Winter can be a challenge for cyclists. Icy roads, plummeting temperatures and darker days all make cycling outside a little less appealing. But train through winter and you’ll reap the physiological benefits come spring. Here, we explain how.
What are the benefits of training in winter?
The usual focus of winter, or off-season training, is to develop aerobic fitness which in turn will give you a solid endurance base. It takes just four weeks to become de-trained, or de-adapted, so if you simply hang up the bike at the first sign of frost, all those summer miles will quickly count for nothing.
“Adaptation refers to the physiological gains built from training, notably in the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and the muscles. De-adaptation, is the loss of those gains,” says exercise physiologist Andy King of Leeds Beckett University. The rate of de-adaptation is often faster than the rate of adaptation, so continuing to cycle through winter can help limit those losses and, if done well, can also act as a springboard for improving your overall fitness and development as a cyclist. So, whether you’re aiming to race, chasing a personal best or simply looking to get faster, focused winter training could be your best currency yet.
What is winter training?
For many years cyclists referred to the winter as the ‘off-season’ - a time to down tools, step back and stay indoors. But whilst pro riders will take time off - typically during October and November - to most the concept of switching off is outdated. Many professional riders now use the winter to step on and up from where they were at the end of the season, rather than using it as an ‘off’ period. And most amateur cyclists follow suit.
For former world road race champion Lizzie Deignan the winter is an important time, “Some people say that your victories during the season are won in the previous winter. I would subscribe to that philosophy. If you have a solid base of training behind you then can be more flexible when things go wrong during the season, you bounce back quicker from illness or injury.”
How does training improve your fitness?
The aim of any cycling training plan is to put just enough ‘training stress’ on the body to allow the relevant adaptations, or physiological changes to take place.
“At a cellular level the process that underpins these changes is called mitochondrial adaptation. Mitochondria are powerhouses - small structures inside animal cells that convert the energy gained from food into a useable form of energy called ATP. ATP is the molecule that stores and supplies the cell with energy to power the muscles and tissues of the body,” says King.
Training stress causes an increase in the number of mitochondria in a cell, which in turn increases the amount of energy available for exercise. Aerobic, or endurance exercise has been proven to be particularly effective at stimulating mitochondrial growth, which is good news for cyclists looking to improve their aerobic capacity or base fitness.
How should I train in winter – base miles or intervals?
Winter for cyclists has traditionally been about high volume and low intensity training (lots of hours at a low to moderate effort). This ‘volume model’ is based on the idea that after cycling for extended periods of time - think eight plus hours - results in glycogen deficiency, a state that encourages the build-up of mitochondria within the muscles.
One problem with this base training model though, is that to create enough training stress to cause those long-term aerobic adaptations, you need to spend a long time in the saddle. According to King, “High-volume training means somewhere upwards of 15 hours a week, which few amateur cyclists can truly achieve”. What’s more, some studies have shown that compared to moderate volume training (10-12 hours a week) a, “similar level of response can be gained from frequent but shorter bouts of high-intensity or HIIT training”, says King. “One study by Rodas et al., (2000) showed that excellent gains in V̇O2 Max and mitochondria activity can be generated from just two weeks of HIIT training.”
Even small amounts of HIIT can have a positive effect. A study of 40km time-trial performance by Lindsay et al., (1996) found that by replacing just 15% of base training with HIIT training 40-km time trial performance improved
What are the benefits of training indoors?
Indoor training is admittedly like Marmite but it takes on a new appeal in the winter. For a start, there’s no wind, no rain and no traffic and then there’s the kit – training indoors negates the need for the numerous layers needed to defend yourself against winter weather. But what are the physiological benefit of training inside?
For a start, training on a Wattbike is efficient because there’s no traffic, lights or other cyclists to contend with. As a result, you can ride for a shorter amount of time but achieve the same effort as a longer session on the road. Roughly speaking a 60-minute session on a Wattbike is equivalent to around 90 minutes outdoors.
Many cyclists are surprised at how quickly they can improve their fitness by using a Wattbike. One reason is that you can see what’s happening; measuring your pedalling technique or maintaining a consistent power output is almost impossible out on the road but indoors it becomes easy.
“Smart, targeted sessions using Wattbike features, such as the pedalling effectiveness score (PES) or using power output as the focus, can help maximise the physiological adaptation for a given workout,” says King.
Winter training, if done right, is one of the most effective ways to become a better cyclist. Train smart and with focus and you’ll arrive into spring in fine form.
Rodas G1, Ventura JL, Cadefau JA, Cussó R, Parra J.
A short training programme for the rapid improvement of both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000 Aug;82(5-6):480-6.
Lindsay FH, Hawley JA, Myburgh KH, Schomer HH, Noakes TD, Dennis SC (1996). Improved athletic performance in highly trained cyclists after interval training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28, 1427-1434
Stepto NK, Hawley JA, Dennis SC, Hopkins WG (1999). Effects of different interval-training programs on cycling time-trial performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31, 735-741