Four steps to cycling fitness

For the uninitiated, improving cycling fitness might seem like a foreign language. Are you pedalling at the optimum cadence? Should you be doing interval training to increase your VO2 max? Richard Peace takes you through the gear changes

Mountain biker rides up a hill at sunset. This one is in Arizona, just west of Tucson.

Photo: Alamy

Improving basic fitness on a bike is easy for the relatively unfit: simply get out on a bike as much as you can. At the most basic level it’s about spending plenty of time in the saddle, being comfortable and enjoying it. The more challenging the terrain or the weather (if it’s windy, for instance) and the harder you push yourself, the more energy you will expend.

Cycling will give you the all-important cardiovascular exercise that the urban, 21st-century lifestyle so often lacks, and can also help build muscle strength and endurance as well as improve all-round physical and mental wellbeing. Combined with a balanced diet, you could be well on the way to a healthy lifestyle.

Step 1. Know what you are aiming for

Before getting immersed in the technical language of cycle fitness, it’s best to have an idea of why you want to improve fitness. Just to feel better and be healthier? To set yourself a goal and achieve it? To compete with others? Interested in the technical aspects of getting fitter?

Improving basic fitness on a bike is easy for the relatively unfit: simply get out on a bike as much as you can. At the most basic level it’s about spending plenty of time in the saddle, being comfortable and enjoying it. The more challenging the terrain or the weather (if it’s windy, for instance) and the harder you push yourself, the more energy you will expend.

Cycling will give you the all-important cardiovascular exercise that the urban, 21st-century lifestyle so often lacks, and can also help build muscle strength and endurance as well as improve all-round physical and mental wellbeing. Combined with a balanced diet, you could be well on the way to a healthy lifestyle.

Step 2. Know the basics

If you are serious about improving your cycling fitness, some knowledge of the principles of bike fitness and general fitness will go a long way:

  • don’t confuse fitness and speed – speed on a bike is a combination of fitness and having a well set-up bike combined with the right riding technique. There’s little point cancelling out hard-earned speed from fitness with a poorly maintained bike or wrong gear selection, so learn a little about the other two areas as well
  • riding a minimum of three times a week is a good rule of thumb for increasing basic fitness
  • eat a balanced diet and think about trying to lose some weight (you’ll be fitter and quicker up the hills, too)
  • learn the three basics of riding to get fitter and practice them– overload, progression and recovery. In short, push yourself a little beyond your limits (overload), keep repeating this as you get fitter and can physically push yourself more (progression) and allow recovery time in proportion to the intensity you have been riding at. Don’t be mystified by names of different training regimes such as Fartlek or interval training – they all follow these three basic principles.
  • stretch before and after to help avoid injuries. This is important, as bike-riding involves being in a fixed position, often for long periods. Alternatively, look at another sport that involves a wide range of movement, such as swimming. A correctly set-up bike is also important to avoid potential injury and strains
  • mix it up. Combine sociable group riding with your own fitness plan and holiday challenges. Having a suitable plan, however basic, and sticking to it is the key to getting fitter, but can feel like a chore if pursued in isolation. Group events such as sportives are popular and fun events that let you measure yourself competitively if you wish (all riders are timed with results published), but with the focus on a mix of abilities and sociability. Gadget obsessives may enjoy competing with others using a GPS device and Strava software

Downhill by bike on a street in Ireland

Photo: Alamy

Step 3. Utilise technology

There’s no doubt that once you reach a really good level of fitness, further improvements can be more difficult to achieve and to define. Some riders are great at sprinting, some at hill-climbing and some at riding long distances, perhaps around a flat velodrome track. Rarely are people good at all three.

Today’s cycle technology can be wonderful at improving fitness, but only if used correctly. Here’s the what and the why:

  • heart-rate monitors allow you to exercise at the correct intensity for the correct amount of time. They also allow you to map out training zones, where you need to know your resting heart rate and its maximum, meaning you can spend time cycling at various heart rates in between. Your heart is your cycling motor – get it in good condition and everything else follows 
  • power meters have been used by elite cyclists for quite a while, and they are now beginning to trickle down to the general cycling public. They measure your power output at the pedal cranks in watts, but as this article explains, as with heart-rate monitors, it is important to know what you are measuring and why
  • there is no need to use any technology if you don’t feel it will help you achieve your aims or you don’t enjoy it

Step 4. Consider a coach

If you have specific goals for your cycling fitness – maybe winning a local time trial or bagging a number of Alpine passes – a coach could be very useful in outlining what specific things could help if you’re time-poor – or if you just want specific advice for a long touring holiday, advice from a suitable coach can reap dividends.

Professional coach Ruth Eyles offers coaching to all abilities of cyclist. Here is her list of basic dos and don’ts:

  • do try to ride regularly: ‘Little and often’ is a really good mantra, but also make sure you do a good long ride once a week
  • do push yourself to ride briskly at least sometimes – pottering along gently all the time will only make you good at pottering along gently. You need to raise your heart rate, breathe a bit harder and get a bit warmer occasionally if you want to see progress
  • do look for easy ways to ride regularly that work for you and that you enjoy. If your commitments and lifestyle make road riding impossible, then consider a turbo trainer, which is a piece of equipment that makes it possible to ride your bicycle while it remains stationary, which can make it much easier to jump on it regularly
  • do find a challenging ride or enter an event to motivate you to get fitter
  • don’t be too daunted about increasing the distances you ride. Increasing running distances can be dangerous because of the damage that running does to your body, but cycling is not like that. If you ride at a moderate pace and maintain your energy levels by eating regularly, you can ride a long way. Just keep going!

Richard Peace is a regular contributor to Cyclists Touring Club magazine and Cycle magazine

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