By James Spragg
Most cyclists have a lot of pressures on their time: work, family and social life all inevitably get in the way of cycling.
Therefore, for a lot of riders, the daily commute to and from work will make up a significant time on the bike. A 30-minute commute each way adds up to a total of five hours riding through the week and this can be used as valuable training time – so it’s important to use it as wisely as possible.
I coach a lot of riders who use their daily commute as part of their training plan and with these athletes we’ve made the shift from viewing the daily commute as just a means for getting to and from work, to using it as a training session.
Let’s consider how to make the most of your commute to work, and five training sessions you can incorporate into your ride.
One of the best ways to make this shift is by being prepared. I often recommend to clients who commute by bike to, where possible, keep spare clothes at work. Many will ride into work on a Monday morning with all the clothes they need for the week. They can then leave the house in the morning on the other day knowing they are going out to train and that they have everything they need at work when they arrive. This obviously requires quite a bit of planning but it will prove really beneficial with your training.
Another important element to plan is your nutrition. Often during a busy day at work it is difficult to eat sufficiently to fuel your ride home. Therefore, I recommend keeping a stash of energy bars, fruit, nuts and the like at work. This way you can ensure you eat something one or two before you set off on your second training session of the day. This is particularly important if you have some kind of interval session on the way home. Don’t leave the office hungry!
Once your commute becomes a training session then you need to incorporate it into your training plan. I often give riders a recovery ride on a Monday following a weekend’s training and this makes it the perfect opportunity to take all your clothes for the week into work ready for when you are doing harder sessions later in the week.
Commuting to and from work obviously involves two rides in one day, so another thing to think about is what kit to ride in. For example, make sure you have reliable waterproof clothing if it’s raining in the morning. The last thing you want to do when preparing for your evening ride is to put on wet kit.
Now, this may sound very strange but something I used to do is to get into the shower at work fully kitted up (minus the shoes). I would then get undressed in the shower, giving my kit a thorough wash and rinse through as we were lucky enough to have a room where we could leave kit to dry. I would then take extra set of kit into work on a Monday to ride home in and so would always have dry and clean kit on hand at work if required.
That’s the planning out the way – but how can you make the most of your time on the bike? Here are five training sessions to use in order to maximise each ride. Try to mix it up as much as possible and don’t do the same session in both directions on the same day. Needless to say, make sure you stay safe on the road while commuting and training.
Your average commuter’s route to work is more often than not interrupted by all manner of things: traffic, roundabouts, crossings, traffic lights etc. You can use this stop-start riding to your advantage.
One session that really works well is to try and pull away from each stop over-geared by one to two sprockets (i.e. it feels harder than normal). This means you have a really push to get going again, working in the same way as a gym session by focusing on pure leg strength.
If you imagine how many times you have to slow or stop on your daily commute, then you get an idea of how many efforts you would end up completing in this sort of short session.
The opposite of this session is to use a very small gear each time you accelerate (so you are under-geared). This forces you to increase your leg speed and helps you to improve your muscle activation (how quickly and efficiently your muscles fibres are firing).
Doing a combination of the over-geared and under-geared accelerations works on the two aspects of sprinting: leg speed and leg power. When you come to put these together in your weekend rides you should, over time, see an improvement in your sprinting ability.
Going the long way around and adding just ten to 15 minutes on your commute could mean a total of two-and-a-half hours more on the bike each week.
If you’re looking to work on your endurance then you can add periods of sweetspot riding into your commute. Adding 20 to 30 minutes sweetspot means you can take the long way and still arrive at work on time.
Sweetspot intensity is between the upper end of zone three and lower end of zone four – or 88-93 per cent of FTP power or threshold heart rate, and between 75-85 per cent of maximum heart rate. It is effectively the intensity which allows you to get the most training value for your time on the bike, balancing the exercise intensity and volume of training, and so is a useful tool for commuting.
This is also an excellent option of you need to be in the office earlier than normal. Again, the key is planning. If you have an early meeting one morning then do your sweetspot efforts on that day and get to the office ten minutes earlier than normal!
Any point-to-point ride can be split into a number of sections – from one set of lights to the next, from one junction to the next, or even the distance between villages for those with a more rural commute – and these provide perfect way markers to complete intervals.
Why intervals? Well, intervals allow for a period of recovery between efforts and this means you can sustain the quality of the effort and, in the end, do more training at a high intensity.
For example, 40 minutes at FTP power is very hard to maintain – you might only manage 25 to 30 minutes depending on how fresh you are. However, if you do 4 x 10 minutes then even in the last minute of the fourth effort you should be able to sustain FTP power. Therefore, by breaking down the efforts into manageable chunks you have actually been able to do more intensive training.
Because your commute is probably the ride you do more than any other, you will have a good idea of how long it takes you to get from one marker to another.
This gives you a good idea of how much you’re progressing over time. If on a day with similar wind conditions it takes you five minutes to ride between traffic lights, whereas last week it took you five-and-a-half minutes, then you know you are making improvements.
To give you a rough idea of how hard you need to be going in your intervals, you need to calculate your training zones.
Interval training takes place in zone four or above. Zone four efforts should be done between way markers that are 10 to 30 minutes apart, and zone five efforts between markers one and five minutes apart. If your points of reference are closer than that then go all out!
As for the recovery between efforts, when doing intervals in zones four and five, the recovery should be roughly the same length as the interval duration. For all out sprints, take five to eight minutes between efforts.
If you have an early morning commute after a hard ride the evening before it can be the perfect opportunity to build in a recovery ride in order to get ready for your next hard session.
To maximise your recovery ride commute allow yourself more time than normal. A recovery ride should be at a very low intensity – it cannot be too easy and you should literally just be turning over your legs, not pushing on the pedals. The last thing you want on a recovery day is to have to ride hard all the way to work to make that 9am meeting!
A recovery ride is also the perfect time to take your clothes in for the rest of the week. You are then ready and prepared to train every morning through to Friday.
Another important aspect of your training you can build into a recovery ride is to work on your pedalling technique. Try and hold a higher cadence than you normally would while spinning the legs. This not only has the benefit of improving your pedalling technique but it also means that the session will be less fatiguing on your muscles.
For most people, the commute to work takes place in the early morning. This is the perfect time to do a fasted ride.
This means riding before you have eaten and fasted training can be a great tool to lose weight and train your body to use fat as the dominant fuel source.
Fasted rides need to be kept at a relatively low intensity so, therefore, I would recommend you give yourself a little bit more time for the ride than normal.
The idea behind a fasted ride is to train with in a carbohydrate state, so the good news is that a black coffee is still fine before you get out of the door.
If you struggle with the hunger side of things (as I know I do) you can also eat something that is high in protein but with very low carbohydrate levels – a protein shake (made with water) can work well.