How To Maintain Your Cycling Fitness Over Winter: Winter Cycling Training Guide

Pro cycling coach and ultra-endurance racer Robbie Ferri talks you through the essentials of winter cycling training

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reviewed by Rory McAllister

Winter is a tough time for many cyclists. The days get cold, the nights get longer, and motivation is often low.

It can be challenging to train in winter, but if you do, the rewards are huge, and you can hit the ground running when the season starts back up in spring.

In my racing career as an ultra-endurance cyclist and from my experience working as a personal trainer to cyclists, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of a well-thought-out winter training regime.

Surprisingly, maintaining your fitness over winter as a cyclist isn’t as tough as you might think. In fact, with the right knowledge, I see many cyclists come out of winter even stronger than going into it.

In my opinion, the best time for training is winter. It makes you a tougher cyclist. 

In this article, we’ll be discussing:

A photo of me during a winter cycling training ride.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Why Is Winter Training So Important?

When it comes to cycling performance, I have always found my best improvements have come from winter training, and I feel it’s really important to either improve or at least maintain in this time.

Winter is when you can mix things up and focus on areas to improve without worrying about events. 

Many cyclists take the whole winter off, which can undo all the hard work in the summer. It’s not recommended that you train heavily throughout the entire year so you can have some time off, but even professionals sometimes only have short breaks before switching to another discipline such as cyclocross.

Training in winter not only helps you improve fitness and strength, but it can also help you toughen to poor conditions, work on nutrition, and also give you time to cross-train with stretching and strength training. 

4 Key Types Of Winter Cycling Training And Their Benefits

When it comes to training in winter, as someone who has trained many cyclists, I often speak about the different types of sessions that you can do over winter to improve. 

1. High-Intensity Sessions

High-intensity sessions are fantastic.

They are where you work between 80% to 100% of max effort. A good example would be intervals. You could be working with two minutes maximum effort, and then three minutes rest repeated 10 times. Or it could be just a 20-minute flat-out effort.

Benefits Of High-Intensity Sessions

High-intensity sessions build strength, give you the ability to work at high power levels, and improve lactate threshold, meaning you not only can produce high power but also maintain it for much longer.

2. Endurance Sessions

Endurance sessions are where you hold a low to medium intensity of effort for a long period of time.

Normally, it’s anywhere from 60% to 80% of maximum effort. A good example could be riding for three hours, maintaining 60% to 75% of your max heart rate. 

Benefits Of Endurance Sessions

Endurance sessions come with many benefits, hence why the term “base miles” is such a big thing in cycling. You can improve your cardiovascular system and breathing, increase stamina, and improve cycling efficiency.

3. Strength And Conditions Sessions

As a strength and conditioning coach, I have been showing cyclists the benefits for many years.

Spending 30 minutes twice a week doing squats, lunges, deadlifts, sit-ups, and other various exercises hugely improves your cycling in many ways. 

Benefits Of Strength And Conditioning Sessions

Strength and conditioning sessions come with so many benefits. They help you become stronger, improve flexibility, reduce injuries, help the way the muscles fire, fix posture problems, and even improve endurance and stamina. 

4. Stretching Sessions

When cycling, it’s easy to get cramped up and get used to being in one uncomfortable position for long periods.

Although many cyclists don’t stretch, it does make a huge difference. I have found my stretching routine really helped many aspects of my cycling, from my ability to hold an aggressive posture on the bike (making me faster) to my mobility.

Yoga for cyclists can also be a great way to boost your flexibility through winter.

Benefits Of Stretching Sessions

Stretching comes with many benefits, such as improved flexibility, better recovery, increased blood flow, injury prevention, and better balance and coordination, to name a few. That’s for less than an hour a week, which is good value for your training time.

Me cycling on the road in winter.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Winter Cycling Quality Over Quantity

When it comes to training, especially in winter, the quality of your training will always be more valuable than the quantity of your training.

The key is to train smart and ensure that everything you’re doing is to the best of your ability.

Doing four-hour rides in summer is great fun and does tick the base miles box, but out on the roads on undulating terrain, the heart rate can become erratic and out of the training zone you’re targeting.

You also might find nutrition is harder to keep on top of because it’s less of a thought. 

You could gain a similar outcome from being on a turbo trainer for two hours, keeping your heart rate and power in the perfect place, and having the ideal nutrition ready and by your side. Training for longer periods doesn’t always pay off as much as structured shorter sessions. 

You can make serious gains by spending as little as five hours per week on cycling training. Offering ten hours could greatly improve your fitness, ready for early season events.

Indoor Bike Training

Although they are not for everyone, turbo trainers or even exercise bikes can be amazing as a winter training tool.

