Outdoor Cycling Workouts for All Levels

Outdoor cycling

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

Outdoor cycling is a form of aerobic activity that, among its endorsed health benefits, can improve your cardiovascular function, resting heart rate, and also reduce blood pressure. If that's not enough to entice you to get on the bike, the sport also promotes a connection with nature—and is known for its positive association with improving your mental health and wellbeing.

"From simply getting outside to improving your general on-the-bike fitness, there are practically infinite benefits to beginning cycling training," says Matthew Schechter, a USA Cycling certified coach. "Getting faster, stronger, or keeping up with your friends on a group ride are just some of the advantages cycling-specific training can offer you."

Whether you're a beginner or pedaling at a competitive level, there is an outdoor cycling workout to match your skills. Here's where to start at each level.

Beginner Outdoor Cycling Workout 

If you're a beginner on the bike, start at a slow and controlled pace as you build confidence in cycling outdoors. A few leisurely outings before launching into a more intense workout can improve how you handle and control different elements of the bike.

"My best advice for beginner riders is not to follow a workout plan at all, as those who are just starting to ride will see the greatest initial increase in performance by simply riding more," says Schechter. "I advise new riders to spend at least 4 to 6 hours per week, across multiple weeks, just 'free riding' on the bike. Explore your city or town, find new roads, and consider joining a cycling group or club. All the while, your fitness will improve without losing sight of the fun in cycling."

New riders also should not try to do too much too soon, echoes Ann Marie Miller, MA, a USA Cycling level 2 licensed coach and AFAA group fitness instructor. It takes time to build cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance.

"Doing too much from the onset can lead to burnout, overtraining syndrome, overuse injuries, and fatigue," she says.

Rather, the goal for new cyclists should be to have fun, ride safely, learn basic bike handling skills, and build a base of fitness. As you build your aerobic endurance and strength, you can then think about creating a workout plan.

Before you do so, though, remember to invest in a properly fitted helmet, and make sure you have a bottle of water handy. Also, you may want to avoid cycling in temperatures too hot or cold, and skip the night cycle when others are less likely to easily spot you.

Beginner Workout

Once you are ready to try a workout plan, Miller suggests that new riders should start with three rides per week, at around 30 minutes in duration with a moderate intensity, before gradually building up to four to five rides per week.

"Those with extensive cardiovascular training experience, such as running, rowing, or other endurance sports, may be able to progress faster than those without endurance training experience," she says.

Miller offers this example of a beginner cycling workout that you may want to try when you are ready.

  1. Warm-up with 5 to 10 minutes of an easy spin with a moderate leg speed (cadence) and a light effort. (You should not feel out of breath.)
  2. Use the talk test or perceived exertion to measure your intensity.
  3. Perform 20 to 25 minutes of cycling at moderate intensity, increasing your pedaling speed to a faster pace and with more physical effort. (You should enter a higher heart rate zone where exercise is becoming more intense.)
  4. Cool down for 5 minutes with an easy spin, bringing your heart rate back down with a light exercise effort.
  5. Increase the duration gradually for the first six to eight weeks until you can ride for 1 hour at a moderate intensity—and only then consider upping the challenge, says Miller.

More About the Talk Test

Miller says a simple way to assess the intensity of your effort is the “talk test." During moderate aerobic exercise, you should be able to “talk” comfortably in short sentences but as your exercise intensity increases, it becomes harder to talk. As a beginner, you should keep most of your effort at a level where you can talk comfortably in short sentences during exercise, she says.

Intermediate Outdoor Cycling Workout

As you become more assured on the bike, consider cranking up the workout intensity for a more challenging outdoor cycle. A good indication you are ready is that the workout is becoming easier every time, and your body is primed for a push. As with beginners, the same safety tips apply.

"Intermediate riders should be proficient in basic bike handling skills, stopping and starting, shifting gears, and braking smoothly—as well as being able to signal with either hand and drink from a water bottle and eat while riding," says Miller.

Miller offers this example of an intermediate cycling workout that you may want to try.

Intermediate Workout

Once you reach the intermediate level, you can continue using heart rate and exercise effort or perceived exertion to measure intensity. A power meter, which measures the amount of force delivered to the bike by the cyclist, can be useful at this level as well, Miller adds.

One workout that Miller recommends for intermediate riders consists of climbing repeats. After your warmup, the exercise will consist of climbing hills.

"Pace yourself as you begin the climbing repeats," cautions Miller, meaning you shouldn't go so hard at the beginning of the climb that you have to stop or reduce the effort.

  1. Warm-up with 5 to 10 minutes of an easy spin with a moderate cadence and light physical exertion.
  2. Increase your pedaling speed from the warmup so that you breathe faster, but are not out of breath.
  3. Maintain aerobic endurance for 15 to 20 minutes at a moderate intensity.
  4. Find a hill where you can climb for at least 6 to 8 minutes so you can do climbing repeats.
  5. Start gradually for the first minute and build up to a higher intensity.
  6. Recover for 5 minutes with an easy spin and light effort then repeat the climb.
  7. Finish with 5 to 10 minutes of a cooldown with an easy cycle.
  8. Begin with one workout per week with three to five climbing repeats, and build to five to six climbing repeats.

