How can I build cycling endurance?
August 12, 2015 5:00 PM   Subscribe

This is a cycling and fitness question. Three years ago some punk stole my cheap but lightweight yard-sale-bike and I replaced it with a new Trek 7100 hybrid. It's kind of lumbering and heavy but I like it. Last week I started a class on Mondays that's 4.5 miles from where I live. The ride is 99% flat but nearly killed me last week and this week, too. Help!

I'm not in terrible shape but I'm not in great shape, either. Some background about me: I'm a 125-pound, 5'5" woman turning 59 soon. I have ADD so I tend to forget to eat at regular times. I take meds for that and my underactive thyroid. A couple of years ago a nurse told me that unlike most of America, I wasn't eating enough protein. (My diet hasn't changed much since then.) My boyfriend, who rides 30 to 50 miles twice a week on one of his three custom bikes, insists that I just need a better bike that would be lighter and easier to ride. I think I need to build up more endurance. Cause I love riding, I love my bike, I just don't want to be so fucking exhausted that a 4.5-mile ride to my class, a 2-hour stint in class, and then a 4.5-mile ride home means that I'm comatose between Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning. Advice, please!
posted by Bella Donna to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is the class accessible by bus? You could ride there then bus back for a couple weeks (or vice versa, if its more comfortable to ride later in the day.) and build up your stamina a little bit. I can't stand being sweaty when I arrive at work so sometimes I'll guiltily take the bus to work then ride back.

You could also see about storing class stuff at the class location so you don't have to cart it around. I found that when I switched to a pannier instead of a backpack I felt better and sweat less.

You could also leave earlier and stop for a rest in the middle- stopping at a nice park (or whatever may be available) in the middle of a ride makes it feel less like commuting and more like leisure. I have trouble motivating myself to ride and so I try to take it easy, not push myself, explore and generally relax. If you have to luxury of time you should enjoy it. You may get home later but you'll have a better time.
posted by kittensofthenight at 5:10 PM on August 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

When you're going distances of 4.5 miles (each way), a Trek 7100 hybrid is perfectly sufficient. The only reason the bike would be holding you back now is if there's something mechanically wrong with the bike (for instance, brakes rubbing against the wheel causing you to have to exert more force to get going) which should be both easily noticed and easily fixed by any bike mechanic.

I started cycling as an morbidly obese person who had never had any experience with any sort of exercise. When I started, I would drive to a nearby park, ride 2.5 miles around the park, then drive home. It took me several iterations of that to switch to driving to about 1.5 miles to the park, riding 1.5 miles to the park, taking a short rest, riding halfway around the park, taking a long rest, riding another halfway around the park, taking a short rest, then riding 1.5 miles back to my car. It took me several iterations of that before I could ride to the park and back. It took me several iterations of that before I could ride to the park and ride around the park and ride back.

To make a long story short, it took me a good six months before I could consistently ride even 4.5 miles twice a day as you are suggesting.

Your mileage may vary (pun intended).

For what it's worth, two years later, I finished a single day double-century (200 mile) ride.
posted by saeculorum at 5:11 PM on August 12, 2015 [35 favorites]

(saeculorum thats awesome)

I didn't even think about cars. You could have your BF drive you there or pick you up, or some version of that. Nothing to be feeling weird about, although if you're like me it will make you feel pretty self conscious.
posted by kittensofthenight at 5:14 PM on August 12, 2015

Are you eating before the ride, and bringing water and drinking along the way? I ride a good deal but even though I have decent biking legs, if I don't eat enough or drink enough (especially in hot summer weather) even a short ride can be surprisingly rough.
posted by enn at 5:22 PM on August 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

you're right (you need endurance, not a better bike). just ride it more - go out for rides on other days (less distance if you like - just find something you enjoy). you'll soon get better.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:22 PM on August 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

How's your tire pressure? Consider going to high pressure slicks (over 100 psi). This will make a big difference in rolling resistance.

