The Best Cycling Workouts for Every Fitness Level

Find a cycling workout that fits your goals and fitness level. (Image: adamkaz/iStock/GettyImages)

When it comes to low-impact cardio workouts, cycling is one of your best options. You can modify it to match any fitness or experience level, and it's easier than you think to get started. These workouts can take you from the couch to your first club ride or propel you to the head of the pack.

The Health Benefits of Cycling

Cycling is a great standalone workout and a great complement to other forms of exercise, like weightlifting or running. The health benefits of cycling are also very clear.

Cycling can significantly reduce your all-cause mortality risk. Less than an hour of daily riding can reduce all-cause mortality by up to 20 percent, according to a 2011 review from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. A 2017 study from The BMJ also linked regular cycling to a number of other health benefits, including reduced cancer and heart disease risk.

Since cycling is low-impact, it's a good option for people with joint issues. It's regularly used as a rehabilitation method for many common injuries, making it a great way to build strength if you're recovering from an injury (after consulting with your doctor first, of course).

Make the Most of Your Cycling Workout

First, decide on a bike. If you already own one, it'll probably do the trick, says Parker Ramspott, a bike mechanic and owner of Laughing Dog Bicycles in Amherst, Massachusetts. To be on the safe side, though, Ramspott recommends taking it to a bike shop for a safety check and tune-up. They can also adjust your seat height or stem length until your bike fits you like a glove.

If you don't have a bike, there are several types to choose from:

  • Road bikes are great if you eventually want to ride long distances or try your hand at racing.
  • A mountain bike is a better choice for exploring trails and dirt roads.
  • Hybrid bikes can handle just about anything and are a great choice for commuting and riding around in comfort.

Since you'll be spending more time on your bike, the right clothing can make a big difference, says Ramspott. Consider investing in a pair of bicycle shorts with a high panel count, cycling-specific jerseys with a longer back section and even bicycle gloves.

Next, find a place to ride where you feel safe and comfortable. Look for a place with limited car traffic and bike lanes or a separated bike corridor/path. It's not safe (or legal) to ride on the sidewalk in most places, and you're less likely to hit an obstacle next to the road.

Ready to tackle your next cycling workout? Choose one below based on your fitness level and get going!

Cycling Workout for Beginners

If you're brand new to the bicycling world, start slowly. Your goal should be to establish a solid foundation of fitness and confidence on your bike. "Don't let the voice in your head talk you out of getting on your bike," says Ramspott. "If you take a step and start riding, you'll build confidence and get comfortable quickly."

Choose at least two or three non-negotiable times during the week for your workout, and write them into your calendar. Stick to your schedule — don't skip a workout without making it up in the same week. It might take a few weeks to get into a routine, but the time you spend on your bike is the most important factor for building fitness.

The good news is that you don't need to bike for hours and hours to get a positive effect. As long as you're out riding and exercising for about 30 minutes at least five times a week, you're on your way to better fitness. Increasing your distance is the best way to improve your cardiovascular health even further. A beginner cycling workout could be as simple as this:

  • Start with a warm-up to get your pulse going. Five minutes of easy cycling should leave you feeling energized and ready for your workout.
  • Once you're warmed up, your main session should consist of a moderate effort over a distance of five to 10 miles, depending on your fitness. In the beginning of your training, focus more on consistent mileage rather than intense speed.
  • After your main workout, cool down with another one to three miles of riding at a very relaxed pace.

You may find it helpful to keep track of your distance using your smartphone so you can track your progress. Achieving new milestones each week is a great motivator. In the beginning, don't worry about how fast you're going — time spent on the bike is more important.

In fact, a 2011 review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that a bike ride of just a few miles can significantly improve your heart health if you're starting at a lower fitness level.

Intermediate Cycling Workout

Once you're getting out on your bike every week, on schedule, and your distance is steadily improving, it's time to take your cycling workout to the next level. "It's a good idea to try and improve your cycling form," says Ramspott. Having good form will improve the quality of your cycling workout while reducing your risk of a stress injury.

Bike rollers — a set of stationary cylinders that let you cycle in one place — can be a huge help, he says. The bike isn't secured to the rollers, so the challenge lies in balancing yourself as you ride. Ramspott recommends starting out next to a wall or countertop for stability.

For intermediate cyclists, start tracking your distance and average speed using a cycling app for your smartphone. Apps like Strava help you keep track of your progress, while providing statistics about your steady improvement. These apps are also a great way to map and save your favorite routes, so they're easier to find the next time you want to ride.

Shoot for between 170 and 250 minutes of cycling per week, spaced out over several rides. Incorporating some high-intensity riding (ex. a sprint or a steep climb) like the one below will accelerate your improvement considerably.

  • Start with a warm-up. Aim for 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for five minutes (it's okay to estimate this).
  • Once you're warmed up, find a gear that puts you at about 70 crank revolutions per minute. You can count your rotations for 30 seconds and double the number to find your ideal cadence.
  • Hold this pace for 10 minutes, then shift up a gear at the same cadence.
  • After 15 minutes, increase your effort and hold a higher cadence of 80+ revolutions per minute for another 10 minutes.
  • When you reach the 35-minute mark (or you can feel your energy levels dipping), cool down at 60 to 70 RPMs in an easier gear and slowly decrease your heart rate.

Advanced Cycling Workout

If you're training for a club ride, bike race or Century (100 miles by bicycle) or attempting to set a new personal best, it's time to kick your cycling workout into high gear. Improving your fitness when you're already riding long distances five or more days a week can be challenging, but the right workout plan can help you reach your training goals.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the best way to improve your cardiovascular threshold, which is a great measurement of your fitness capacity. If you can commit to four interval workouts a week, you'll see significant improvement after just eight weeks compared to riding at a steady pace.

  • For interval training, find a moderate hill to climb up or increase the resistance on your indoor stationary bike or trainer.
  • Start with a warm-up that takes you to 80 percent of your max heart rate for 10 minutes.
  • Once you're warmed up, it's time to climb. Pick a gear ratio that is slightly higher than your usual climbing gear (50x19 or 50x17). You'll want to stand up and out of the saddle; your heart rate should be just below your maximum. It should feel like a considerable effort.
  • Stay in the climbing position and ascend a steep hill (or maintain a high resistance) for 20 minutes.
  • Cool down to a low cadence and an easier gear and spin until your heart rate comes back down.
  • Repeat these intervals with 20 minutes of effort and 10 minutes of cool-down at least three times.
  • Cool down for an extra 10 minutes.

Hills aren't everyone's idea of fun, but they're a fantastic challenge for your cycling workout and they produce real results. Any nearby grades will do the trick. Serious cyclists may shoot for at least 2,000 feet of elevation gain during a single ride, but your numbers will vary based on your local terrain, time spent riding and your fitness capacity. Many cycling apps will calculate your elevation gain for you, and Google Maps (the web version) gives you the option for tracking elevation gain between two points.

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