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Winter Cycling Training – Plan for Intervals

By Jiri Kaloc

It would be great if we all had time to build an aerobic base as the pros do, travel to a warm country for winter endurance training, and rack up several long easy rides every week. Unfortunately, most cyclists don’t have that option. But as we discussed last time, reversed periodisation can help build on base fitness even with a much smaller time commitment thanks to high intensity interval training. Let’s take a closer look at how to set up a winter training plan.

Why is base training important?

One of the major goals for winter base training is to increase the size and density of mitochondria, the power plants of cells that turn fats, carbs, and lactate into usable energy. This training stress adaptation improves a body’s ability to produce more energy at any exercise intensity, which means you can ride faster and longer.

Unfortunately, to get significant gains, the traditional high volume of low to moderate-intensity training only works when you can accumulate significant time at those intensities each week, typically 20-30 hours for pros. The goal for reversed periodisation is the same – greater mitochondrial density. The pathway is just different, it leads through interval training.

A road cyclist climbing up the Col de L'Iseran with a huge snow bank several meters high on the side of the road.
The Col de l’Iseran – the highest pass in Europe at 2,764 metres above sea-level. © Graham M. Lawrence / Alamy / Alamy / Profimedia

The alternative for time-crunched athletes

The vast majority of amateur cyclists have limited time and can’t put 20-30 hours into their winter training time every week unless they want to risk losing all friends, family, and their job. With reversed periodisation, it becomes much more realistic.

The sweet spot is 3 interval sessions and 1-2 longer rides per weekly training, no more. So, something like Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for high intensity intervals and Sunday for a longer ride would be a realistic schedule. And the best thing is, all of this structured training usually takes less than 8 hours a week.

Interval workouts

It is important to keep in mind that even though you will be doing mostly interval training, you’re not trying to peak for a target event just yet. So, the trick is to focus on accumulating time at high intensity rather than trying to reach for absolute peak power with each session. This way, interval training will be a lot better at developing aerobic fitness.

To do this right, you should plan lactate threshold intervals that last between 6-12 minutes at somewhere between 80 % and 95 % of your max heart rate. If you want to see some specific examples, check out our article here.


Building on that, you should progress to VO2 max intervals lasting between 30 seconds to 4 minutes, higher intensity efforts very close to your max effort with short recovery times in between. For inspiration, check out our article describing two examples of VO2 max workouts.

Shorter periodization

Another thing that will help you do reverse periodisation right is keeping the length of the period appropriate. With regular base training, pros spend months doing the high volume, low-intensity training before progressing to a substantially different training block. As a time-crunched athlete, you will need shorter, focused periods of high intensity training sessions followed by substantial recovery periods.

An example would be 8 weeks of working on increasing intensity with intervals followed by 4 weeks of pure low to moderate-intensity endurance riding. Shorter periods make this approach sustainable for the whole off-season and help avoid overtraining and injury risk. Just try to stick to your training schedule even during those 4 low-intensity weeks because if you swap training for something else, it will be very hard to get that training time back for the next cycle.

The next article will be focused on tips for indoor training because, let’s face it, if you want to not only stay in shape but also improve during winter, you will have to get comfortable on the indoor turbo trainer. Today’s smart trainers and associated apps have made them a lot more fun to use.

A woman riding her road bike inside on a turbo trainer

Next up in Winter Cycling Training series