Basic Principles of Cycling Training for Beginners

Cycling Training for Beginners - MTB is a great supplement to road cycling.

I have often been asked how beginners should train if they want to improve fast. It’s simple: Take action! The thing you should do is to stop reading this article now and get out on your bike.

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. I have often been told by my riders that they feel much stronger when they’ve started on one of my cycling training programs.

In the beginning they believe that it is because of the special 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 program.

If you are a hard working cyclist, you deserve to achieve good results with the work you do. 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 right days, there is a good chance that you will improve fast and continue doing so. And yes, I certainly believe interval training should be in every training program – also when planning cycling training for beginners.

I like the idea of being smarter not training harder. I know it is a cliche but there is definitively some truth waiting for you in this slogan. If you want to learn more about my training philosophy, please subscribe to email updates below.

The Principle of Super Compensation

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

There are also some other factors that influence on your recovery time, but for a beginning it is important 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 combination of training sessions and recovery.

Frequency, Intensity and Duration

There are mainly three ways to change the total workload in a training week: Frequency, intensity and duration. E.g. if you train more frequent, ride with a higher intensity (more races, more intervals) or simply just ride more, 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 make use these buttons to turn up and down the workload all the time.

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

The most popular method of improving your threshold power is via interval training. It is crucial to know your power output and/or 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 intensity to the end. If you go too slowly, you will not get the improvements you are training for.

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 difficult 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

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

The equation basically 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 what your actual threshold power is, when you have tried these intervals a few times it will become much easier to pace yourself correctly.

For the recovery periods it is advisable to do some light pedalling to remove metabolites and keeping your oxygen consumption at a moderate level. This will then make it easier for you to perform the next interval at the right intensity (and get more time at the right oxygen consumpion. If you don’t pedal in the recovery periods then the beginning of the next interval will actually become more anaerobic.

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

Before you begin with the interval training it is a good idea to perform two tests to get a better picture of your current fitness. These tests help you to get a better pace during intervals and makes it easier (and more motivating) to track your progress.

Five-minute and 30-minute performance tests

VO2 Max intensity refer to your avg. power output (Watts) in 5min test. Threshold power intensity refer 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 a 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. It might be necessary to adjust your pace throughout the test, but that’s how performance tests (and time trials) are.

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

If you don’t know you 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.
This is the easiest training intensity and should reflect that you want to train without conflicting with the recovery process from previous intensive training sessions. Correctly made recovery rides may actually provide a small boost to your overall recovery.

Heart rate: 65–80% of maximum heart rate.
Power: 55-80% of threshold power.
This is your main training intensity. Sometimes you are able to push it a little harder but you should always be able to 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 gives a boost to 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 useful for pacing.
Power: 90-102% of maximum power corresponding to the duration of the interval you train. For example, if you plan an anaerobic interval of 30 seconds, then 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 above mentioned intensities are only general guidelines and should be read as such.

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.

If you feel you are able to maintain a higher intensity than the intervals prescribed, there is only one way to find out. If you are unable to maintain intensity, 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 own unique physiology.

What is the right training philosophy?

Many coaches develop 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. Other coaches believe in intervals slightly below threshold power – sometimes referred as ‘sweet spot training’.

As you can see there are many ways to train which will boost your aerobic engine.

Most of my cycling training programs 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 single most important parameter for endurance athletes. Though, it is important 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. Performing all your training at an intensity below threshold power is simply not sufficient to build a superior VO2 max / anaerobic endurance / sprint skills.

Still, as I also wrote in the beginning, the first and most important step to get better is to take action.

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

As soon as you realize that it is you who are responsible for your own results then you will start to move. I won’t push your pedals.

If you enjoyed this article about basic cycling training principles for beginners, please hit the like/share button below before you hit the roads. Thank you.

16 comments… add one
  • Ciotic Cristian Link

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

  • Kristian Link

    Great article Jesper, as always – thanks! 🙂

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

  • @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 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 theoretically point of view Karvonen has a point. Still, both methods need a personal fine tuning to work optimally.

  • Bill Langton Link


    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

  • 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’t. 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.

  • rich evans Link

    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. 🙂

  • Good luck, Rich!

  • Paul Frontczak Link

    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

  • Andre Link

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

  • mesay Link

    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

  • vernon Link

    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 .

  • Joseph Link

    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.

  • Bruce magee Link


    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

  • Terry Link

    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.

  • Hany Salah, DO Link

    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.

  • Kevin Link

    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

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