Training Center: How to use your bike commute as part of training

Former national champ Mara Abbott and professional coach Dean Golich weigh in on working your commute into your training plan

Early on in my racing life, I thought I had found the secret. My friend, who decimated us every week at the races, revealed to me his training weapon. Each day he commuted 20 to 30 minutes from his house, which sat on top of the toughest climb in the area. So I ditched the car and started riding everywhere. Unfortunately, what I hadn’t considered was the years of base miles he had in his legs, the long rides he did on the weekends, and the fact that he barely pedaled during his ride to work, which was all downhill. My poorly planned commute was a big reason why by April he was still decimating us and I was simply decimated.

There are several reasons why many of us buy panniers and turn the bike into more than a training tool. Some of us commute because time is limited and it’s a great way to get a few extra hours in. Some want to drive less, or sit in traffic less. Others have no choice.

Before she retired in 2016, former U.S. national road champion Mara Abbott did it for all of those reasons. Cycling was her job, but since she didn’t own a car, it was also how she did her grocery shopping and got around town. (In fact, it still is.) She admits that sometimes her coach gave her a hard time, but he worked it into her plan.

“It’s not a question of whether bike commuting is good for training or bad for training,” Abbott said. “It’s more a question of integrating it into your training.”

Commuting by bike can be your secret weapon for a dominant season — or it can be a season-killer. It’s just a matter of knowing how to make it a beneficial part of your training and, more importantly, to know the pitfalls.

Dean Golich, a premier coach at Carmichael Training Systems who has worked with many top pros, including Abbott, said there are two issues with using a commute for training. The first, and most important, is recovery.

“There’s no problem doing intensity, and there’s no problem doing threshold work and splitting it up throughout the day,” Golich said. “It’s trying to get the recovery on the easy days so you get an adaptation from the work you’re doing.”

The second 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 fiber that isn’t normally recruited because of fatigue or fuel source,” Golich said. For any accomplished cyclist, that adaptation doesn’t happen during a 90-minute ride.

Another important adaptation is an increase in our natural antioxidant levels to handle the greater oxidative stress of training. In a study at Wilfrid Laurier University, where participants trained no more than 35 minutes per day for eight weeks, their fitness and oxidative stress both increased, but their natural antioxidants didn’t compensate.

Finally, it’s 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 quality training.

Fortunately, Golich feels that we can still race successfully without top endurance, especially if we only race for a few hours on the weekends. If a rider is going to get dropped in a shorter race like that, Golich said, “it’s because of intensity, so it’s really not necessarily endurance that’s the problem.”

And while a commute may not be conducive to endurance training, Golich was quick to point out that it can be used very effectively when you are focusing on threshold or VO2 work.

Tips to maximize the training benefits of your commute

According to Abbott, treating your training plan and commute as two separate things is a mistake. “You look at your week and you say, ‘What are the workouts that I need to do?’” 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.

There’s nothing to say that you have to do the same amount of riding at the same intensity on both ends of your day. “The strategy we’ve used in the past is to try to make the morning commute as easy as possible,” Golich said. Then, he suggests you add time to the trip home to make it two or even three hours.

Getting that endurance ride is the hard part of commuting, said Golich. 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.

“If you’ve got a recovery day,” Abbott said, “commuting is perfect.” She would often run errands by bike for her recovery rides.

“To be honest,” Golich said, “sometimes you’ve just got to not do it.” The issue is still recovery, and if it’s meant to be a rest day, you may just have to hop in the carpool. If you have absolutely no choice, Abbott recommends simply riding as slowly as possible.

If your commute is short — under 15 minutes — and you can’t add time to it, then Golich recommends keeping it very easy and not counting 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,” Golich said.

Another strategy to mimic endurance rides is to do the morning commute on no food, so glycogen reserves are already depleted. Golich recommends keeping the intensity up to get more bang for the buck. There is some recent research to back this strategy, but Golich still sees it as a risky technique.

Abbott commuted on a ’cross bike. “I had it set up to the exact same measurements as my road bike,” she said. You can do intervals and quality work on even the cheapest commuter, as long as it is setup like your race bike.

Abbott pointed out that if you’re regularly putting in three- or four-hour rides, a 15- to 30-minute commute really isn’t going to affect you. But if you feel that your commute is too long, “you can ride part way, then hop on a bus. Or, if you have a friend who lives nearby, you could do something like ride to work one day and get a ride home.”