THE best road bike workout: exercise like a boss in just 30 minutes

Don’t just cruise the same old routes, get your lockdown exercise like a Tour de France champ

best road bike exercise for lockdown
(Image credit: Deceuninck-Quickstep)

The best road bike workout needn't take hours. That's good news if you are trying to get road fit but are short of time. Cycling has never been more popular and it's also a way to get your daily exercise. The good news is, you don't need to have Chris Froome's home gym to train like a cycling pro. This workout is a great way to burn the most calories in the shortest amount of time, helping with your lockdown weight loss.

This is the season for avid cyclists to dust down the best road bike, detach it from a turbo trainer and fish the cycling shoes from the back of the wardrobe. They then strap on the ol' heart rate monitor – maybe use a sterilising wipe on it first – before venturing outside.

The current global 'situation' means there have been restrictions, but they are easing, and in many places, the streets are emptier than they usually are. SO let's make the most of our time out there. 

• Best home workout for cycling no equipment required

The bottom line is, professional cyclists don’t just crank out a few easy kilometres on their training routes, opting instead to weave interval training techniques, hill climbs and aerobic strengthening exercises into every outing. Don't just think this is about sitting in the saddle for as long as possible either, because a solid on-bike workout can be achieved in as little as 30-45 minutes. 

We’ve spoken to professional riders, top trainers and even the top nutritionist at Deceuninck-Quickstep for their top advice on squeezing every last ounce out of each ride and recovering afterwards, even if that is just a 30 minute burn around the block. You can even do it on an electric bike. Although arguably that is cheating. 

(Image credit: Unsplash/Victor Xok)

Before you head out

Based upon the fact that you are likely restricted to the amount of time you can be out on the bike, it is a good idea to warm up before you set off, meaning you don’t have to waste valuable bike time spinning the legs into action.

With that in mind, it could be a case of sitting on a turbo trainer or exercise bike for ten minutes prior to leaving, setting the gearing on an easy ratio and spinning the legs at a cadence of 70rpm for two minutes, 80rpm for two minutes and so on, increasing the cadence (but don’t go heavy on the resistance) until you hit the 10 minute mark. 

If you aren’t lucky enough to own an indoor cycling solution, try a dynamic warm-up of light leg exercises and stretches. A five-minute routine of jumping jacks, bodyweight squats, high-knee sprints on the spot, bodyweight reverse lunges and side lunges will engage the major muscle groups, elevate the heart rate and get the lungs ready for a workout. Doing this in your skin-tight cycling gear might look a bit silly, but your legs will thank you for it. 

Note that most of the following workouts require some sort of timer, which can be found on most good bike computers nowadays, but also come part and parcel of most fitness and smartwatches. You can set the desired intervals up before you head out, to save too much distracting button pushing when out in the saddle. 

Give fellow cyclists a wide berth when out training – ie: not like this

(Image credit: Unsplash/Coen van den broek)

Train like a pro cyclist (in just 30 minutes ish)

Tabata Training

"Most people who have read or talked about High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) have probably heard the term "Tabata" thrown around and for a good reason. These super-short efforts (with even shorter rest) kicked off the HIIT craze in the mid 90's thanks to Professor Izumi Tabata," explains Mac Cassin, Head Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Fitness and indoor training app The Sufferfest and the man responsible for keeping many pro cyclists fit when they can't get outside. 

"If you only have 30 minutes to ride a bike outside, and you want to make the most of it, then the HIIT Tabata session is the way to go. The standard Tabata set contains 8 x 20-second maximal efforts, with 10-seconds recovery between, making the entire set last 4-minutes. 

Here is how you can fit 3 Tabata sets into a single 30-minute session:

Warm-Up  - 7 minutes

Tabata Set - 4 minutes 

Recovery - 3 minutes

Tabata Set  - 4 minutes

Recovery - 3 minutes

Tabata Set -  4 minutes

Cool-Down - 5 minutes

Try Tabata-style training on the bike to keep up with the pack when lockdown lifts

(Image credit: Unsplash/Gary Butterfield)

"If you are new to this sort of effort, you can start with 3 sets of 6 repeats.  As you progress, you can slowly build your way up to 3 sets of 12 repeats," Mac explains

All you need to complete this session is a timer or interval counter. Most smart fitness devices have an interval or workout timer mode, and there are plenty of free Tabata apps for smartphones.  

