Achieving better fitness with a limited schedule can be difficult. To get stronger within your time constraints, you must be exacting in your methods of both training and recovery. This is the best way to make the most of your time and effort.
There is no sense in riding easy if you have only a few days per week to ride to improve your fitness. Three very hard days on the bike should get you passable fitness to get you through your local group rides. More than three very hard days on the bike could burn you out if you do not get a week of recovery every four weeks or so. A very hard day means blindingly hard, so hard that you probably want to quit, have tunnel vision or maybe even release your bowels in your chamois. If you have never tested this dark, dark place, now is the time to try it.
Set out with a plan of specific intervals for your extra hard days. This way you cannot cheat or have the power fall off by the end of the ride, or if you do cheat, you will know it was blatant. High intensity interval training has proven to be quite effective in increasing fitness with short workouts. Remember the last paragraph; you must be prepared to really slay it on the bike to make the most of these workouts. Start with small sessions once or twice a week and build up.
Without sleep, all of your hard training, all of the hours you suffered on the bike are for nought. Sleep is when you make your real gains. It is when your body compensates for the training stress you put it through and adapts to the load. It is always incredibly important, but if you are burning the candle at both ends with work, family and other obligations on top of training, quality (and large quantities) of sleep will keep you afloat in all aspects of life and let you make fitness gains.
Again, with the focused approach that is necessary when you are short on hours, your nutrition needs to be completely dialed too. You will not be doing huge volume, so you do not need large quantities of food, but you need to make sure you are getting the highest quality food. Good nutrition will fuel your workouts to the best of your ability along with fueling proper recovery.
When you are pulled in many directions, it is easy to fall into a routine of quick and dirty food. If you want those fitness gains bad enough, you will need to figure out a way to get the best nutrition possible. It will make every pedal stroke that much better and mean that much more in the long run.
Drink lots of water (with electrolytes, not purified water, whether it is distilled or reverse osmosis) to keep your blood viscous and flowing. It will deliver nutrients to your muscles more freely and keep your heart’s work to a minimum.
With limited time, sometimes a full training ride is difficult to squeeze in. On those days, cross training may be a quick way to maintain fitness that you are trying to hold onto or increase. If you can keep it cycling specific, whether it is in the weight room, skating or nordic skiing, that is great. If you have other activities that fit into your schedule, like running, that is fine too, although it will not have as much of a positive impact on your cycling musculature.
Recovery should be happening whenever you are not training, although that is probably a stretch when you have a busy life. When you are recovering, do it full on. Get your feet up, keep hydrated, eat well and keep the external stress down. An additional recovery tactic is compression gear. You can wear it when you are at work under your normal work clothes.
Do it Full-on
If your time is limited and you want to make fitness gains, everything you do has to be full-on: your riding, your sleep, your nutrition and your recovery. Make it a routine that works and you will make the most of your time.