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Spring Cycling: What Should I Focus On More, Mileage Or Intensity?

Ask a Pro — Diane Stibbard

Coach, Personal Trainer, and Two-Time Canadian Duathlete of the Year

Diane Stibbard - two-time dualthlete of the year

Question: “Now that it’s spring what should I focus on more, mileage or intensity?”

Diane’s reply: 
This is a common question I get asked this time of year. Many years ago I had my clients spending more time on mileage during the offseason/indoor season and less time on intensity training rides. Then in the spring, I would increase the percentage of time they spent doing higher intensity rides. However, over the years, through experience as well as continuing to read the research that comes out on different training systems, I think it’s key to implement both types of training all year round. The exception to this is during periods of recovery at the end of the season, or when recovering from injury or illness. What I change is the “dosage” or the time spent exercising in zone 4 and zone 5 of the workout. Below is an example of low, moderate and high-dose-length intervals, the time of year you do them and how frequently you would do them in a week.

Low dose: Zone 6
30 seconds to 1 [email protected]% of MHR (maximum heart rate)
Recovery time in-between – equal recovery
Time of year: offseason/indoor season, also the recovery weeks during the summer/outdoor season

Moderate dose: Zone 5
3 min to 5 minutes @ 75 – 80% of MHR
Recovery time in-between: 90 seconds to 2 minutes
Time of the year: indoor/winter season

High dose: Zone 5
2 – 2.5 minutes @ 90 – 95% of MHR
Recovery time in-between: equal recovery time
Time of the year: outdoor/summer season
5-10 minutes @ 70-80% of MHR
Recovery time in-between: 90 seconds to 2.5 minutes
15 minutes @ 70 – 80% of MHR
Recovery time in-between: 2 minutes
Time of year: outdoor/summer season

With longer sustained rides in the offseason and the outdoor season, I think the best approach is to do a mix of low and moderate intensity rides. See the guidelines below:

Zone 1 – perceived level of exertion 3-4RPE-table

Zone 2 – perceived level of exertion 5
Low intensity. This zone is truly where the body develops the ability to burn fat as its primary fuel source and spare carbohydrates. If you are doing three or four rides per week, one ride would be done in this zone. If you are doing five to six rides per week, you could do up to two rides in this zone.

Zone 3 – perceived level of exertion 6 – 7
Moderate intensity. This zone develops the body’s muscular strength. If you are doing three to four rides per week you would do one ride in this zone. If you are doing five to six rides per week, then you could do up to two rides in this zone.

Zone 4 to the bottom of Zone 5 – perceived level of exertion 7-8
This is a fairly special zone where you want to try to spend 15 to 20 minutes in it without actually going into Zone 5. It’s in this zone that you build the body’s ability to work just under the anaerobic threshold but at a lower heart rate. This zone of training also is used for periodic testing of progress. You would be doing one ride per week in this zone.

Zone 5 – perceived level of exertion 8

Zone 6 – perceived level of exertion 9 out of 10
High Intensity. You would do only one ride per week in this zone no matter how many rides per week you are doing.

The reason I advocate all types of intensity training, is to allow the body to work all energy systems evenly throughout the year. Adopting different dosages throughout the year, allows you to train without over-training or getting stale. It also prevents mental fatigue from the day-in and day-out of high intensity training, which can happen if you do too much all year round. Many athletes fall prey to this mind set. They feel that if they don’t exercise at the highest level all year round they will lose their edge. But this thinking is counterproductive. Depending on the time of the year, all cyclists need varying amounts of time spent in the higher training zones.

I hope this gives you some parameters for your upcoming spring season and going forward with your year-round training plans.

Happy cycling!

Training for a two-day cycling eventDiane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training. Does your company need a fitness consultant? Get in touch with Diane to discuss fitness seminars for corporations

You want personal training but don’t live near Diane? No problem. Diane does email and telephone consultations. To learn more, visit Diane’s website or contact her at

Check out Diane’s e-programs: Keeping Fit in the Off-Season and Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist.

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