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Low-intensity workouts are an important part of every cyclist’s training plan. Our bodies simply weren’t made to sustain a high volume of high-intensity work all of the time. But what makes cycling low intensity and why is it worthwhile?
Cycling is low-intensity when you are riding at an easy, relaxed pace. A low-intensity cycling workout means you have a low perceived rate of exertion, lower heart rate and breathing rate, and easy speed and cadence. These all come together to make a great recovery ride.
In this article, we’ll talk about how cycling can be low-intensity. But before we go into all the reasons cycling is great for a low-intensity workout, we’ll take a good look at the importance of riding at a low intensity, as well.
Why Low-Intensity Cycling Workouts are Worthwhile
One of the best ways to build your cardiovascular system is through low-intensity exercise, such as cycling.
As you ride at lower intensities, your body builds more capillaries throughout your body to deliver oxygen to your muscles. It also increases mitochondrial production, which is how your body transports energy.
Not only that, low-intensity exercise teaches your body to burn fat as fuel, helps your body store more glycogen (which is the fuel used at higher intensities), and strengthens your slow-twitch muscle fibers. (Source)
Lastly, lower intensity cycling helps your body get rid of lactic acid, which is the substance responsible for burning when you work out hard. So no matter how advanced of a cyclist you are, low-intensity workouts are a great way to increase your fitness.
Let’s take a look at different ways cycling is low-intensity.
1. Perceived Rate of Exertion
Your perceived rate of exertion is how hard you feel like you are working. For example, on GCN training’s YouTube channel, they use a scale of 1 to 10 that measures how much effort you feel like you are making. Ten is the hardest, and one is the easiest.
If you are doing a sprint workout, your sprints should feel like you’re at a 10, while the recovery periods in between could be somewhere between 2 and 4.
A low-intensity cycling workout is probably a four or less on the perceived exertion scale.
Just enough to get you to feel warm and sweat a little, but not so much that you feel exhausted when you are done.
The trouble with perceived exertion is that you might feel more tired some days than others, so while you feel like you are working hard, you might just be tired.
2. Heart Rate
You can also measure your workout with heart rate. Heart rate zones are a percentage of your maximum heart rate. You can track your heart rate with a smartwatch, heart rate strap, whoop strap, or some other device.
Low-intensity heart rate zones are around 50 to 60 % of your maximum heart rate. So if your max heart rate is 200, you’ll want to keep your heart rate around 100 to 120 beats per minute to stay in that low-intensity zone. (Source)
In this zone, you’ll burn fewer calories, but they’ll mostly be calories from fat. Heart rate is a great way to keep cycling in a low-intensity zone. However, there are some caveats, here too.
Heart rate is quite reactive. So if you aren’t feeling well, your heart rate might be higher than usual if you are tired or sick.
Conversely, if you are overtraining, your heart rate might be lower than expected, and you just can’t get any oomph out of your workout.
So while using your heart rate to measure the intensity of your training is a good framework, it isn’t perfect.
If you are breathing hard on your ride, then your ride isn’t low intensity.
Low-intensity cardio should be done at a rate where you can still have a nice, easy conversation with your riding mate.
If you find yourself breathing hard but intend to keep your ride low intensity, then you need to ease up. Switch to an easier gear and spin easy so you don’t feel so out of breath.
Speed is another indicator of how hard you are working. If your average speed is high, you’re probably not riding at low intensity.
For cycling to be low intensity, you’ll most likely need to keep your average speed lower than a typical workout. Again, however, this is terrain-dependent.
A very hilly route will naturally have a lower average speed than a flatter, easier route.
Regardless, if you’re trying to stick to a low-intensity cycling workout, keep the speed on the low end for the particular terrain you are riding.
If you are working at a low intensity, you’ll want to keep an eye on your cadence. Cadence is the number of rotations your pedal goes around each minute.
Although cadence varies from person to person, many experts believe that the most efficient cadence is around 90 spins per minute.
If you are riding on the road, your cadence will naturally drop when the difficulty of the terrain increases. The harder it is to turn over the pedals, the slower your legs will want to turn.
Conversely, when it gets tough to turn the pedals, your heart rate and perceived exertion will increase. So to keep your cycling at a lower intensity, keep that cadence at a nice easy pace by dropping into an easier gear.
A low-intensity workout is one in which your legs can spin freely. You won’t be grinding or struggling to push the pedals down.
Your FTP is a measure of power that you can hold for one hour, and it is measure in watts. Riding at FTP for one hour would be a very intensive workout.
So if you are doing a low-intensity workout, you’re going to want to keep that power output well below your FTP.
According to Strava, a low-intensity workout should be done at 65% of your FTP or lower.
So, for example, if your FTP is 200, your low-intensity cycling workout would be done at 130 watts or less. To measure your watts, you either need a bike with a power meter or a smart trainer, such as the Wahoo Kickr.
7. Resting Heart Rate
One way to know if you need more low-intensity cycling workouts is by watching your resting heart rate.
An average resting heart rate is anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute when you are calm, well-rested, and relaxing.
If you are spending too much time training at high intensities, your resting heart rate will be higher than usual. You’ll need to spend some time doing easy workouts to get that resting heart rate back down.
On the other hand, if you are sick or overtired, your resting heart rate could be high, as well. In which case, you might just need a few days off the bike altogether.
8. Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability is a trickier metric to understand. It measures how quickly your heart rate can change when needed since our heart rates aren’t static.
Generally, a higher number is better than a lower one, but it varies from person to person. The idea is to get a good idea of what your average heart rate variability is.
If the number begins to drop, you need more low-intensity cycling workouts. On the other hand, if the number stays roughly the same, you’re probably getting a good balance of high and low intensity.
9. Recovery Rides
Recovery rides are easy, low-intensity rides that help your body recover from the stress of a hard workout. These should be easy, short, and fun!
You might say that a recovery ride is such a low intensity that you would be embarrassed for people to see them on your Strava.
However, if they feel hard, you’re working too much! Keep it light, keep it fun, and keep it easy.
Recovery rides will reduce inflammation, send blood to the damaged muscle tissue, and help drive nutrients to your muscles, as well.
This is great for the day after a hard race or workout to soothe your stiff muscles and get you ready for a harder workout the following day.