Workout of the Week: Commuter Training

Turn your commute into valuable training time with these top tips.

Workout of the Week: Commuter Training
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This week’s Workout of the Week is a little unorthodox, but trust me, it’s worth it. Commuting by bike has many benefits, from reducing the amount of time you spend in traffic—which is sure to bring your stress levels down—to helping you feel good about using a human-powered machine to get from here to there and not burn fossil fuels in the process.

But what about its usefulness as a training tool? Yes, it can be good for that too, if you follow some simple recommendations.

First, for those short on time, it’s a great way to squeeze in a bit more volume each week. The trick is knowing how best to integrate it into your training. Commuting by bike can be your secret weapon for a dominant season—or it can be a season-killer. It comes down to knowing how to make it a beneficial part of your training and, more importantly, to avoid the pitfalls.

There are two key elements to using a commute for training. The first, and most important, is recovery.

It’s possible to include intensity in your commute; and it’s plausible to do threshold work and split it into two sessions (though this isn’t equivalent to one long ride, as we’ll discuss in a moment).  However, the key is making sure to get the recovery you need on the easy days so you get an adaptation from the work you’re doing.

The second element to consider is endurance work. Even a 20-minute commute helps the weekly volume, but if you’re looking for an endurance ride, a commute doesn’t really count. The fact is, two 90-minute rides in a day are not equivalent to one three-hour ride.

That’s because there are physiological adaptations that only occur during longer sustained training. One is a slow depletion of your muscle glycogen reserves over time, which causes you to recruit muscle fibers that aren’t normally recruited because of fatigue or fuel source. For any accomplished cyclist, that adaptation doesn’t happen during a 90-minute ride.

It’s also important to remember that our aerobic energy systems are very slow to kick into gear. It can take 10 to 15 minutes before the aerobic pathway is fully activated. This means that in a 20-minute commute, you may only get five to 10 minutes of useful training.

So, while a commute may not be conducive to endurance training, it can be used very effectively when you are focusing on threshold or VO2 work.

Here are a few top tips to maximize the training benefits of your commute:

  • Don’t treat your training plan and commute as two separate things. Rather, look at your week and ask yourself what workouts are necessary. Then plan your commute accordingly. That 45-minute trip between work and home could be a great opportunity to throw on the shoes and bibs and get in your planned intervals.
  • Don’t make it a habit to do the same amount of riding at the same intensity on both ends of your day. For example, make the morning commute as easy as possible. Then, add time to the trip home to make it two or even three hours.
  • Getting in a true endurance ride is the hard part of commuting. One way is to add time to one end of the commute, but you can also take advantage of the commute to do your shorter interval work so you can free up your weekend for the long ride.
  • Commuting is ideal for recovery days, as long as you aren’t rushing, sprinting out of every stop sign or traffic light, and it isn’t overly taxing in other ways.
  • But, just as importantly, sometimes you’ve just got to skip the commute to get the recovery you need.  If you have no choice, simply ride as slowly as possible.
  • The 15-minute rule says that if your commute is short—under 15 minutes—and you can’t add time to it, then keep it very easy and do not count it in your training.
  • To mimic the effects of endurance rides, you can cheat a little by riding 10 to 15 watts harder than normal. It’s going to deplete your glycogen reserves faster and recruit muscle fibers that are predominantly for power, and train them to be a little more fatigue resistant.
  • Another strategy to mimic endurance rides is to do the morning commute without eating breakfast, so glycogen reserves are already depleted. If you do this, it’s recommended to keep the intensity up to get more bang for the buck. There is some research to back this strategy, but it is considered a risky technique, because it’s easy to get wrong.
  • If you ride a different bike for your commutes, try to set it up with the exact same measurements as your race bike. You can do intervals and quality work on even the cheapest commuter, as long as it is set up like your race bike.

Workout of the Week: Commuter Training

There are many benefits to using your commute for training. Follow these guidelines to make your commuting a season-booster, not a season-killer:

  • Work the commute into your overall training plan
  • Split your commutes unevenly (morning: short, easy; evening: long and/or hard)
  • On recovery days, go as slowly as possible
  • Cheat by riding 10-15 watts higher to get an “endurance” ride
  • Set up your commuter just like your race bike