Advanced Outdoor Cycling Workout

Advanced cyclists will want to increase the length of the bike ride, depending on the training schedule and goals. For example, if you are training for a specific cycling event like a Gran Fondo or a multi-sport event like a triathlon, your weekly cycling output will be considerably higher than when pedaling during your off-season.

"If you have at least one full year of serious cycling training, and have mastered bike handling and group riding skills, you can consider yourself advanced," says Miller,

Those in the advanced category will likely benefit from a power meter to measure their threshold. At this level, Miller suggests including some short, explosive efforts to build power. A workout targeting Max VO2 power will crank up the intensity.

Advanced Workout Option 1

Miller offers this example of an advanced cycling workout that you may want to try.

  1. Warm-up with 5 to 10 minutes of an easy spin at a slow pace and without too much exertion.
  2. Spend 15 to 20 minutes at a moderate intensity, increasing your cycling speed and workout exertion at a moderate intensity.
  3. Perform two sets of 5 x 2 minutes VO2 Max sprints, increasing your cycling speed so that your physical effort is very hard.
  4. Recover for 3 minutes with an easy spin.
  5. Finish with 10 minutes of moderate effort cycling between VO2 Max sets.
  6. End with a 5 to 10 minutes cooldown at an easy effort.

Build up this workout as a three-week progressive series, starting with two workouts per week with these timings before increasing the VO2 Max sprints to two sets of 6 x 3 minutes.

Advanced Workout Option 2

Schechter offers this option for an advanced workout, but he cautions riders to not forget why they started training and that is to have fun.

"Don’t let the metrics or stats prevent you from loving getting on the bike every day," he says.

  • Begin ride by warming up with an easy spin for 30 minutes.
  • Follow with a block of 30 minutes at tempo, or a more intense aerobic effort where conversation is more difficult.
  • Complete a 1-minute burst at VO2 Max or “full gas” intensity.
  • Do this every 5 minutes until the 30-minute block is complete. (In total, you will complete five tempo bursts.)
  • Recover for 15 minutes with an easy spin.
  • Repeat two times for a total of 1 1/2 hours of tempo bursts recovering as advised between each block. 
  • Cool down for 30 minutes with an easy spin.

"[Keep in mind] cycling workouts like these are [generally] examples and not a prescription, meaning they are not one-size-fits-all," says Schechter. "Listen to your body as well as licensed sports and health professionals, and allow for adaptations to suit your cycling goals and level."

Tips For Better Cycling

Be mindful of your cycling experience and capabilities before hopping on the bike. Make sure your equipment is correctly fitted and that you stick to cycling paths or well-marked cycling trails.

Also, warm up your muscles before going full speed into the workout, and incorporate stretching at the end—perhaps even with an interspersed yoga session during the week—to prime and restore your body from the workout intensity.

Stretching and connecting with your breath through yoga, and focusing on a nutrient-rich diet (especially if you are training for a triathlon) will better prepare you for sessions outdoors on the bike. Nutrition only enables you to work as hard as you fuel, Schechter says, with more calories required as you increase the intensity.

"Always bring water and snacks with you, something carbohydrate-rich such as a granola bar, banana, or even specialty carbohydrate gels," he says.

Carbohydrates are the first fuel source your body will burn to support intense activity, Schechter adds, so replenishing these stores is key to a successful workout.

Aside from nutrition, many lifestyle factors also can positively impact your cycling ability and improve endurance. For example, cross-training with resistance workouts can increase your strength, improve motivation, and prevent boredom from the same routine.

A Word From Verywell

Outdoor cycling might be the challenge you need to boost your physical fitness. Known for improving both endurance and strength (especially in the lower body), outdoor cycling is a popular sport that also allows you to connect with nature.

If you are new to cycling, you should talk to a healthcare provider before beginning a workout regimen. They can assess your medical history, your fitness level, and your goals and help you determine what it right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is outdoor cycling good for weight loss?

    Cycling at all intensities is a good form of aerobic activity that can promote weight loss due to its calorie-burning effects. But exercise alone, especially cardio, may not promote sustainable weight loss if your diet and anaerobic training are not in check. In order to reap the metabolism-boosting effects of a workout, consider incorporating strength training alongside outdoor cycling, as well as eating a balanced diet, for a more long-term and sustainable weight loss result.

  • Is outdoor biking a full body workout?

    Although riding outside is a great workout both physically and mentally, it is not a full-body workout. Riding a bike does, however, use almost every muscle in the lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. That said, you may still experience muscle soreness in your upper body, but in order to gain strength, you should incorporate other forms of training into your workout regimen.

  • Is 30 minutes of cycling a day enough?

    How long you should cycle will depend on your overall goal, including how many minutes of exercise you aim to incorporate into your week. The guidelines for Americans recommends adults complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week.
    By this standard, 30 minutes of cycling a day is more than sufficient. However, for the avid cyclist, half an hour of pedaling may not challenge your body, as opposed to a beginner in the sport. Rather than asking if 30 minutes of cycling a day is enough, consider your goals as well as how you feel after cycling.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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