Get Fit Fast In Just 3 Days A Week
Building a base on the bike has traditionally meant putting in a lot of hours doing long, slow distance training. But with work and family lives, it can feel impossible to find the hours in the week to properly commit to a base build, especially if you’re a beginner cyclist who’s not used to rides that take more than three hours.
As it turns out, especially if you’re a newer cyclist, there’s a lot that you can accomplish if you only have three days a week to get on the bike. Building a base of fitness for cycling takes some commitment and consistency, but it doesn’t have to take over your life.
Here, we spoke with Namrita Brooke, Ph.D., one of the lead coaches at BaseCamp, about how she would structure the optimal three-day week on the bike—and what other lifestyle tweaks she would make in order to improve fitness even when you can’t fit in long rides.
The Best Plan for New Riders to Build Their Endurance Base
Know You Can Progress in a Short Time
A lot of cyclists think that if they can’t train 10-plus hours per week, their fitness will suffer, or they won’t make gains on the bike. This isn’t true, especially for newer riders. “Someone who has not been doing any exercise would see gains in as little as two to four hours a week of riding,” says Brooke. “If someone has some general fitness, gains could be had in four to six hours [per week].”
However, expect that after a few weeks or months, the tangible signs of progress will slow unless you can devote more time to training. “The tricky part is the ongoing gains might not be as easy to see as the initial gains,” Brooke adds. “Initially, if the athlete was measuring power, they would see power increases, but these would plateau in a few months, leading them to think gains are no longer occurring but in reality, the athlete is likely to still build other metrics of fitness like repeatability, durability, and resilience, but those are not as easy to measure.”
Keep It Consistent
Often, new cyclists with limited time tend to attempt one monster ride on the weekend, skipping cycling during the week due to busy lives. But even if you can only eke out two one-hour (or 45-minute!) trainer sessions on weekdays in addition to the long weekend ride, you’ll gain fitness and strength faster than if you stick to a single ride.
“I would rather see the athlete do three quality days a week versus one or even two longer days,” says Brooke.
Build Your Aerobic Engine Efficiently
“The base training goal, whether you’re a pro or average Joe, is to build the best aerobic fitnessyou can for the training hours you have available,” says Brooke. Without this aerobic fitness, you won’t be able to boost your speed or power on the bike.
This means spending the bulk of your time on the bike in zone 2 (whether you use power, heart rate or perceived exertion). Riding in zone 2—also known as your endurance pace—will mean that you’re able to hold a conversation and speak in full sentences, but it should feel slightly difficult to do so. If you can chat away easily, you’re riding a little too easy. If you’re gasping for air between sentences, you’re riding a little too hard.
The Beginner Base Training Plan in 2 Phases
For newer riders, opt for the longer durations in each phase. If you’ve been riding for a while, you’ll likely notice that after a few weeks in each phase, you’re at a point where you’re not noticing any improvements—in that case, proceed to the next phase. Here’s how Brooke would break it down.
Part 1 of Base Phase Training
Getting started in part 1 of Base Phase is simple: All rides should be done in zone 2 for four to eight weeks. Ideally, you’re able to train four to six hours per week. Remember, though, if you’re not riding a ton yet, build up to this much time in the saddle. A sample week:
Tuesday: 1 hour zone 2
Thursday: 1.5 hours zone 2
Saturday: 2.5-3.5 hours zone 2 (based on how much free time you have available)
Part 2 of Base Phase Training
In the second part of your base training, you’ll add a bit of intensity, while still staying in the aerobic zones. For four to eight weeks, your goal is to do two slightly harder short rides, plus one long zone 2 ride. Ideally, you’re able to train four to six hours per week. A sample week:
Tuesday: 1 hour ride:
40 minutes in zone 3 (where holding conversations is still possible but difficult) and zone 3.5 (where you can still speak in single sentences)
Thursday: 1-1.5 hour:
10-15 minute warmup
40 to 60 minutes in zone 3 (where holding conversations is still possible but difficult) and zone 3.5 (where you can still speak in single sentences)
10-15 minute cool down
New riders may need to break the zone 3 portion of the ride up with an easy 5-10 minutes in the middle.
Saturday: 2.5-4 hours zone 2 (based on how much free time you have available)
Add Time and Distance When Possible
Have an extra hour on Saturday for your long ride? Great! Woke up an hour early on Wednesday and have time to hop on the trainer for an extra 45-minute ride in zone 2? Fantastic. Feel free to add time whenever possible.
Four days on the bike is better than three, says Brooke.
Four days on the bike is better than three, says Brooke. “Two harder interval days and two longer days would be best if possible,” she notes. And this is actually a fairly standard schedule for most serious cyclists—they’ll add one or two additional easy rides to the schedule, but the meat and potatoes of their training consists of two longer endurance rides and two harder interval-based sessions.
