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How To Maintain Fitness, Even If Your Workouts Last Only Twenty Minutes

busy schedule

If you’re like most cyclists (all of us who aren’t famous enough to make millions from winning races and doing product endorsements,) you have many responsibilities besides cycling. You probably have a full-time job, school, a family, or some other responsibilities that keep you from riding six hours each day.

But I have good news – even if you don’t always have time for a 2-3 hour ride, you can still stay in shape. It’s entirely possible to maintain your fitness with just a couple short workouts each week.

It’s no secret formula – you just concentrate on intense interval training rather than junk miles.

Here’s the deal… The benefits you got from mile after mile of base training over the years isn’t going to disappear if you skip your endurance ride for a couple weeks. I’ve seen riders go months without riding and still be able to ride mile after mile at an endurance pace when they get the chance.

Unfortunately, your top-end fitness is harder to keep. If you go for months without any sort of intense riding, your legs will probably feel like cement after attempting one hard sprint or interval. Luckily, you can do a few quick intervals in 20 minutes that will keep you on top of your game.

Keep in mind, you’re not going to win the Tour de France after doing some 20 minute workouts. This is simply to prevent you from losing fitness!

20 Minute Bike Workout Ideas

To make things easy, I’m going to list some ideas for 20 minute workouts. Each workout is basically a 5 minute warmup, 10 minute workout, and 5 minute cooldown.*

(*Normally, when doing a big interval workout, I would warmup for at least 20 minutes. But in this case, there simply isn’t time.)

On days you don’t have time to do a big ride, fit one of these into your schedule:

Workout 1: 30/30s

Start out with a five minute warmup. The first minute should be an easy spin, and each consecutive minute, you should up the pace slightly so that you feel warm by the five minute mark.

For the next ten minutes, you’ll perform a popular interval called “30/30s.” This is where you pedal at the hardest pace you can hold for 30 seconds, then you pedal easily for 30 seconds. As soon as the 30 second rest is up, you go hard for 30 seconds.

This gives you time to do ten 30-second intervals, which yields five minutes worth of very hard riding.

The last five minutes should be spent pedaling easily to cool down.

Workout 2: Sprints

Since sprinting is the most intense type of riding, we’ll start with a nine minute warmup. The first minute should be an easy spin, and each consecutive minute, you should up the pace slightly so that you feel warm by minute nine.

Over minutes 9 to 14, you do six sprints. A sprint is an all-out effort that lasts about 8-12 seconds (if you can “sprint” for longer than that, it’s not technically a sprint.)

To make the math easy, do six 15-second sprints. Each sprint should be followed by 45 seconds of easy spinning. (It will take you a few seconds to get up to speed, which is why the sprint effort lasts 15 seconds.)

The last five minutes should be spent pedaling easily to cool down.

Workout 3: One-leg Drills

Start out with a five minute warmup. The first minute should be an easy spin, and each consecutive minute, you should up the pace slightly so that you feel warm by the five minute mark.

Next, do ten minutes of one-leg drills. One-leg pedaling drills are great for time-crunched workouts because the leg switching offers built-in rest periods for leg muscles, and the constant pedaling provides no rest for the heart and lungs (which take longer to fatigue than your leg muscles.)

For the first 60 seconds of the actual workout, pedal with the left leg only. You should hold your right foot just outside of or behind the pedal. Concentrate solely on pedaling perfect circles. At the end of the 60 seconds, switch legs so you are pedaling with the right leg only and your left leg is resting.

Continue without rest until each leg has done five 60-second intervals.

The last five minutes should be spent pedaling easily to cool down.

Note: pedaling for 60 seconds with just one leg is very demanding. If you have never done one-leg drills before, definitely practice it a few times before attempting this workout.

Workout 4: Ladders

Start out with a seven minute warmup. The first minute should be an easy spin, and each consecutive minute, you should up the pace slightly so that you feel warm by the seven minute mark.

The middle eight (actually 7.5) minutes will consist of a ladder workout, which means that the duration of each interval goes up and then comes back down. Rest period duration will remain the same throughout the workout.

This ladder goes as follows:

  • 15 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 45 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 60 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 45 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy
  • 15 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy

The remaining five and a half minutes should be spent pedaling easily to cool down.

Workout 5: Tabata-inspired

The Tabata protocol has been gaining more attention throughout the fitness industry, so I thought I’d include a Tabata-influenced bike workout…

The basic foundation of a Tabata workout is doing six to eight 20-second intervals with 10 seconds rest between each. The key though is that the 20-second interval is performed at 170% of your VO2max (which means a Power Meter would come in handy if you want this to be perfect.)

Start the workout with a ten minute warmup. The first minute should be an easy spin, and each consecutive minute, you should up the pace slightly so that you are sweating and ready to go hard by the ten minute mark.

Now you will perform eight 20-second intervals with just 10 seconds rest between them. The intense pace coupled with minimal rest makes these intervals very difficult.

Take the remaining six minutes to pedal easily and cool down.

For more details on the Tabata protocol, check out these articles from Clarence Bass and Lyle McDonald.

Interval Advice

Those five workouts should give you plenty of variety for your short interval session. Also, most of those workouts can be expanded by adding multiple sets, which would make them great for a 45 or even 90 minute workout session focused on intervals.

But I should point out, by no means are these workouts easy! You have to push yourself very hard in the time allotted, so these workouts may be too much for beginners.

Final bit of advice: All these 20 minute rides are best done on the indoor trainer. That will save the time spent dealing with checking the weather, getting dressed, mixing up sports drinks, waiting at traffic lights, etc.

You are still left with changing into your cycling shorts beforehand and taking a shower afterward, but that’s it.

If You Don’t Have Your Bike

If you are away from home and don’t have your bike with you, you could do very similar workouts by running on a treadmill. The only real difference is that you are running rather than pedaling – interval type and duration would remain the same.

You could also perform calisthenics like push ups, hindu squats, planks, etc. If you go twenty minutes, continuously switching exercises, without rest, that will wear you out!

Photo credit: flik

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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