The winter conundrum: long and slow rides, or short ones at high intensity?
Should you log in long miles in the winter, or is it better to focus on high intensity?
For cyclists, the change of the season in the northern hemisphere coincides with a recurring training conundrum: How should I train during the colder and darker months? Should I focus on indoor sessions at high intensities on the turbo trainer, or should I still log the longer and slower outdoor miles?
Or maybe both? We say, follow these four rules…
Rule n. 1: be realistic
“It depends on how much time you have available,” says exercise physiologist and cycling coach James Spragg of Spragg Performance. “I think people see this kind of traditional approach where they’re trying to ride long hours in the winter and then ramp up the intensity as they move towards the race season. But if professionals do it, it doesn’t mean you have to replicate that plan – actually, quite the opposite."
A smarter and more individualised approach begins with the understanding how much time- – realistically – you have available for training. Consequently, you also need to understand your goals for the following season and never forget what you enjoy doing the most.
Rule n. 2: some volume is still achievable
“The difficulty in the winter is finding training time because you can’t get out after work,” says Spragg. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is impossible to put in some volume in the wintertime as well, as “a season plan involves some volume at some point”.
If you can get into a steady routine of riding two to four hours every Saturday or Sunday morning (and maybe with a club or a group of friends), that’ll correspond to your long and steady ride (the longer and bigger volume part of your plan). Thus, you can dedicate your weekly availability to the short and sharp stuff. The weekends would function as your general volume basket and the week as your high-intensity outlet.
“What I typically do with athletes that have less availability is prescribe 20-30 minutes of high intensity during the week [three or four times] – you don’t need to be on your bike for an hour to get a good session – then we’ll do a long, steady ride at the weekend,” he says. "Even a four-hour training volume per week has served Spragg’s busy athletes very well," he adds.
How long a session should be (both during the week and during the weekend) depends on your routine, commute, family commitments, stress levels and accumulated fatigue. If you're tired, it's better to rest or do something shorter instead of slowly falling into an overtraining spiral.
Rule n. 3: don't overdo with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
However, there's one thing you should try to avoid and that is putting high-intensity efforts into every session you perform. It’s something that may work for some quick gains in a short period of time, but will become detrimental to your training frequency and will ultimately force you to take more rest days. Frequency (doing something every day or as often as you can) matters more than having high intensity in every ride.
“Ideally, you want that training stimulus at least every couple of days,” says Spragg. “So you might take Monday off, train Tuesday, Wednesday off, train Thursday, and then train, you know, Friday, and then Sunday. That’s quite a nice way rather than just cramming it all into Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
The good, or bad, news, depending on how you take it, is that during the week, when the sessions are short, they can be intense: they can be sprint sessions at max power, VO2max, or threshold efforts.
“Quite often, athletes just repeat, or try to replicate, whatever their race demands are,” says Spragg. But a better way to go is actually to throw in the mix a bit of everything, training your physiology more at 360 and not just focusing on your race demands. That would probably make you plateau quite soon.
As an aside, would the same rules apply to female riders and their menstrual cycles? “There isn’t evidence to suggest that you should be matching your training intensity to your cycle,” says cycling coach and journalist Deena Blakie of Drivetrain coaching, while some coaches argue to the contrary. “But most women who have a menstrual cycle will have PMS (premenstrual syndrome). And, on average, they feel crap that week. So maybe, on average, that’s not a good week to do high intensity.”
She also suggests that it’s still better for female riders to pay attention to how their individual bodies respond and feel across their cycle. But that, in general, she always prescribes some high intensity to her athletes depending on their availability. It’s just how they approach those intensity sessions that differs across the board, as she coaches the individual and tailors training to their specific needs.
"If there are some weeks where you feel it’s really easy to go high intensity, and there are some weeks where it’s not, then you can match your training to that,” she says.
Rule n. 4: try to incorporate some strength and conditioning routine
Last but not least, whether you're a female or male cyclist, a good idea is to put in a short strength and conditioning session once in a while (even one that can be performed at home, with resistance bands, or only through your bodyweight). Even cross-training is a good option: think of mountain biking, cyclocross, gravel, and even running as different ways to avoid icy roads, warm up more than on a road bike in the winter, and enjoy something slightly different but while you're still giving your body plenty of aerobic stimuli.