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I have been doing a new longer commute (round trip of 17 km) for the last 6 months and definitely saw an improvement of my fitness level if I compare to when I started.

When I commute though, I do not put myself in a workout mode. I just ride at a good steady pace until I reach my destination. Last week, while riding, I wondered if not pushing harder during my commute was a missed workout opportunity.

So, generally speaking, what is the effect on my fitness level if I continue commuting the way I do? Do I still improve something or only maintain what I acquired so far?

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My initial answer failed to consider that everyone has a varying level of base fitness, hence the revisions. Assume that you can do some intervals or faster riding safely during the commute, including safely for other traffic. For less trained cyclists, there may be enough road to improve your fitness if you push things a bit on the commute. A 17k daily commute isn't a huge amount of road, so this won't carry you to a high fitness level. But this may be OK for your needs! More discussion follows.

enter image description here

Consider the pyramid above. It's a conceptual model by sports scientist Stephen Seiler, based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I obtained the image from 80/20 Endurance, which discusses training in more detail.

Seiler's proposition is that if you just focus on total volume - ride up grades, as Eddy Merckx is thought to have said - this will improve your performance, but you will hit a plateau at some point. Past that point, you need to add intensity to keep improving.

However, depending on your goals and your current fitness, this may or may not be a problem. Certainly, if the alternative is doing nothing, then doing anything within reason (be safe, don't overtrain) will improve fitness. Note that to reduce cardiovascular risk and improve general health, you don't need a whopping amount of physical activity. The American College of Sports Medicine and similar bodies just recommend some moderately intense physical activity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week (5, in the ACSM's case), plus some muscle strengthening days. Moderately paced walking counts as sufficient intensity for this purpose.

If you want to maximize your fitness and do structured intervals, there's not enough time on this commute. We would usually do a 5 minute warmup or a bit more, then the work sets, then a cooldown at the end. For example, for VO2max workouts, riders should usually work up to 16-20 total minutes at VO2max power, perhaps more. For sweet spot (~90% of FTP), I think experienced cyclists want to start with a total of 40-45 minutes in zone and work up from there, with time in zone a bit less for threshold intervals. There is no way to do that much in 17 km while also stopping for lights and being sure not to menace parents, children, and dogs.

A short commute may be a reasonable place to do some anaerobic intervals, other users permitting. Those are something like 30-90s sprints, then easy pedaling. Anaerobic capacity is useful on competitive group rides. You wouldn't want to do these every day, as they can get tiring. Also, I think the gains to aerobic fitness should be limited.

In theory, it would be more effective to take the commute at zone 1 or 2 (recovery or endurance pace) and set aside some time to do structured intervals, or find a group ride that is challenging for you, or do the same thing on longer solo rides. If you're already doing that, then you most likely want to keep the commute easy, probably recovery pace.

I'm answering from the perspective of a fairly experienced cyclist. 30-40 minute structured workouts are generally not enough to drive adaptations for me at my current fitness level. That said, everyone is at a different place. So you could consider where you currently are in building an overall workout plan.

Explanation of the pyramid

If you are starting from a low base, just cycling more is sufficient to progress.

To progress from there, you need to add intensity. In particular, add intensity near or above your functional threshold power. Riding tempo is not quite hard enough to drive good adaptations. If you don't overtrain, just adding intensity in an unstructured format will produce gains. Road pros used to race themselves into shape. Or you could just do group rides.

To progress from there, you need to pay more attention to intensity distribution. In particular, you want to make sure you do enough work at high intensity, and the balance of your work needs to be at endurance or recovery pace. There are a few intensity distribution schemes out there, e.g. pyramidal or polarized training. You can Google these, but the basic precept is to start paying attention to how much time you're spending at intensity, and increasing that time gradually. For example, at my experience level, about 45 minutes of sweet spot or 40 minutes of threshold is the lowest I would aim for in a session. The more complex techniques above this tier offer diminishing returns (says Seiler) and are also more complicated to pull off, so a lot of people would benefit from professional help here.

My intuitive sense is that the majority of riders don't necessarily need to even get to step 3 to achieve enough cycling fitness to gain satisfaction. Obviously, this doesn't mean they should not do so, or that it's wrong to want to maximize performance. It's more that it may not be necessary. I think most fit adults can complete a century just by focusing on volume.

I have not vetted the evidence base. My understanding is that Seiler is generally well-regarded. No researcher is perfect. I suspect that he's generally on point, but in principle anyone can be wrong on something, or the field can consider something well-accepted when it's actually wrong, like narrow high-pressure tires.

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  • I have not been doing many long rides on the weekends so far as the temperature is still cold, but soon I will. It will indeed make sense to keep my energy for those rides. Good point.
    – olliebulle
    Apr 1, 2023 at 21:27
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I'm trying to provide a less scientific answer from experience of somebody who did steady but unfocused training for extended periods (both running and cycling) but also had phases of structured training throughout the years (mostly seasonal for an event)

You will gain some fitness, mostly on the endurance side but you'll have a relatively flat power curve (if you mind it), so by just commuting, you won't be able to do 1500-watt sprints and for longer periods your power curve is not going to fall off as much as for a specifically trained cyclist (but is on a much lower level overall) - in layman's terms, there won't be as much a difference of how fast you can ride for five minutes versus an hour compared to somebody who trains for sprints or higher intensity.

