Intelligent training on a budget: Zone training.
So, you're new to competitive cycling and would like to learn how to train "properly." I actually get asked quite often what type of power meter to buy and if it's worth it etc…
Step one: Understand this concept: different sustained intensity of effort on the bike (now hard you're going) stimulates different biochemical systems. Just like doing different exercises at the gym will stimulate different muscle groups.
Step two: go out and buy an inexpensive heart rate monitor
Step three: Once you get a HR monitor, you need to do this:
Find a course or climb or some steady uninterrupted terrain where you can do a 25-30min effort. Yes, a 25-30 min all-out effort. The stationary trainer will work ok, but outdoors and moving (not overheating) will give a more accurate reading. You should be well rested and prepared to give it your all.
Record your HR from 10min-on. An inexpensive HR monitor might not have a record function, so you might need to remember a few values. You can just take a sampling of it every 3-5 minutes. (for a little more $$, you can find HR monitors, or Garmins with HR monitors, that can record HR, time, speed, etc) Your average HR from the 10-25min mark is called your lactate threshold. From there, calculate your HR zones, which can now help you train for specific goals:
Threshold HR Zone
65-81 Low Intensity (zone 1)
82-88 Weight Control (zone 2)
89-93 Aerobic (zone 3)
94-102 Anaerobic (zone 4)
103-106+ Maximal (zone 5)
Zone 1: Development of economy and efficiency with very high volume, low stress work. Very long sessions (3+hrs) improve the combustion and storage of fats. Combine with Zone 2 for practical unstructured low stress rides.
Zone 2: Development of economy and efficiency with high volume, moderate stress work. An important intensity for establishing a firm base for all riders. Combine with Zone 1 for practical unstructured low stress rides
Zone 3: Development of aerobic capacity and endurance with moderate volume work at a controlled intensity. Should be done alone or in a small group to stay in zone.
Zone 4: Useful for simulating race pace, but not as effective for training for races. Sessions should be ended when the effort starts to tell.
Zone 5: Raising of anaerobic threshold, improvement of lactate clearance and adaptation to race speed. A few weeks of one or two interval sessions consisting of several efforts in 3-5 minutes in zone 5 will get most riders into decent race shape. But, this depends on how much endurance training (zone 1-3) was done in the months leading up to zone 5 training.
If you can’t remember all of your numbers off the top of your head, just write them down on a piece of paper and tape it to your stem.
If you want to take it a step farther and get metabolic testing done (commonly referred to as "VO2max testing") you can always get your zones more accurately defined that way. I've done this, and compared the HR zones derived from the test with the method above, and found it to be fairly similar: within 2-3BPM for the lower zones, and exactly the same for the threshold heart rate. Metabolic testing is very useful for other metrics as well, but as someone on a budget or new to competitive cycling, it's best to work on the basics first and keep training simple and straightforward.