Whether you’re targeting a specific event or want a more general progression, here are six tips to improve cycling fitness – from cycling coach Alan Milway of Milway Performance

Cycling is a hugely popular way to get fit – but if you’re not structuring your rides, you might be limiting your progression. If you want to improve your cycling fitness, cycling coach Alan Milway – who has worked with professional cyclists for nearly 20 years – is here with his top tips. Time to don your best cycling shoes and get on your bike.

6 ways to improve your cycling fitness

1. Stick to a realistic routine

This might sound obvious, but I have worked with many amateur riders who come to me super-motivated to improve and want a training plan to push them from the off. They start off well, but before long work commitments, family and ‘life’ have other ideas and they start missing sessions.

This then affects motivation as they feel they’re not keeping to the programme, and training starts to deteriorate. This over-ambitious approach isn’t helpful for the long term, so try to work out a realistic, manageable and achievable timetable.

Ticking these sessions off every week and feeling like there is room for more, or extending sessions, is a much better approach.

  • Common problem: An over-ambitious training programme, where sessions are often missed due to life getting in the way and commitment to the plan starts to suffer. 
  • Solution: Be realistic with your training – 2-3 sessions a week that are easily ticked off, with room to extend these, may be enough to start with. Maintaining routine will improve motivation as you see consistent progressions by sticking to a schedule.
Man straddling a stationary bike looking at cycling computer - improve your cycling fitness
Smart training with a dedicated app can help you keep within your training zones | Image: Alec Dudley

2. Understand your thresholds

Many cyclists who use any sort of training app will generate a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) score, and the software will invariably work out your ‘training zones’ from this. Although this can initially be helpful, it can often encourage hard training – and training that doesn’t always lead to progressive improvements.

FTP is a way to measure the wattage you can, in theory, put out for an hour at absolute full effort. The initial test of an hour was pretty demanding (just look at the faces of anyone as they finish a 25-mile time trial!) so the proposed test was scaled back to 20mins, with 95% of this value forming the FTP.

This value is one way to find your Anaerobic Threshold (AT), a value that is often measured in a lab with a progressive fitness test whilst taking blood samples.

FTP is often slightly higher than this Anaerobic Threshold, so don’t think that consistently riding way above this FTP will always help you. You will probably just end up very fatigued.

You will be better off ensuring you are riding in your ‘Zone 2’ (aerobic, steady state cycling zone) for longer periods, and then plan for shorter, more regimented interval sessions using this FTP threshold data. 

  • Common problem: Training sessions are often geared around hard sessions above FTP and the theory that ‘harder sessions are always better’, whereas they can often reduce aerobic development and promote fatigue. 
  • Solution:Be clear on your own threshold wattages and heart rates. Aim for more aerobic sessions than anaerobic (hard) sessions each week to give the biggest endurance progression. Remember that cycling is an aerobic discipline.

3. Cycle to work

Being able to link a cycle ride into your daily work travels will be a huge game changer in terms of fitness progression. It may be travelling to and from a workplace or train station, or a lunch break ride. If you are working from home, can you make time for 30-45mins before you need to be at your desk or work it into a break? 

These rides don’t need to be long but can be structured to give the best progression: using a heart rate monitor or power cranks can be helpful to assess effort.

Alternate rides between easy, steady pace ‘Zone 2’ rides with a consistent effort level (these are often around 140bpm), and more interval-based rides, where heart rates may go up to 160-165bpm for 5-8mins, before coming back down to 140bpm for the same period.

Man climbing a hill on a road bike - improve your cycling fitness
Lunch breaks or commutes are ideal opportunities for regular structured rides | Image: Alec Dudley

You can also add much higher intensity short sprint intervals for good time efficiency. 

  • Common problem: Opportunity for regular sessions can be overlooked as they aren’t ‘in your own time’. 
  • Solution: Try to plan for a session during a lunch break, or link with a commute. It doesn’t have to be every day; even one day a week might make a good change to your normal routine and will keep things fresh.

4. Structure your social rides

Sunday morning rides are often great fun as you can meet up with friends and not only ride but socialise as you do so. One of the common issues though is that there isn’t always a clear plan made about ‘how’ you’ll ride. You will often plan ‘where’ you’ll ride but the pace may change depending on how the fittest guy or girl in the group feels. 

This pacing can lead to some members of the group riding well above their threshold until they break, and others riding in a ‘no man’s land’ of effort which isn’t easy enough to give good aerobic development, and not hard enough to improve threshold power.  

Instead, suggest a plan, such as: ‘How about we have a steady first 15-20mins, and then go hard for 10mins, recover for 10mins and do a few efforts like this on the ride?’ 

Suddenly you have a structured plan and although the group may splinter, you know you’ll be able regroup during the recovery period. So you can stick to your threshold or try and hang on to someone slightly faster for the full 10mins, knowing you will have a chance to recover properly.

  • Common problem: Regular rides with friends have no real plan, and can vary in effort and intensity, or be guided by how the fittest rider in the group feels.
  • Solution: Make a plan for the ride – even just an idea of where on the ride to go hard or go easy. Most of the time the group will be receptive to this suggestion.

5. Use your gears

The latest cycling tech including 12-speed cassettes and precision electronic shifting may be amazing for the marketeers. But it doesn’t help the rider if they aren’t used properly.

A good starting point for steady-state cycling is approximately 80-90rpm. Sitting lower than 70rpm isn’t ideal and will probably put more fatigue through the legs rather than the cardiovascular system.

If you want to work on torque then using a harder gear can help. This could also be ideal for those racing criterium races, where coming out of corners requires a short, hard sprint. To improve this, you need to get your leg speed up over 120rpm, and your heart rate up to 140-150bpm for peak power output.

Yes, track cyclists can reach huge revs of up to 260rpm, but their maximum power is developed lower down the range, so training for these sprints is important. Chomping at the pedals at 70rpm in a hard gear will never develop good power. 

  • Common problem: Riders underestimate the benefits of being in the right gear, and don’t use their gears effectively, increasing fatigue and reducing efficiency. 
  • Solution: Use rpm as a guide and try to establish a steady cadence between 80-90rpm. Understand that high power output efforts will occur most effectively above this cadence and use gears to find your sweet spot.
Man lifting barbell with one foot raised on a bench behind - improve your cycling fitness
Strength training in cycling can be overlooked in what is often considered purely an endurance discipline

6. Incorporate strength training

Endurance events will reward those who have developed their cardiovascular system. Ultimately, the higher the pace at which you can sit without accumulating lactate, the more successful you will be.  

However, this approach can lead to over-use injuries, a lack of ‘punch’ when gradient or situation call for it, and also difficulty holding specific positions on the bike. Strength training can help with these things and shouldn’t be underestimated as part of endurance training.

Consider the benefits of improved mobility through strengthening your body in different ranges. A good hip hinge, for example, will allow you to hold a better position on the bike.

Improving your single leg strength will improve power output and also highlight any left-to-right imbalances that might be robbing you of power when terrain gets tough.

Strengthening the trunk will help you hold a solid position on the bike from which to drive the legs more efficiently.

  • Common problem: Cyclists overlook the benefits of strength training for their sport as they see it as purely an endurance discipline. 
  • Solution: Implementing a few key exercises into a basic strength session can pay dividends and improve overall balance in your posture, as well as efficiency and power on the bike. 

Alan Milway is a coach who has worked with professional cyclists for nearly 20 years. He has worked with riders in different disciplines and coached 7 World Champion Downhill Mountain Bike racers. He also a new venture, milwayperformance.com, making high quality, UK-made fitness equipment. 

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