Training Volume Versus Intensity For Road Cyclists (Go Hard Or Go Home?)

If you’re a ‘time-starved’ cyclist and you want to improve your performance on the bike, it’s pretty important (dare I say it, vital) to understand the difference between training volume and intensity.

You are naturally limited in the former; you can make up for some of this limitation by manipulating the latter. Training intensity is really important for the sportive cyclist that wants to do more with less.

In this blog post we look at why and how.

How’s that for a brief introduction?

Is This Really Relevant Mont?

In short, yes.

I’ve started the work in earnest (poor Ernest) to develop my training programme for RideLondon 100, a 100-mile (actually slightly more than that) closed road sportive at the end of July 2018.

This week’s post was actually going to be about base training. But as I was refreshing my memory on the topic (plus a-Googling to check that thinking hadn’t moved on), I realised (remembered) that there is a hunka hunka burning controversy* in the endurance training world around base training.

(*Ok, what passes for controversy in “endurance training world”.)

Essentially, the debate (such as it is) is around doing loads of trundling miles versus shorter high intensity training sessions. Whilst the answer is (as always) somewhere in the middle, it’s important to have at least a passing familiarity with the terms and their relevance.

What Is Training Volume?

This is pretty straightforward. Training volume is the amount of cycling training you do, measured in a time unit of your choice (shall we say hours per week?).

So, volume is the number of rides you do each week (frequency), multiplied by the time spent on each ride (duration).

The Carol Vordermans amongst you will be able to do the following weekly volume maths in your head:

  • 2 rides at 1 hour each; plus
  • 1 ride at 1.5 hours; plus
  • 1 ride at 2 hours; equals
  • Training volume of 5.5 hours/week

Told you it was easy.

So What Is Training Intensity?

Intensity essentially helps you answer the question: what was that training like? How hard was it?

The more exertion in a given training session, the higher the intensity level.

Intensity is generally measured in one of three ways:

  • Rate of Perceived Effort – you estimate how hard it was based on how you felt;
  • Heart rate zone – which heart rate zones did you spend the ride in; or
  • Power zone – which power zone(s) were you riding in.

The latter two require a heart rate monitor or a power meter and for you to know what your ‘zones’ are. These are subjects for other posts, not least because I bought a power meter last year and still haven’t fitted it to my bike…

(By the way, if you’re interested in using heart rate or power in your training, read this guest post on the blog from a couple of years ago).

Although you can sort of measure it (and certainly feel it), there is no standard unit of measurement for intensity as such.

This has a bearing on calculating ‘workload’, which is really what we care about when we talk about intensity.

Right. And Workload?

Intensity by itself is not that helpful. The energy expended in a single training session is just a point-in-time measurement.

Where it gets exciting (yes!) for people interested in structured cycling training (which is you and me, by the way), is when we multiply the volume of training by [insert measurement of intensity].

Workload is the true measurement of training stress that we place upon our bodies (the same stress that causes the adaptations – building fitness – that I talked about in my post from a couple of weeks ago).

Consider two different weeks of training:

  • Week 1: five easy, hour-long rides;
  • Week 2: two easy, hour-long rides, one high-intensity intervals session (1 hour) and two hour-long tempo rides.

The training volume in both weeks is identical (5 hours, Vorder-fans). However, workload in the second week is (I’m guessing) significantly higher than the first.

This is important when, for cyclists like me and thee, time is precious. Within certain bounds of common sense, we can vary intensity with a view to increasing workload, without necessary increasing the time that we have to dedicate to the training.

How Do We Measure Workload?

Ah, this is the point at which it starts getting difficult. There is no standard.

It also depends on your method of measuring intensity.

The general concept is that you multiply [unit of intensity] by the duration of that training session (which gives you a session workload) and then add these up for each of the training sessions in a given week to give you your weekly workload.

The eagle-eyed (elephant-memoried) amongst you will recall that a week is our archetypal microcycle. We’re starting to get to the point where we can assign a workload value to each week/microcycle.

We can therefore progressively increase the workload in each of three consecutive weeks, with a slightly reduced workload in week 4, say, and have the makings of a training block that will force the body (your body) to make the adaptations that are otherwise known as … ‘getting fitter’.

Going back to the units for workload question (which is probably one for another post), this is where software often gets involved, particularly if you’re using heart rate or power training zones.

Strava’s ‘Suffer Score’ (using heart rate) and ‘Training Load’ (power) are both measures of workload, as is ‘TSS’ (or Training Stress Score) in the TrainingPeaks system.

So Which Is More Important: Training Volume or Training Intensity?

Well…. it depends (of course it does…).

For new riders and cyclists that take a long lay off (e.g. stopping for the winter, as I’ve done in the past), increasing volume along can work wonders.

If you’re starting from a low base (like, say, zero), increasing volume (whatever the intensity) will increase workload and lead to adaptation.