If you're worried about the effort you require to output during the Tabata Set, the "pacing" component is "to go all-out for each 20-second effort", according to Mac. "Your pace will naturally drop a nit through each set so don't worry. The other key to pacing this session is to go really, really easy for those 10 seconds between each effort,  so don't be surprised if you are coming to a near standstill by the end of the third set!" he adds.

Group rides are off the cards but solo missions are just as good

(Image credit: Deceuninck-Quickstep)

Flying Intervals 

Just like in the local gym class, interval training (more commonly known as HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training or Tabata, as mentioned above) has been incorporated into workouts that require a high calorie burn in a short space of time. Interval training in cycling does much the same thing, while training the body to recover faster between sprints.

This is essential to improve performance when out on the road, during group rides or when racing, as most high octane rides consist of periods of paced tempo cycling and short sprints to catch up with the pack, overtake a rival or simply to get away from traffic during the morning commute.

After successfully warming up (see above), cycle to an area where you’ve got some room to speed up and slow down. Now, drop the gears into the large front cog and a smaller cog at the rear and pedal hard for 40 seconds. Recover for 20 seconds with some easy spinning and repeat. Do this ten times.

Pedal easy for three-to-five minutes to allow the heart rate to settle and repeat the above for a further ten rounds. Use the 10 minute cycle home to cool down by taking it easy.

Attack Threshold Intervals 

Road cycling races will feature periods where teams or individuals have to ‘attack’ in order to catch up with the competition or put some space between the leaders and the rest of the pack. Your daily cycling might not require this, but threshold training will help you become a faster cyclist and ensure completing longer distances becomes much easier.

After a good ten-to-fifteen minute warm-up, aim to pedal at your maximum threshold for two-to-three minutes, followed by a light recovery pedal for the same amount of time. Pro cyclists will know their max threshold (the wattage they can output over a set period of time) but for most amateurs, this simply needs to be your maximum work rate for the entire allocated period, followed by a very gentle spin or coast. 

Repeat the above twice in the early days and try to extend the sets as your muscles and cardiovascular system adapt. Over time, you’ll be able to pedal all-out for five or more sets, making future periods of exertion much easier to manage.

Avoid the urge to binge on junk food during lockdown 

(Image credit: Fresh n Lean)

A word on lockdown nutrition

It’s very tempting to gorge on M&Ms and trendy pale ales while sobbing in from of The Walking Dead during the nationwide lockdown, but there is a way to keep the pounds off and ensure your body has the right nutrients to build muscle and repair after the intense workouts listed above.

Despite the Tour de France being postponed for now, Marije Jongedijk, Team Nutritionist at pro cycling outfit Deceuninck-QuickStep, is still busy keeping the team in check and on a healthy path. But she found time to divulge some nutritional tips for every keen cyclist to adhere to.

Get your vitamins

“Make sure your body has the support it needs by taking plenty of vegetables like cucumber, salad, broccoli and tomatoes onboard,” she says.

“It’s easier to blend these up a soup and have this on hand to add into the diet as a starter to your meal or simply eat as a snack. Also, bingeing on things like blueberries and strawberries is better at a time like this than something particularly fatty, like nuts,” Marije adds. 

Manage your intake of energy-dense foods 

“Due to lockdown, most of us are using a lot less energy, with our daily trip to the gym or long cycle out of the question. So When you do eat nutrition that is rich in calories, like olive oil or nuts, try to manage quantity,” she says.

“In general one tablespoon of olive oil as a dressing or sauce per meal is enough, the same goes for a helping of peanut butter. Try and limit your nut intake to one handful a day and eat these instead of other fatty snacks,” she adds.

The Deceuninck-QuickStep team taking on vital nutrients during a training ride

(Image credit: Deceuninck Quickstep)

Turn up the volume

“Don’t panic, you can still eat large bowls of food during this time, but you just have to be more selective with what they are. For example, 600g of skimmed yoghurt has the same amount of protein and calories as just 250g of a fattier rival,” Marije divulges.

“The same goes for pasta. A wheat penne will leave you feeling fuller for longer over, say, a white spaghetti. Make time for eating and focus on every meal and you will feel more satisfied,” she adds.

Try healthier snacking

If you still can’t curb that urge to snack, try something that has been designed with sports nutrition in mind. There are loads of shakes to crave a sweet tooth, chocolate bar alternatives, spreads and healthy savoury options, such as jerky. Check out the list below for some great guides.

Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. When he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing. He's also a man who knows his tools, and he's provided much of T3's drills coverage over the years, all without injuring himself.