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Winter Cycling Fundamentals

Improve your cycling efficiency, power and threshold

Tommy FerrisBy Tommy Ferris – Head Coach of Ignition Fitness

Conventional wisdom will tell us that in order to make gains in cycling during the off season, long hours need to be spent throughout the winter riding your indoor trainer, and often associated with this are visions of dark, windowless basements and countless DVD box sets. Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be so gloomy, and it’s easy to make those big gains with shorter rides. Rather than spending all your time doing longer, slower efforts, maximize your time indoors with these shorter workouts. Don’t use the winter months to build endurance! We all love riding our bikes outdoors, so when the nice weather returns in the spring, do your long rides then. The only time I’d ever recommend indoor sessions longer than 2.5 hours is if you’re doing an early-season iron distance triathlon and you have no choice but to do longer endurance workouts inside because of weather. Keep your indoor sessions short, 1.5 – 2.5 hours max, and use this time instead to develop the fundamentals of good cycling: pedaling efficiency, power, and increased threshold.

Pedalling Efficiency

My article last month gave several suggestions on how to improve your running efficiency (Winter Running Fundamentals), and we want to be working to make the same improvements on the bike. We want to have as efficient a pedal stroke as possible to be able to push our bikes as fast as we can with the least amount of effort. The winter is the perfect time to be making these improvements, so that when we’re back outside in the spring we’re riding more efficiently than ever. Here are two of my favourite drills to use to improve pedaling efficiency:

One-legged drills
A lot of coaches prescribe one-legged pedaling drills, and that’s because they work. Pedaling with one leg forces you to pedal in such a way that you’re constantly pushing and pulling around the full 360-degrees of the pedal stroke. If you’ve never tried it, you’ll quickly identify all of the “dead spots” around your stroke, and the more you do it the sooner those dead spots will disappear. After 10 or 15 minutes of warming up, try starting with 30 seconds of one-legged pedaling with each leg, followed by 1 minute of pedaling with both. Repeat 4-8 times and gradually build up to pedaling for up to 5 minutes per leg. Keep your cadence low (~60rpm) so that you’re able to identify the trouble spots. Too high a cadence and you’ll pedal through these trouble spots too fast to notice them.

Fast/slow pedaling
I like this one because it’s so good at helping you identify exactly what efficient cycling should “feel” like. After you’ve done several indoor rides that have included one-legged drills, get through your regular 10 or 15 minutes of warming up and pedal with both legs at a slow cadence/high load. Your cadence should be at ~60rpm, and the load should be heavy enough to be tough, but not so tough you’re pedaling any slower. Focus on having both legs engaged all the way around the pedal stroke. After 1 minute of doing this, do 1 more minute at 100+ rpm and focus on feeling your legs working just as efficiently as they had to under the slow cadence/high load set. Repeat this 5 or 6 times before carrying on with the rest of your workout.


We all want to be stronger cyclists, and to build power on the bike we need to work hard! The best way to become stronger cyclists is to do tough workouts with good pedaling efficiency that make us work and gets our heart rate up. Here are a couple of examples of workouts I regularly prescribe my athletes during the winter months:

Ladder Intervals
Ladder intervals are intervals that get progressively shorter as the workload increases. These will help riding at shorter, higher intensities easier. They can either start easier and get progressively tougher or vice versa. A typical ladder workout would look something like this: After 10 or 15 minutes of warming up, do a 10 minute set consisting of 5 mins @ 8/10 effort, 3 mins @ 9/10, 2 mins @ 10/10. Start with 2 or 3 of these sets with 4 or 5 easy minutes between. To make it even tougher you could do it as a pyramid set which looks like this: 10 or 15 minutes of warming up; then 2x [5 mins @ 8/10, 3 mins @ 9/10, 2 mins @ 10/10, 3 mins @ 9/10, 5 mins @ 8/10] with 5 mins between each set.

V02 Max intervals
By increasing your V02 max you’re increasing the rate at which your muscles convert oxygen into energy. In other words, you become a more efficient rider. It’s pretty easy to increase our V02, and all we need to do is get our heart rate up very high with short, tough efforts. A typical V02 workout would look like this: After 10 or 15 minutes of warming up, do 6x 1min bursts @ 10/10 effort with 1min easy between each hard effort. Start with 2 or 3 of these sets with 3-5 minutes of easy spinning between each.

Increased Threshold

As triathletes, we’re constantly working to increase our lactate threshold, whether in our running, riding or swimming training. On the bike, our lactate threshold is the all-out effort we can sustain for one hour. The higher our threshold, the faster we go with less effort. To increase our threshold we need to be riding at or just above it for longer, steady state efforts. We can accomplish this with as little as 2x 20 minute threshold sets per week. If you don’t know what your threshold heart rate or threshold power is, there is some testing you can do to determine the numbers. Once you have the numbers, one of your weekly workouts throughout the winter should be dedicated to increasing your threshold. After a solid warmup that includes some short, high-heart rate efforts, do 2x 20 minutes at or just above your threshold (about 4/ or 5/10 effort) with up to 5 minutes between each.

With these workouts you can put those long, boring indoor training sessions behind you and have fun with these shorter-interval rides. The winter indoor riding season is the perfect time to start incorporating these workouts into your training, and all of the above workouts can be accomplished in about an hour, making each of them fast, focused and effective. By increasing your pedaling efficiency, power and threshold over the winter months you’ll hit the open roads next spring stronger and more efficient than ever!