Is a big burst of exercise at the weekend as good as spreading the hours out across the week? Exercising just once or twice per week appears to be enough to significantly reduce all-cause mortality risk, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine earlier this year. While cautioning that more research is needed, particularly in terms of cycling, we spoke to some coaches to try and answer this question.
Many of us have commitments that prevent us from being able to ride during the week, especially during the winter with limited daylight and poor weather conditions, so let's find out whether weekend bursts of exercise can be enough to stay fit and delve into what this would look like in terms of performing at your best on a bike.
What does the research say?
The JAMA Internal Medicine journal article looking at how best to spread exercise out across a week is called Association of the “Weekend Warrior” and Other Leisure-time Physical Activity Patterns With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality.
This study (and one posted by the BBC) concluded that individuals who engage in active patterns of physical activity – "weekend warriors" or regularly active –experience lower mortality than inactive individuals. That's not surprising, is it?
Engaging in the recommended levels of physical activity (150 minutes per week) may provide the same benefit whether the sessions are performed throughout the week or concentrated into fewer days. "The most important thing is that physical activity is undertaken in the first place," says the British Heart Foundation.
These articles look at mortality rates and low levels of exercise and we appreciate that there is a big distinction between this and performing at your very best on a bike. However, can the same principles be applied specifically to training for cyclists?
We spoke to some coaches to see if you can stay fit by cramming all of your riding into the weekend.
What level can riders get to by just riding at weekends?
With limited hours of daylight during the winter in the UK and family/work commitments, some of us can get out on our bikes only at the weekend. So, what sort of level can you expect to get to by just riding at weekends?
Paddy Harrison, Doctoral Researcher and Cycling Coach at Loughborough University says, "Cyclists can certainly make progress in their fitness by riding only on the weekends. However, there may come a point where additional rides during the week may be needed to progress further."
Dan Coombe, Raceline Coaching, says that "consistency is extremely important for athletic performance," and he sees riding over the weekend as more of a mental benefit over a physical benefit – getting out and enjoying your bike away from the kids for a couple of hours.
Henry Latimer, Head Coach at 2020cycling.cc, says that "you can certainly get fit by riding on the weekends," but you need to ask yourself if you're making the most out of the riding that you're doing in this available time.
Harrison says that it depends on the individual as to whether or not you'll continue to make progress only riding on the weekend, but all coaches agree that additional rides during the week may be needed to take your fitness higher, particularly if you're looking for a challenge.
Overall, riding at the weekends seems to be adequate for a general level of fitness, but if you're looking to perform at your best on a bike, spreading sessions out across the week will be more beneficial.
How can riders get the most out of weekend riding?
Long Sunday rides are a staple for many cyclists but training intensity and duration are both important for making improvements in fitness. Incorporating a range of intensities and durations is key, so how should you structure your weekend?
Harrison suggests avoiding making both Saturday and Sunday sessions hard as this will accumulate a lot of fatigue, and instead having one day as a shorter, high-intensity ride (1-2 hours) and the other as a longer, low-intensity ride (2-4 hours).
Weekend rides can be done outside – make sure you have some of the best bike lights – but the turbo is a great way to incorporate high-intensity sessions indoors (check out our guide to the best turbo trainers).
Harrison says, "Zwift have lots of structured workouts to choose from which takes a lot of the guesswork out of designing interval sessions."
> How to get started with Zwift
Coombe says that it's most important to enjoy your cycling and that choosing routes with ranging terrain will naturally push you into different zones.
For more structure and for those with that natural desire to improve, he suggests completing split sessions on Saturday, with a morning focus on tempo/Z3 and an evening high-intensity session.
> How training zones can help you get your greatest cycling fitness gains
Sunday then targets endurance of 3-4 hours with the option of including tempo and repeated sprints towards the end of the ride.
> Cycling fitness: How to get the most from your indoor training sessions
Like Coombe, Latimer says if you're constrained to just riding on weekends your rides need to both excite and push you. He suggests going on local group rides as they can be really useful for helping you push yourself further than normal. They also hold you accountable which means you're more likely to get out even when the weather takes a turn for the worse!
Overall, to make sure you're getting the most out of weekend riding, make sure you incorporate some high-intensity work as well as an endurance ride.
What would 5-6 hours of riding look like spread across the week?
Coaches agree that riding only on weekends will help you improve up to a point, but additional sessions throughout the week will be needed to take you further. Coombe says, "There is more benefit to riding for a total of 5-6 hours spread over the week than completing the same time over the weekend."
Latimer says that if you're able to spread your riding time across four days rather than two, "you're able to put more structure into your riding and target your training."
> How to get the most from your limited training time
Below are two ideal training scenarios for riding throughout the week for those of you who can fit in those extra sessions.
Coombe's training week (total 5-6.5 hours):
- Monday - Day off
- Tuesday - Tempo session (45 mins - 1 hour)
- Wednesday - High-intensity session (45 mins - 1 hour)
- Thursday - Day off
- Friday - General endurance/tempo (1 hour)
- Saturday - High intensity (1.5 - 2 hours)
- Sunday - Mixed session (1 - 1.5 hours)
Latimer's training week (total 4.5+ hours):
- Monday - Day off
- Tuesday - High-intensity interval workout (45 mins)
- Wednesday - Day off
- Thursday - Low-intensity technical session e.g., high cadence drills (45 mins)
- Friday - Day off
- Saturday - Hard group ride (2+ hours)
- Sunday - Steady endurance ride (1+ hours)
Latimer says that moving from weekend riding only to a structured week "will very quickly elevate your fitness due to a more regular training stimulus and the ability to progress your training from week to week."
So, can you just ride at weekends?
Of course! For the enjoyment of cycling, weekend riding is great, but if you want to improve your fitness, be competitive in local races or complete longer sportives, there may come a point where additional rides during the week are needed.
Harrison says that one way to see if you’re continuing to make progress with your fitness by riding at the weekend is to complete a Zwift testing protocol (an FTP test, for example) and then re-testing every 4-8 weeks. If you’re struggling to make improvements, then you can look at adding another ride during the week or getting more out of your weekend rides.
> What is FTP? 7 key facts to learn about functional threshold power, a major training metric
The training examples from Harrison, Coombe and Latimer (above) can be used to help you get more out of your weekend riding but also provide the scope to add sessions throughout the week.
Have you managed to get a good level of fitness through weekend riding, or do you spread your time on the bike throughout the week? Let us know in the comments section below...
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