It might look a bit like the comparison below - a sprinter can get those big numbers for 30 seconds to a few minutes, a pure commuter cyclist probably can't.

enter image description here

Note: If you're not familiar with "power curves", this just plots the effort/power your were able to put out for a few seconds, up to multiple hours for a given period, it might just be for a single ride or your last six months of training, a "best-of", so to say.

The example is from my Strava account and my last couple of weeks compared versus a single workout where I was riding at a steady pace. I think, if you would do such analysis, your curve would look a bit like that (exaggerated) - not near-linear as me riding on an indoor trainer with simulated loads but a lot shallower between 1s and 5m values.

Plus, your abilities will top out depending on your overall training/riding volume, especially when you mostly commute. For runners, I've heard of the "rule" that you can usually run a certain distance when your weekly training volume covers it, for example running 40-50 kilometers a week and you should be able to survive a marathon. Your knees may still hurt without long runs, but from an endurance perspective, it's probably doable.

I'd guess, this also applies to cycling. So if you ride your 17k on a work-day basis, you will probably be able to finish a Gran Fondo or "big ride" at moderate pace in style but you'll lack specific abilities such as peak power for sprints, tempo and climbs.

So, if you mostly ride flat roads in your low zone 2 as the only type of training, a short big climb will face a challenge because it might demand double the power to make it up at all and you're not training at these higher intensities.

However, mixing commuting with your training rides can be a smart combination. You can save some time for endurance rides when you're on your commuter for 3-4 hours/week and focus on the more intense stuff when you pick up your road bike on the weekend - and get the "best of both worlds".

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    What did you use to generate the graph ?
    – Criggie
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:54
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    @Criggie I originally stole it from the internet but now replaced it with an image from my own Strava which gives a better illustration to bring home the point - when you compare a single steady ride with a more long-term data (giving a better overall sample). Disclaimer: My peak is not representative because I hardly ever do sprints, I probably just forgot to shift on the small cog and had to pull through a small kicker before falling off the bike^^
    – DoNuT
    Sep 8, 2023 at 5:31
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You're likely seeing an improvement in your endurance more than your peak power output.

You can add power training to your commute with some simple changes

  • When taking off from a red-light stop, push hard and stay out of the saddle. Aim for a 30 second max effort or until you reach a landmark 200 metres away.
  • Nominate a strava segment in about the middle of your ride, and approach it tactically. Aim to enter the segment at high speed and accelerate to maximum power, and hold it. Ideal length should be 30-60 seconds or 300-600 metres with no stops in or near it. Do this even when the wind is against you.

Presuming your destination is work, it always helps to ride slow in the last 5 minutes, to have a cooldown and calm-down. Otherwise you get off the bike at work all hot and your cooling system is overloaded, you sweat like a rainstorm, and its generally not pretty.

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    Concerning traffic lights: There is probably a traffic light on your commute that always just turns red when you approach it. Try to race it until you make the green light. Depending on the exact timing of the lights, this may be anywhere between a mild effort and just beyond your capabilities. But whenever you make that light, it's a sweet little victory! Sep 8, 2023 at 9:12
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Maybe not a direct answer to your question, but more a suggestion on how to avoid the problem of getting stuck in a certain routine.

I'm fully aware this is not something that is for everybody but for me riding a fixed gear as a commuter bike is something that works perfectly! It takes you out of your comfort zone by default and you train different types of cycling.

  • When taking of at a red light, you have to push hard, just to get moving. This will improve your strength and short effort capabilities.
  • When taking on a headwind, you also work on your strength.
  • In case of a tail wind you will naturally ride at higher cadences than you normally would on a geared bike.
  • Because you can't stop paddeling, you are always moving your legs, making it a 'tougher' workout than riding a geared bike. Riding an hour on my fixed gear makes me burn roughly 20% more calories vs riding an hour on my geared bike.

Like I said before, I know riding a fixed gear is not for everyone. The only thing I can say is that it works for me and it makes cycling way more fun. Riding my geared bike is become more and more a 'have-to' in most of the cases, where commuting on my fixed gear is most of the time a 'Great, I can go cycling again!'.

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I think you can answer some of these questions by testing yourself.

When I have time and opportunity, I explore a cycling route with some challenges like long hills with mild gradients, down hills max speed, short sharp climbs etc... and I add to these routes a goal Eg. at destination or halfway, have a coffee or drink or a small treat.

All these experiences would answer a lot of questions... How did I manage that short sharp hill? Did standing up on the pedals help... Can I manage better without standing up? What's the difference... How did my body breathing manage, should I hold my breath a split second before exhaling? Should I have change to a higher cadence etc...

If over time, I improve my time and am happier with how I manage, then surely, I manage to improve my fitness and develop skills learning how to coup under certain challenges. Cycling is more than just getting from A to B or just about my fitness. It's all about the experience.

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