The 6-hour a Week Training Plan

by Colin Sandberg

Low Volume Training
photo by Marco Quezada

“You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs? … this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7… Minute… Abs.”
“Right. Yes. OK, all right. I see where you’re going.”
“Think about it. You walk into a video store, you see 8-Minute Abs sittin’ there, there’s 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?”
“I would go for the 7.”
“Bingo, man, bingo. 7-Minute Abs. And we guarantee just as good a workout as the 8-minute folk.”
“You guarantee it? That’s – how do you do that?”
“If you’re not happy with the first 7 minutes, we’re gonna send you the extra minute free. You see? That’s it. That’s our motto. That’s where we’re comin’ from. That’s from “A” to “B”.”
“That’s right. That’s – that’s good. That’s good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you’re in trouble, huh?”
-There’s Something About Mary, 1998

My philosophy on training volume is that there is no magic number of hours or miles or Training Stress Score required for success. It’s about making the best out of the time you have. Still, a rider who can only train 5-7 hours per week certainly has some additional challenges than someone who has 20-30 hours per week available. Though I frequently hear amateurs glorifying the pro lifestyle, making statements such as, “Sure, I’d [be a pro, win that race, be 20 pounds lighter, have an FTP of 450 watts] if I had unlimited time to train”, no one truly has unlimited time. There’s only 24 hours in the day and we all must eat and sleep. There’s also time spent on bike and body maintenance, traveling, and then there’s this little thing we like to call “Life balance”, which includes exercising your body, mind, spirit, and relationships. We are all a little off-balance from time to time, but a table cannot stand on one leg alone.

The good news is that it is possible for virtually everyone to achieve success in the sport of cycling without a very high training volume provided they have the discipline, focus, and flexibility.

This means having the discipline to set aside time to train and sticking to it. Busy people often must carve this time out of their early mornings, late nights, or lunch hours. Each option presents unique advantages and disadvantages, so each athlete must figure out what works best for their life. Most importantly though, it’s important to stick to your plan and give it a chance. Whatever time you set aside needs to be your own. You can’t procrastinate, you can’t wait until you feel wide awake and ready to go, you can’t wait until you have done everything on your to do list, and you can’t let anything or anyone pull you away from your training time unless it’s a true emergency. Pick a time to train and when that time comes you must drop whatever else you are doing, knock out your training, and then you get on with your life. If you give the plan a shot and find that it doesn’t work, then you change the plan.

Since time is limited, your goals must have more focus. You aren’t going to have the time to train for road races, criteriums, track, mountain biking, cyclocross, and gran fondos. That said, just because you don’t have much time to train doesn’t mean you have to train for shorter events. If your goal is a long road race, an endurance mountain bike race, a century or an ironman triathlon, you can still do it. Your goal can be anything, it just can’t be everything. From focused goals will come focused training, designed to efficiently target the fitness and skills necessary to reach those goals.

While it’s important to “block off” training time on your schedule, it’s also important to be responsive to change. There will be emergencies at work and at home that will require you to miss your training from time to time. There will be bad weather. You will get sick or injured sometimes. Those who put their heads down and push ahead with their training without paying any attention to these things will not be successful. Likewise, opportunities to add in a little more training will pop up too. There will be times you can get out of work early, your family is out of town, or it’s 70 degrees in February. Take advantage of these opportunities. Do that long ride or make up for that workout you had to miss earlier in the week because you had to work late, or your kid got sick.

Now let’s go to the chopping block. To get our training down to 6 hours per week, something must get cut, so let’s prioritize:

  1. “Junk miles”. While some coaches argue that there’s no such thing as junk miles (because there’s some value in any training time), there’s certainly such a thing as “unfocused training”. Most of the time, this refers to workouts that are too hard to be recovery or real endurance rides, but too unfocused to be considered intervals. They may also include rides with an excessive amount of time coasting, soft-pedaling, or simply stopped. Most often, junk miles happen on group rides, commutes, or when riders go out and ride without any specific goals in mind.
  2. Excessive warm-ups and cool downs. Warm-ups and cool downs are important. They will help you perform at your best, prevent injuries and recover faster. But there is a limit. 20 minutes should be plenty of time to warm up for most interval workouts and 10-15 minutes should be plenty of time to cool down provided that the warmup and cool down are focused. Since many of us have specific places where we do our intervals (e.g. a specific hill, bike path, flat stretch of road, track), it’s important to make sure these locations are relatively close by. If it takes you an hour to ride to the bike path, you should consider another location or… gasp…. ride the indoor trainer instead.
  3. Recovery rides. Now, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I don’t believe in the value of an active recovery ride, but if completing that recovery ride means skipping one of your 2-3 “key workouts” in a given week, cutting sleep, important time at work, with your family, getting things done around the house or even doing valuable bike maintenance, the recovery ride should be one of the first things to go.
  4. Endurance time. My athletes all know that I am a big believer in the value of endurance rides and in doing them properly. I’m certainly not advocating that you skip all endurance altogether, but endurance miles are the single biggest use of time in any high-volume training plan, so it’s certainly going to be one of the first places a time crunched athlete will look to reduce to the absolute minimum that is necessary. A single 1.5 to 2-hour endurance ride per week can go a long way in building
    an endurance base. After a solid base is established, limiting endurance rides to “bonus rides” (meaning that they are only done when extra time pops up) is sufficient for most athletes, especially if the athlete has established a good training base in past seasons and the rides are high quality.
  5. Strength sessions. This one gets a little complicated. Without going into much detail, let me say that I believe in the value of strength training for cyclists to even out muscular imbalances, increase bone density, prevent injuries, improve pedaling efficiency and reduce discomfort on the bike. Like many things though, the law of diminishing returns applies. At the risk of throwing out some wholly unscientific statistics out there, if 2-3 x 1.5-hour gym sessions per week might be ideal, most athletes will get 98% of the benefit with a single gym session, 95% of the benefit with one abbreviated (1 hour) session, and 90% of the benefit with a single 20-30 minute core session that can be done at home. That said, some athletes might be able to squeeze in extra strength training into their schedule when they wouldn’t be able to do anything else (e.g. if they have a gym at work) and strength training may be somewhat higher on the priority list for certain athletes (e.g. older riders, those recovering from severe injuries or imbalances) than for others (e.g. young athletes with no history of injuries or imbalances).

So what does a low volume training plan look like? Well, as usual it depends on the individual, their goals, strengths & weaknesses and the period of training, but here are a few examples:

Sample Week: Base Training (6.5-7 hours)

  • Monday — Day off OR Recovery Spin
  • Tuesday — LT Interval workout (1 hour)
  • Wednesday — Strength Training (20-60 min)
  • Thursday — Tempo Interval Workout (1 hour)
  • Friday — Off, make up day, OR Recovery Spin
  • Saturday — 2-hour Group ride OR Endurance with mixed LT and Tempo Intervals
  • Sunday — 2-hour Endurance ride

Sample Week: Build Phase (5 hours)

  • Monday — Day off OR Recovery Spin
  • Tuesday — VO2 Max Interval Workout (1 hour)
  • Wednesday — LT Interval Workout (1 hour)
  • Thursday — Core workout (20 min)
  • Friday — Off, make up day, OR Recovery Spin
  • Saturday — 3-hour Group ride, Training Race, OR Endurance with mixed VO2 and LT intervals
  • Sunday — Off, Endurance ride, OR Make up day

Sample Week: Race Week (6 hours)

  • Monday — Day off OR Recovery Spin
  • Tuesday — Anaerobic Capacity Interval Workout (1 hour)
  • Wednesday — Sprint Workout (1 hour)
  • Thursday — Core workout (20 min)
  • Friday — Openers (1 hour)
  • Saturday — Race (2.5 hours incl. warmup and cooldown)
  • Sunday — Off OR Recovery Spin

Note that the word “OR” appears often here. If you were to do all the optional workouts, the volume rises quickly above 6 hours, but that’s kind of the point. Focus on the key workouts, have the discipline to make them your priority, but leave yourself flexibility to add in more time when your schedule allows.

You might be asking “If it’s possible to be successful training only 5-7 hours per week, why does anyone bother training more than that?” As I previously stated though, I do believe that there is value in those long endurance rides, recovery rides and extra strength sessions, but there’s also a law of diminishing returns and for many of us, training an extra 8-10 hours per week for an extra, let’s say a 5% gain in performance, simply isn’t worth it. Unfortunately, even those willing to devote the extra time often fail to use it well, simply adding hours and hours of junk miles rather than focused, value-added training time. As is the case with other measures such as weight (body weight and bike weight), power output, and Training Stress Score (TSS), many riders needlessly obsess over training volume as if their success is directly proportional. In truth, consistency, quality and focus are far more important, though much more difficult to quantitatively measure. Tragically, many athletes end up sacrificing the things that are most important in pursuit of a number that really isn’t as important as they believe. Sometimes appreciating the value of time requires a scarcity of time.

Colin SandbergColin Sandberg  is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. Thanks for reading!