Winter fit: your training guide


Cycle coach David Heatley explains how to use your winter riding to gear up for spring events. 


My most successful clients are the ones with goals to achieve on their bikes. They maintain and build fitness over winter by working towards their goal.

So if you want to stay active over the colder months, I recommend setting yourself a solid riding goal by registering for spring and summer events. You can try Around the Bay, the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride, or, for those hardened riders looking to push themselves, the Peaks Challenge series. Being registered for an event gives you the incentive to keep training through winter. There are key elements to a successful winter training program, which can be broken down into some basic steps.

1. Base training

Base training helps you build your aerobic capacity, which will result in a huge difference in your fitness come spring. Generally base training is done at lower intensities to increase your heart rate but keep it well below your maximum** heart rate zone (E1 on the table below). Commuting to work is great base training. If you are planning to take on the 210 or 250km distances in an event like Around the Bay or Peaks Challenge, I recommend that you ride between seven to 10 hours a week during winter. If your ride to work is a reasonable distance (or you take an extended route) and commute four of the five days a week you’ll accumulate seven hours of riding by cycling just 1.75 hours each day. Then anything you do on the weekend is a bonus to take you over and above your seven hours.

The key to base training is consistency. It’s much better to do regular, smaller rides through the week rather than just one big ride on the weekend. That’s why commuting is a great way to keep fit.

2. Interval training

Interval training builds on your base training and turns you from a slow plodder into a high-performance racing machine. But you have to be a bit careful with what intervals you do.

During winter, I recommend that you focus on a ride or an indoor training session that includes three-to-six, two-to-five minute intervals getting close to your maximum heart rate zone (the E3). I recommend that you do one or two E3 sessions a week with an easy E1 ride or a rest day the day before and after each of these interval sessions.

During winter your aim is to build fitness not taper and peak. You taper and peak when you do really hard efforts in the VO2MAX Heart Rate Zone. VO2MAX is between 92-100%. Focus on the VO2MAX training when you get closer to your event so that you taper and peak at the right time.

VO2MAX training builds on your base. So the better your base, the better the result you’ll get when you do start this higher intensity training. Some people try to short cut this by doing VO2MAX training too early in an effort to ‘crash’ their training. This does lift their fitness. However, if it’s built on a small base then it’s a short term lift, and it doesn’t last—similar to the result you get from crash dieting.

Interval training can be done either on the road or a home trainer. Indoor training is a great way to supplement your on-road riding in poor weather and is very efficient for a few reasons. The most important being that it’s a focused session. On the trainer, you don’t stop for traffic lights or freewheel down hills. The other great thing about indoor training is that you can really work on your pedalling technique.

3. Hills

If you are training for Around the Bay, then a lot of hill training is not important. However, if you are training for Peaks Challenge then it’s a whole different story. For Peaks Challenge, I recommend that you build around a minimum of 1,000 vertical metres of climbing a week into your training. This could be done in a single ride or across several rides during the week. The gradient and length of the climb are not important—just the total amount of vertical meters. As the weather
improves, you can increase this. Do around 10-15% of this climbing in a gear or two harder that you would usually ride in while focusing on developing a really good pedalling technique. This will help build strength that you’ll call on later on in the season as you start ramping up your training for your event.

Finally, work on a four week training cycle. The first three weeks are for building or maintenance and the last week is for recovery. The building phase is where you gradually increase either the volume or intensity of your riding by no more than 10% a week. During the recovery week, you reduce both volume and intensity. This is important because the training load is the stimulus for developing fitness, but it’s when your body is resting and recovering that the actual adaptation happens.

4. Maintenance

If you aren’t riding any events during the winter, you should go into a ‘maintenance phase’. This means that once you are riding 7-10 hours a week you should hold it there for three weeks then have a lighter week on the fourth. You should continue this four week cycle all the way through to spring.

Weekends are often the best time for longer rides. If you complete your interval training during the week then weekend rides should be done mainly around the E1 Heart Rate Zone with a little training up in the E3 Heart Rate Zone. In a winter maintenance program, the sweet spot for longer rides is around two to three-and-a-half hours. Rides longer than this move towards the law of diminishing returns. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ride for longer than three-and-a-half hours. It just means that, during winter, your time could be better spent doing other things, such as catching up with family and friends. If the weather is really bad, investigate alternate activities that you can do on the weekend, such as swimming, running, walking, mountain biking or going to the local gym and doing a cross fit or indoor cycle training class. Winter is a great time to cross train so take full advantage of it and plan activities that get you out of the house so you can stay active and fit.

I hope this provides you with a little inspiration to keep you thinking about what you’ll do over the winter to stay fit and healthy. All the best with your riding.

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David Heatley is a full time cycle coach, director of Cycling-Inform and Bicycle Network’s Cycle Training consultant.

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