They mean the weather isn’t going to be an issue, and you can ensure you are getting the maximum quality out of your workout. 

They are fun when you get used to them and indoor bike training can take you to a new level of fitness with all the extra data you get. It does wonders for mental toughness too.

My indoor cycling setup for winter with my turbo trainer.
My indoor cycling setup with my turbo trainer. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Making Your Winter Training Plan

Now for the fun bit, let’s start talking about training plans. This will differ for everyone depending on the time you have spare and your current cycling ability. Here’s our step-by-step guide for making a winter training program. 

Step 1. Work Out How Much Time You Have Available To Train

The first step is to establish the free time you have to spend training. Winter training can be three or four hours a week, or you could give ten. It comes down to how much time you want to spend on the bike and your free time around family and work. 

Here’s my example, where I’m working out that I think I’d have 11 hours per week that I could train in. Out of those, I’m likely to commit to around 8 hours per week.

Monday1 Hour
Wednesday2 Hours
Thursday2 Hours
Saturday2 Hours
Sunday4 Hours

Step 2. Establish Your Goal

Next, it’s time to establish the goal you want to achieve.

Is it just maintenance of your current cycling performance, or do you want to improve fitness further? You could have improved power as a goal or even work towards better endurance and stamina.

As an example, I will use building power as my goal.

Alternatively, you might pick a particular race as your goal, but I personally prefer to choose an aspect of performance to focus on.

Step 3. Creating A Program To Suit Your Goal

Now it’s time to get creative and start thinking about the sessions to help your goal. I am going for power, so high-intensity sessions will be important for me, and so will strength and conditioning sessions. 

It doesn’t mean I will neglect the stretching and the endurance session, as these are also vital for making progress and helping maintain fitness.

Here’s my plan for building power. Each week, I plan to complete the following: 

Power Plan

  • 2 x High Intensity Sessions (1 Hour Each)
  • 2 x Strength Sessions (30 Minutes Each)
  • 1 x Endurance Session (Three Hours)
  • 1 x Stretching Session (30 Minutes)

Endurance Plan

If you want to build endurance, your plan might look a little bit like this instead. The focus here is on the longer sessions, not the shorter sessions. 

  • 2 x Endurance Sessions (3 Hours Each)
  • 1 x High Intensity Sessions (1 Hour)
  • 1 x Strength Session (30 Minutes)
  • 1 x Stretching Session (30 Minutes)

Step 4. Install The Training Plan Into Your Week

Now, you need to insert your plan into your week, which we established in Step 1.

It’s important to ensure you have rest days and try your best to put these after tough sessions if possible.

Here’s mine, according to my availability and my power-focussed training plan:

MondayHigh-Intensity Session
WednesdayStrength Session + Stretching
ThursdayHigh Intensity Session
SaturdayStrength Session + Stretching
SundayEndurance Session

Step 5. Test

To ensure the training is working, it’s a good idea to do some testing to see where your current fitness is. I recommend doing an FTP test (20 Minute Power) and an hour at 75% heart rate and take note of the Watts

In my opinion, it’s good to revisit these tests every two months to ensure that the training is actually working. If it isn’t, then you might want to modify your program to see what does work for you. 

Step 5. Progression

If you want not just to maintain your fitness but to grow it, it’s important to always continue to progress with your training plan.

Increasing the power or duration of training sessions continually challenges the body to adapt and grow. Testing will tell you if you need to progress.

Winter training ride on gravel.
Winter training ride on gravel. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

How Much Do You Need To Train To Maintain Cycling Fitness?

Surprisingly, maintaining fitness doesn’t require a huge amount of time.

Some cyclists spend as little as two hours a week, which keeps them tied over for winter. Others might need three or four hours or more. It’s a very personal thing.

Winter is a great time to train and improve your cycling so you can hit the ground running in spring. I tell many clients that I train that they should take a short break in winter, but if possible, try to keep focused. You don’t want an injury coming back and trying to keep up.

A Final Note on Winter Cycling Training

Winter is a tough time if you are a cyclist. It is much harder to get out, and it’s not always an amazing experience. You don’t need to do a huge amount of cycling to maintain or even improve your fitness.

It’s good to use winter to take a short break and fully recover, then start preparing for the next season. There’s nothing wrong with taking winter off and just training again when the weather gets nice if you want to though.

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Robbie has traveled the globe as an endurance athlete and bikepacker, breaking world records and competing in international ultra-cycling events such as the BikingMan series and the Transcontinental Race. He's also worked as an ambassador for some of the industry's leading names, including Shimano and Ritchey. If Robbie's not on a bike, he's either fixing them or out walking with his dog!

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