In fact, Brooke says that often, she hears new cyclists say they only have four hours per week to train, but once they get going, they start to “find” extra time. “You would be surprised how many newer riders think they are limited to four to six hours a week but once they really get into cycling, they make accommodations to squeeze in an extra hour or two per week,” she says. “I see riders all the time start to wake up earlier to squeeze in additional ride time before they start the rest of the day!”
And thanks to the prevalence of indoor trainers, it’s easier than ever to sneak in an extra hour or two on the bike during a weekend or early in the morning, even if you have work or childcare demands on your time. But don’t neglect outdoor riding, especially if your base-building goal is to be able to keep up on the local group ride or jump into a race. While indoor training builds fitness, it doesn’t help improve your skills for riding outdoors, so make time for at least one outdoor ride per week if at all possible.
There is one final caveat: It’s easy to get excited about the prospect of adding a monster ride to your weekend whenever possible, but these long rides aren’t easy. Four hours on the bike will feel very, very different from two hours. If riding for five hours on Saturday means you can barely walk for two days after, or it impacts your training the next week, back off.
Long rides shouldn’t leave you flattened for days afterwards. If they do, you’re doing too much, too soon. And Brooke notes that the longer you ride, the more important it is to properly fuel that long effort!
Sneak in Extra Training on Your Off Days
The fastest way to improve your fitness is—again—by consistently training. But training doesn’t mean all-bike-all-the-time! Brooke says there are quite a few simple additions you can do on those non-cycling days to see gains on the bike.
Often on conference calls for work, or accompanying your kiddos to soccer practice? Walk and talk, or do laps around the field while you cheer. “Walking is more of an aerobic builder than people think and can be a gentle form of aerobic activity to accompany bike time,” Brooke says.
For the office worker, treadmill desks are becoming more popular, and if you do want to put in more bike time and you have a stationary trainer, you can do some easy spinning while answering emails or brainstorming for that big presentation.
“Strength training can be added in as little as 15 minutes a day, three days a week if we are willing to change the paradigm of going to the gym and lifting heavy things,” says Brooke. “Integrating just this small amount of functional strength into a base training program like we do at BaseCamp yields long-term benefits to your training and health.”
You can do short strength sessions at home with just a couple of weights, or even bodyweight alone to get started.
Skip the De-Load Weeks
In a typical training plan, cyclists have three weeks of training followed by a rest week where they do only a couple of shorter, easier rides. When you’re only able to ride three days a week, there’s no reason to take a rest week—you’re already getting plenty of recovery time in the four days you’re off the bike.
“The low training stimulus is likely not enough to elicit a high enough super-compensation response to make the loss of fitness during a rest week worth it,” says Brooke. (That said, if you’re a beginner rider and find that after three weeks, you are feeling fatigued, you can dial down the duration or intensity for that fourth week—but stick to three rides if possible.)
Play With Your Schedule
Once you’ve done your base training for several weeks with your rides spread out through the week (i.e Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), you may want to try switching things up. If you do have the ability to try out new riding days, it’s worth experimenting with doing mini-training blocks, i.e riding three days in a row, some weeks. This subtle shift changes your training stimulus by forcing your body to contend with the need for speedier recovery between rides.
Newer riders may find that it’s harder to recover between rides in these chunks, says Brooke. “The challenge of block training is the athlete needs a certain amount of base fitness to be able to respond and adapt to this type of stimuli and in this scenario,” she explains. “But testing the block process is the only way to find out how they tolerate it.”
If you try riding three days in a row and feel exhausted, go back to your regular schedule and test again after another few weeks of consistent training.
Move on from Base Phase—and Then, Come Back
While it’s tempting to stay in the base phase forever, this training phase should really only last around eight weeks. At this point, your aerobic fitness is maximised (for now) and it’s time to focus on the development of “power.”
“After the base phase comes the build phase, where the athlete wants to increase their sustainable max power for a range of times,” says Brooke. “For a newer cyclist without a specific goal, focus on holding a higher wattage for five minutes to 40 minutes. This phase should be maintained as long as the athlete continues to see improvement, then once response begins to fade, move on to the next phases.”
Once you’ve plateaued your power gains, the final phase, typically utilized when “peaking” for an event would be the “speed” phase, explains Brooke. “Here, the cyclist would focus on improving shorter efforts of under five minutes and building anaerobic capacity to focus on performing better in events or group rides.”
After your main event, whether it’s a race or group ride or even just spending four to six weeks focusing on upping your sprint power, it’s time to take a short break and then circle back to base phase.
The good news is that once you’ve completed this cycle, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much stronger you’re feeling on the bike the second time you tackle base training. While training phases are cyclical, your fitness grows as you spend more and more time on the bike, so no training phase will feel exactly the same.