But what happens when your fitness becomes stagnant, and you're no longer improving?
Hitting a plateau is more common than you might think, especially for beginners. Training too much in zones 3 and 4 can leave you stuck in a rut, and this can be a hard cycle to reverse. You'll have decent fitness, but improvement over time will be minimal.
If this is you, you're in luck. We asked six coaches how to help cyclists of all abilities improve their speed and fitness on the bike. Here's what they had to say:
Include Short Sprints2 of 11
Jim Castagneri, coach of the Black Sheep Junior Cycling Team in Denver, Colorado, recommends including short, powerful sprints into your weekly routine to increase top-end speed.
"I like to use shorter intervals of 30 seconds to 1 minute, each separated by an equivalent amount of rest in between," Castagneri says.
This workout will improve your ability to bridge a gap, or even create one, in a race.
Start with four sets of sprints twice a week, and you should start to see an improvement in your top-end speed and acceleration.
Attack the Hills3 of 11
Active Expert Gale Bernhardt recommends heading to the hills to improve overall speed and fitness.
"Depending on the time of season, 2- to 4-minute hill repeats will be similar to threshold intervals or aerobic capacity intervals," she says. "If you train with a power meter, the first interval is at the low end of the zone and the last interval should be at the high end of the zone."
Bernhardt says that the progression of each interval should depend on how many repeats you plan to complete. If you aren't training with a power meter, it's easy to use time to calculate your efforts instead.
If you train on a particular hill often, you should know about how much time it takes to get to the top. Pace yourself so that your last effort is faster than the first.
"These efforts are great for improving speed and mental toughness, and helping you learn how to pace yourself for high-end efforts," Bernhardt adds.
Use the Environment4 of 11
If you think that you aren't improving because you lack the latest gadgets, the truth is you don't need anything other than your bike to get faster.
Dan Kehlenbach, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-author of the book Distance Cycling, recommends using your environment to your advantage. Here are a few of his favorite workouts:
1. Tag-ups.5 of 11
If you ride with a partner, ask he or she to ride a quarter-mile ahead of you. Bridge the gap, and accelerate past your friend. When you get a quarter-mile ahead, switch and have your partner chase you. You may want to establish specific times to begin your pursuit (i.e. 30 or 45 seconds).
2. Car sprints.6 of 11
Don't worry—you're not going to sprint after cars! With this drill, establish a target (red pick-up, specific state's license plate, etc.) and, when one is encountered, call it out and sprint as fast as you can. This will help you manage unexpected sprints that occur during races.
3. Ride with faster groups.7 of 11
Don't be afraid to ask stronger riders if you can join them. Riding with stronger groups or with cyclists above your ability is one of the fastest ways to see fitness gains. Before you set off, make sure to let the other cyclists know that you're working on your speed. You may want to hang at the back of the group and minimize your time leading out. Also, don't feel obligated to complete the entire ride—sometimes spending just 10 to 20 minutes with a faster group can work wonders.
4. Embrace the headwinds.8 of 11
If you frequently ride by yourself, use headwinds to build your strength and stamina. Alternate 1 minute hard with 1 minute easy, and, as you get more comfortable with the efforts, experiment with different intervals.
Easy on the Brakes9 of 11
Jessica Kisiel, former professional mountain biker and coach at the PF Athlete, says that sometimes all it takes to get faster is mastering the basic fundamentals—an aspect of cycling that even a lot of experienced riders overlook.
Her tip? You'll go faster the less you feel the need to grip the brakes.
"Riding with your fingers positioned on the brake levers makes you more likely to pull them, which only slows you down. Keep your fingers on the handlebars instead—it'll provide you with better control, and allow you to hold higher speeds on technical roads," Kisiel recommends.
Perfecting cornering techniques and riding in the drops are two other easy ways to ride faster by simply not slowing yourself down.
Steer Clear of Zone 3 Syndrome10 of 11
"I'd say one of the most common mistakes cyclists make is that their training doesn't have enough extremes," says Liz Martin, coach at Zoom Performance. "They go the same pace all the time. To get faster, you have to ride faster! That means sometimes you have to go really hard and push yourself more than you thought possible."
Interval training is one way to pick up the pace, but increasing your hard efforts also means you need to head to the opposite end of the spectrum every once in a while. Time spent riding in zone 2 is just as important as the hard efforts, and so is the time you spend recovering.
"Be sure to include enough rest and very easy riding to allow your body time to adapt to the new stress placed on it," Martin suggests.
If done correctly, your speed will improve drastically in no time.
Practice Your Race Pace with a Group11 of 11
A major flaw in most cyclists' training plans: They train at one speed and expect to race at another. For Highland Training coach Mike Schultz, it's about closing the gap.
"Speed comes with increased endurance and the ability to spin the legs consistently fast for long periods of time," Schultz says. To get your body ready for race-day efforts, he recommends the following workout:
1. Complete 3- to 5-minute efforts of intense, race pace, seated efforts spinning at a high cadence.
2. Intersperse these efforts with 10 to 15 minutes of steady tempo spinning. Take plenty of slow, deep breaths.
3. Work as many of these efforts into a group ride as you can. Try to time efforts so that they take place on both hills and flats.
4. During the 3- to 5-minute efforts, go to the front of the group and try to gap the riders behind you.
5. For the tempo efforts, sit at the back and work on your high-cadence spinning and recovery.