don’t neglect rest days: Rest days are just as important as training days when it comes to improving performance. Make sure to take at least one or two rest days per week to allow your body time to recover and repair itself. On rest days, focus on low-intensity activities like walking or yoga.

Are you ready to act? If you don’t train – nothing happens.

As soon as you realize that you are responsible for your results, you will start to move. I won’t push your pedals.

If you enjoyed this article about basic cycling training principles for beginners, please share this link  before you hit the roads:


Thank you.

17 thoughts on “Basic Principles of Cycling Training for Beginners”

  1. Thank you, is an excelent articol, very usefull, pointing very clear directions to follow. I am eyes and ears on it.

  2. Great article Jesper, as always – thanks! πŸ™‚

    I have one simple question though: are the defined heart rates calculated using the Karvonen method?

  3. @Ciotic – Thank you. I’ll try to make a couple more of these longer posts.

    @Kristian – Heart rate zones in this article are calculated as a percentage of maximum heart rate. From a practical point of view, I believe, it is just as fine as the Karvonen formula. And it is much easier to communicate and understand for most people. Though, I agree, that from a theoretical point of view Karvonen has a point. Still, both methods need personal fine-tuning to work optimally.

  4. Jesper,

    I downloaded your 12 Week Winter Training book and enjoyed it very much. You recommend using sub-threshold training which I believe is also known as Tempo in some books. My current training incorporates one hour continuous sub-threshold workouts. Would there be an advantage to breaking it up into sets?


    Bill Langton
    Ottawa, Canada

  5. Hi Bill,

    As you can see, there are three sub-threshold intervals on most Saturdays. The recovery between these intervals is not set in stone but take the time you need to feel sure you can maintain the planned intensity in the following interval.

    Since it is a sub-threshold interval, it is also be possible to do one long 45-minute interval to get the interval training done. It might seem impossible but it isn”ℒt. Actually, it would probably provide a great training boost.

    Though, most riders would appreciate at least five to 10 minutes between each interval of 15-20minutes.

    I guess you will feel it is easier to get your training done if you split the sub-threshold intervals up in e.g. 3 x20min.

  6. Tommorrow I will start my VO2 max booster program. I plan to keep my cadence regulated between 90 – 100 rpm. I will use my hear rate values from my maximal test, and a cross reference against the standard 220 minus age vales. Wish me luck. πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks. I found this article easy to understand and relate to. I have been riding for years, however only recently have I taken my rides more seriously. I have good endurance but want to increase my speed. The sessions outlined on your site will help. – cheers Paul

  8. Great article. I am amazed with all the riders out there how good advice is hard to find.

  9. Hi back there? Iam new for cycling sport and only graduate sport science. u know wat I know. that is the science of sport, …. but specifically I became National cycle federation technical director. Now I want to prepare “MANUAL” for youth project age of >13, >16 and >18. would u mind to help me.
    thank u

  10. Hi Mr Jesper i am Vernon from Port Elizabeth South Africa thanks for being so nice to those cyclist you do not know but once again it shows the passion for the sport is rooted inside of you .Thanks to you .

  11. I’m new to cycling and my goal is to ride distances and eventually a century ride. I’m doing about 25-40 miles every other day and am looking to do things that make me better. Guess I’m just not that bright but this is way too complicated for me. The terminology just goes right over my head.

  12. Jesper,

    Thanks for this article. This is exactly what I am working on during my winter training sessions. Your explanations have cleared up a couple areas of confusion for me. I am on week 5 of your winter training program and I’m seeing very positive results.

    Thanks again,

    Bruce Magee

  13. Hi Dr. Jesper,
    I’ve been receiving your emails for about a month now and by far your VO2 max Booster Program seems to be to most comprehensive and suited to my needs. I will carefully follow your instructions and provide you feedback. Please answer on question. I need to be sure about your recommonded efforts. For example 3x (5+3min) 80 / 50% VO2 Max. Please explain the latter part of this 80 / 50% VO2 Max.

  14. Good Morning Dr. Jesper,

    I also am a physician (Anesthesiologist) and in my first year of competitive cycling. Coming from a bodybuilding background, I had no idea how to train for an endurance sport. I was also cautious of just blindly following how others train because “that is how we were taught”. So, I did an medical literature search at our Medical University after reading the info you’ve generously provided on your website. The core principle of training to VO2 max is ALL OVER the medical literature and validated as the fastest training technique. In fact, there are plenty of articles in The Journal of Applied Physiology that have a VO2 max programs following similar training formats for ten weeks with powerful results that were linear in growth. One of the articles comments that their subjects had faster gains than professional teams who spent many more hours training.
    So, my fifteen year year old son and myself (46 y/o) started your 14 day VO2 max program. It actually took us about a month to complete due to forced days off because of fatigue, as determined by over 10% drops in our power output. At the end of the month we repeated a VO2 max power test with a 20% increase!
    We are now completing your 12 week winter training program to be ready by summer.
    Thank you for your hard work and sharing your training results online.

  15. Hello Jesper,
    Thank you for this service to us cyclists.
    I am from Zimbabwe and don’t have access
    To such wonderful advice.
    Many thanks

  16. Pingback: Workout While Riding – ClassicRider444

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