Tips for urban cycling as aerobic/cardio workout?
October 21, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Tips for urban cycling as aerobic/cardio workout?

After years of doing a very boring regimen of aerobic exercise (doing sort of self-invented step aerobics in my home, after giving up on the hassle of going to the gym and doing ellipticals), I discovered, from using a heart rate monitor, that I can get a higher heart rate from biking fast than from my home exercise routine. While the home exercise regimen felt like a laborious chore, the biking is really fun! Exciting!

I've biked as my main means of transit for around 15 years, but never thought of it as a way to do a cardio workout. What I've started doing is: Three or four times a week, I put on the heart rate monitor, get on my bike, and ride fast for 20-25 min, watching my heart rate and trying to keep it in a good exercise zone. (Still trying to figure out what that is for me. I think 120-140).

I'm trying to learn more about this.

Most of the resources I've seen are for people who want to race. I don't care at all about that. I'm not an athlete and don't want to be - I just want to have a regular routine to keep my heart and lungs in okay shape. I'm a 44 year old man, six feet tall and around 220 lb (hoping to lose a little of that), with a resting heart rate in the high fifties. I'm in Toronto.

I'm looking for tips from folks on the green:

- Is this a good way to get your regular high-intensity aerobic workout? (I also walk a ton, and do a bunch of biking for transit. So I get lots of low-to-medium intensity cardio already. But my understanding is that you need a bit of the high-intensity stuff, too.)

- Are there folks here who do this?

- How much of a problem are stop lights? I notice when I stop at light, the HRM shows my heart rate plummeting surprisingly fast. Does this defeat the workout? Are there any good workarounds?

- If you do this - are there any specific tips for being safe? I worry a little that my focus on riding fast is going to increase my risk of an accident.

- Any other general tips?

- Any good resources for people who do this sort of exercise?

Thanks! Any info is much appreciated!
posted by ManInSuit to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of riding fast, just pedal fast. Ride in a low gear. I started riding a single speed in order to get a better workout on my commute.

Also, your heart rate plummeting at rest basically means your heart is very healthy. I'll leave it to others to give an opinion about whether workaround a would be helpful.
posted by The Deej at 8:21 AM on October 21, 2012

Stop lights are fine. I've lost up to 20 lb urban riding. Stop, start, stop, start. I feel (no evidence) that blasting off then stopping like that is like mega-interval training, which increases aerobic capacity. There are a couple long flat-ish stretches of road where I can both keep up physically with traffic, and keep up *mentally* - by which I mean, I wind up near the same cars, so they're likely to notice me.

Safety? Even in nice weather, wear reflective bits. Get some polarized sunglasses; they cut down on glare so *you* can know what's going on. A mirror is a must. Keep an insurance card on your person just in case.
posted by notsnot at 8:21 AM on October 21, 2012

I don't recommend using a commute for a specific workout. Paying attention to lights, cars, and other road users should be your first priority. Just ride and the fitness will follow. If you are on a less busy section of road, open it up, but please don't focus on your heart rate monitor. (Longtime bike commuter and bike racer here.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:23 AM on October 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for these responses! To clarify a couple of things:

1) The cardio workout I'm talking about is distinct from my regular biking for transit. When riding to get from A to B, I still do it as I always have, at a medium pace, without a HRM. What I'm doing now is taking some time every other day or so to get on my bike and really work at riding fast/hard. When I do that, I try to get onto roads where I can do that easily (low traffic, long stretches without stops, etc) and I'm focused just on the exercise.

2) My main goal on these high-intenisity rides isn't losing weight or burning calories. I know they help for that, but so, I think, do the many more miles I walk and bike each week at lower intensity. My understanding is that, in addition to the sort of low-to-medium intensity exercise that is great to burning calories, it's also good to have some higher intensity exercise specifically to build cardiovascular health. This fast riding is meant to do that.
posted by ManInSuit at 8:39 AM on October 21, 2012

One of the reasons that bike racers (and other endurance athletes) do interval training is because you can clock more time at higher intensities (meaning at or above your anaerobic threshold) in pieces than you can in one sustained effort. So I wouldn't write off the racing workouts just yet. To meet the requirement that you can do this from your home in an urban environment, I am going to suggest hill repeats. If you can find a longish hill (say, more than two minutes long for you), you might try six to eight repeats of that with a couple minute rest between. Ideally, the climb is one side of a short loop.
posted by kovacs at 9:01 AM on October 21, 2012

As far as cardio goes, I find climbing hills a lot easier than finding a spot where I can ride uniterrupted by stop lights.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:03 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Make sure that you have a good bike fit, and that you are usually pedaling with a cadence of 80-90 rpm. I also recommend using pedals that you can clip into, for a more efficient pedal stroke, one which uses both the up and down stroke.

Interval training should come only after you have established a solid base of low intensity cardio fitness. So if, for example, you are going to do hill repeats, make sure you can ride up the hill at a slow, steady pace.

A heart rate of 120-140 sounds low. Can you maintain this for several minutes? Could you have a conversation at this pace? If so, you will need to go harder to realize cardio interval benefits.

Just remember that riding hard will always feel hard. As you get fitter, you will get faster.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 9:29 AM on October 21, 2012

Hills. It’s all about hills for me.
posted by bongo_x at 10:22 AM on October 21, 2012

I trained for Killington by doing intervals - find a bike path and just ride like the wind, then cool down, then repeat - and taking on uphills, where a long hill mattered more than a very steep one. It did wonders for my cardio.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:46 AM on October 21, 2012

Try some low-traffic hilly roads. Start by just trying to get up the hill in one attempt. You may be slow, or you may need to actually stop once or twice, rest until you feel ready again, then try again. Never walk your bike up a hill again.

Once you're comfortable with going up hills, even if it's dreadfully slow, try interval work once or twice a week in addition to longer, faster rides.

For example, Poplar Plains Road near Davenport and Dupont is a one way street going north. There are a few cross streets, but approaching traffic is rare and you will be going slowly enough to stop if you need to. You can make a neat circuit by going north on PPR, turning left on Clarendon, going "Wheee!" down Russell Hill Drive, then Boulton, then up PPR again.

If you want longer rides with fewer red lights, you might try hooking your bike onto the rack at the front of any bus headed toward the 905, getting off at Steeles, and riding north. I have found Jane north of Steeles to be pretty congenial: riding north past the 407 is a nothing burger, although coming south during rush hour can be more of a challenge, and if you're not used to dealing with on ramps, you may want to try the sidewalk for that stretch.

I've also ridden long distances out west to Oakville and Burlington from the Junction: once you get west of Etobicoke, the trails are generally open and the roads have fewer cross streets and red lights.
posted by maudlin at 12:26 PM on October 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all! I didn't really know about interval training. I think I'd always thought that the way to exercise your heart is to get it up to a pretty high rate for 20-25 minutes. I think that's what they taught people when I was a kid. Sounds like nowadays the idea is more (or additionally?) to get your heart rate *really* high for shorter periods. I'd thought interval training was just for competitive athletes, but it seems like they're now recommending it for general fitness. Who knew? (Everyone except me, it looks like).
posted by ManInSuit at 7:00 AM on October 23, 2012

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