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How to Build Endurance on the Bike

how to build endurance on the bike

Triathlon is an endurance sport, and of the three triathlon disciplines, the longest leg of the race is cycling. It can seem daunting – how does anyone ride for that long, much less go fast over that distance? 

If you’re looking to step up to a longer race distance, or just to make it to T2 with your legs still intact, read on. Let’s explore a couple of ways to improve your endurance on the bike!

Endurance Fundamentals

Endurance Fundamentals for the Bike

First things first: what is endurance? Simply put, endurance is the ability to withstand stress. In the context of triathlon, that generally means going longer distances. And going longer distances generally means going for a longer period of time.

So this should be easy, right? Just spend more time riding your bike. Problem solved!

Except it isn’t that easy. So why can’t we just ride longer?

Riding Longer

ride longer to build bike endurance

Okay, maybe part of the equation is that easy. If you want to withstand the stress of longer distances, you have to start riding longer distances! That doesn’t mean you should go out and do a century ride after your first sprint triathlon, however. Physiologically, building endurance takes time.

There are many components that add up to what we call “endurance”, but here we are going to focus on two broad, general categories: aerobic endurance and muscular endurance.

Aerobic Endurance

Aerobic Endurance Training on the Bike

As a triathlete, you probably have at least a passing familiarity with the term “aerobic”. It’s how our body converts oxygen into movement, the foundation for everything we do in sport. To go further, we have to train our body to become more aerobically efficient.

One of the biggest trends in endurance sports is Zone 2 training. I like to think of Zone 2 as your “all-day pace”. It’s not fast or challenging relative to your actual top speed. 

It might even feel comically slow and easy when you are doing it correctly! Despite these appearances, it’s the building block of long-distance racing.

Workouts for Aerobic Endurance

When I’m working with one of my athletes to build endurance, I always start with sessions based on heart rate. I’ll set a “ceiling” based on their current heart rate zones (see this post for guidance on setting heart rate zones) and a time limit. 

I find that 45 minutes is a good place for beginner triathletes to start when building cycling endurance. The workout is simple: ride for 45 minutes, keeping your heart rate under the prescribed ceiling for the duration. If you go over the ceiling, stop until your heart rate is back under it by 10bpm, and then continue.

The purpose of this workout is two-fold. First, it helps you to learn what your Zone 2 actually feels like. Many athletes over-ride these types of workouts because they feel too easy and working out is supposed to be hard, right?

Not always! Second, it makes you think about how you interact with your bike. Are you riding in a high gear, causing your heart rate to spike every time you encounter a hill? Pay attention to things like this during your rides, and look for them afterward in the data.

You can increase the duration of this workout as your aerobic endurance improves. Continue raising the duration until you are comfortably going your goal distance!

Muscular Endurance

Muscular Endurance Training on the Bike

As any bodybuilder who has struggled to climb a flight of stairs will tell you, muscular endurance is separate from aerobic endurance. In order to build long-distance endurance, we also need to raise our short-term endurance ceiling a bit. This type of workout is called a tempo ride.

Workouts for Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is a little bit different from aerobic endurance. Instead of doing one very long interval, we want to split up the intensity and allow for some recovery. The length of the higher-intensity interval will depend largely on your current fitness. 

If you are comfortably riding half-Ironman distances (56mi bike leg) but your goal is to complete a full, you’re going to need longer intervals than someone who has been doing sprint triathlons (12.5mi bike leg) and is looking to move up to Olympic-distance

If you’re in the latter category, start with 10-minute intervals with a 5-minute recovery period in between. A workout might look something like this:

  • Warmup: 10-15 minutes easy spin
  • Main Set: 3-6×10 minutes Zone 3-4; recover 5 minutes
  • Cooldown: 10 minutes Zone 2

You’ll notice I didn’t specify a metric here, and that’s because this is an area where different cyclists are going to have very different ways of measuring their workouts! If you’re training with a power meter, do the workout exactly as written. 

If you’re training with heart rate, you may want to add one or two minutes to each interval. This will give time for your heart rate to get up to the specified intensity. As your endurance increases, you’ll be able to do more intervals in this workout!

Final Thoughts

Triathlon is an endurance sport, and cycling makes up the longest leg of the race. Doing each of these workouts at least once per week will build your aerobic and muscle endurance together, preparing you for longer rides and longer races!

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Ryan Taylor Triathlon Coach
Ryan Taylor
Swim & Triathlon Coach at RCT Athletics | Website

Ryan Taylor is a triathlete and founder ofRCT Athletics. As a former college swimmer and NCAA swim coach, he helps other triathletes master what some have unfairly called “that part of the race before I can finally get on my bike”. Ryan enjoys morning swims and long rides without a flat.