If you’re already cycling a reasonable amount, simply increasing volume will have less impact. The relative increase in workload won’t be substantial (there may be no increase at all if you end up riding more slowly on these longer rides).

This all assumes you’ve got the time to increase volume. Increasing volume, whether that’s riding more times per week, or going for longer each time, will hit a natural limit due to all the other demands on your time.

That’s where intensity (and the increasing thereof) comes in. You can increase the workload (stimulating adaptation) in a given week by increasing the intensity level on some of the training sessions.

You can therefore get more fitness bang for your training buck (which is the selling point for all that HIIT (High-intensity interval training) guff that we see in gyms these days).

Time In The Saddle Is Important

The balance of volume and intensity will vary depending on where you are in your training programme, as well as on the realities of how much time you have to train.

I’m pretty sure this won’t come as too much of a surprise to the astute readers of the Sportive Cyclist blog (who generally do want to spend more time in the saddle anyway), but a programme comprising only short, high-intensity rides will not be effective training for a 100-mile sportive.

You need time in the saddle for the body to develop muscular endurance, to train the little muscles that only decide to show themselves when all the big ones are tired, to practise fuelling and hydration, to develop efficiency, both in terms of burning fat for fuel and technique on the bike.

Whatever my aspirations, the RideLondon 100 won’t be completed in a single balls-out 60-minute effort.

Don’t Fug It Up

I’ll definitely come back to the topic of balancing volume and intensity in future blog posts, but as a taster, here’s an interesting insight from a British Cycling article I found whilst doing research for this post:

“For most sportive riders, training to ride faster isn’t the key to better results. The aim is training not to slow down.”

For a 100 mile sportive, the objective of your training is to sustain for 5–7 hours, as far as possible, the sorts of speed that you can maintain for 1–2 hours. It’s less about training to increase speed over a 60-minute effort (though this will probably increase as well).

The point of the quote (and the article) is to say that by only riding for shorter, high intensity efforts, you run the risk of (technical term alert) fugging up your sportive.

If all you do is high intensity training, you are not training your body to make the adaptions that will allow it to burn fat as fuel. You are then heavily reliant on not making a mistake with your carb-based fuel (the stuff you eat and drink on the day), as you have nothing to fall back on.

The quote got me thinking more broadly though about doing the simple things, both before and during the event, that reduce the chance of a fuggup on the day.

‘Optimal’ training might result in you shaving 15–30 minutes off your time. Bonking or cramping on the day could add hours or, worse, force your ride to come to a shuddering halt. Something to come back to in future posts methinks.

Over To You

So, dear reader, are you guilty (like me) of cruising around on low- or moderate-intensity rides and then wonder why you’re not getting fitter? Or have you successfully followed a programme that has balanced high- and low-intensity efforts?

Let me know in the comments below.

Monty - Sportive Cyclist
Monty is an enthusiastic road cyclist with only moderate talent. He started Sportive Cyclist in 2013 to record the journey to his first 100 mile ride, the RideLondon 100. Over time the blog has expanded to include training advice, gear reviews and road cycling tales, all from the perspective of a not-very-fit MAMIL. Since you're here, Monty would also like you to check out his YouTube channel. Also, Monty really needs to stop referring to himself in the third person.

8 thoughts on “Training Volume Versus Intensity For Road Cyclists (Go Hard Or Go Home?)”

  1. Hi Andrew, I enjoy reading your musings/advice; my issue right now is that, whilst I retain a reasonable weekend warrior fitness level, I would like to hit some sort of performance peak for a ride (100km) in 5 weeks!!
    I don’t expect you to alter your programme, but where would you suggest I look to double check I’m doing the right thing and am on track track.

  2. In terms of ensuring that you are just coasting, a couple of thoughts:
    Regularly doing a test ride of a fixed length and using Strava to make sure that you are getting faster.
    Strava in any case monitors whether you getting faster on segments.
    Going out with a group which stretches you, but not too much

  3. I’m doing the London Ride 100 – I’m used to long days in the saddle for multi-day trips – but on touring bikes, panniers etc 60 miles per day, so 100 on my road bike is BIG for me. I’m lucky enough to live in the N Yorks Dales – so longish rides (up to 80 miles by summer) with hill climbs for strength & stamina – 1 big ride a week plus a couple of shorter weather-dependent rides (currently need a snow plough), is my plan. Currently doing most miles on the turbo in the garage 🙁

  4. Hi Andrew,

    I’ve used TrainerRoad for a number of years and found it very effective (didn’t you give TR a go a long time ago?).
    After a break over Christmas, I’ve started (as I do most years) with the TR Low Volume Sweet Spot Base Phase plan, which as you might guess, is aimed at cyclists with not much time to spare. This has workouts which train in sweetspot, threshold and VO2max zones (you’re going to come to this, I feel it) to give similar outcomes to the traditional low-intensity high volume training of the (appropriately called) traditional base.
    I find this structured approach works really well



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