Also, keep riding and it will get easier.
posted by ryanrs at 5:26 PM on August 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Is it the 99% flat part that's wiping you out, or the hilly part? 'Cause you can walk up the hill or walk partway up the hill. Nobody's going to judge you. And you don't have to sprint on the flat parts, either.
posted by leahwrenn at 5:28 PM on August 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you have a bike trainer (e.g.), you could try something like the Beginner Level Iron Girl 1.0 video.
posted by bentley at 5:29 PM on August 12, 2015

You definitely don't need a new bike for that ride. I agree that this will get easier with more miles ridden - go out and enjoy some leisure rides when you're not under any obligation to get somewhere.

One thing I notice with newer riders is oftentimes they won't pedal fast enough. If the bike is in too high a gear, it's fatiguing and can also cause joint pain. Try spinning the pedals faster in a lower gear (I think you're looking for around 60-80 cycles per minute); you should feel some resistance throughout the whole pedal stroke but not too much.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:48 PM on August 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Seconding ryanrs on the tires; just inflating the ones you've got to the maximum recommended PSI printed on the side can make a huge difference, and if they're big knobby mountain tires changing them out for some skinnier street tires (maybe $60 for a pair) will also be a big help. I get that you want to build endurance and make that 5 mile ride seem easy, but since the distance is fixed one way to ease into it is to make the bike more efficient. (Also, does it have front suspension? Lock it out!)

I regularly do a 30 mile ride on an old hybrid-style bike I've had since 1993, but it's in good tune with skinny smooth tires. I don't think I'd attempt it with the kind of tires that came with the bike.
posted by contraption at 6:21 PM on August 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree that your bike is perfectly fine, because you like it, and it makes you want to ride. Riding more is one key to endurance. A lighter bike might give you a minor edge, but will be negligible when you discover just how much potential your own Human Machine has.

Cycling endurance is built gradually and methodically. I lived this over the past two years, when I went from "20 miles, are you kidding me?" to "Seattle to Portland or bust!" I rode a heavy-ass steel bike from 1983 (probably 30lbs fully loaded) and it made me stronger, while raising eyebrows of all those riders I passed on carbon fiber struggling to get up the steep hills.

You'll want to learn about glycogen stores, which are like money in the muscle bank. Find a training group and use social pressure to stick to it. I can also say that tripling my (previously paltry) protein intake did *wonders* for my strength, and eventually endurance. I noticed a difference almost immediately after increasing the protein for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I could ride for longer without feeling weak. After every strenuous ride, be sure to have a good recovery meal or snack. No need to eat much protein during rides. Plenty of water post ride also means a faster recovery.

Another thing to consider: You may need to overtrain to feel comfortable doing your "normal" distance. For example, if you start doing training rides of 15 miles, and do this about 5 times, your 4.5 mile commute to class is going to be a breeze by comparison. Good luck!
posted by oxisos at 6:25 PM on August 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Adding to the chorus - assuming your bike is well maintained it is fine for a shortish distance, flat ride. ABC - Air, Brakes, Chain - if all 3 are in good order, that bike should be perfectly serviceable for your needs.

FWIW, many people find flat rides exhausting because there is no happy downhill to rest. It's continuous pedal, pedal, pedal which is sort of a grind. If you have a spin trainer or access to a gym bike, go and pedal continuously with light tension for as long as you can (or 15 minutes longer than your normal riding time - whichever comes first.) Keep doing that and you'll build your endurance.
posted by 26.2 at 6:51 PM on August 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Agreed on faster pedaling cadence, higher tire pressure, and I'd also add making sure you've got your bike adjusted to fit you properly. You'll wear out a lot faster and have a harder time pedaling if you've got the saddle too low for proper leg extension, for example.

But mostly, just be patient with yourself. Try to fit in shorter rides at more frequent intervals -- take your bike out for a few blocks at least every couple of days. Maybe not even enough to get tired! Just to have some fun and get your body used to it (and enjoy your spiffy new bike!)

Also, if you're carrying stuff to class with you, your bike has mount points for both front and rear racks. Consider getting a rack, and one or more bags or baskets to put on it. In my experience it's much easier to ride when whatever I'm carrying isn't on my back. Plus I can haul a lot more stuff comfortably, making my bike a lot more useful.

And yeah, you kinda have to eat to have energy to do stuff. Set some mealtime alarms or something! Keep some healthy easy-to-eat-when-already-hungry (or for when you're not hungry and you think you should be) stuff around.
posted by asperity at 6:58 PM on August 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

How low is your seat? I see people all the time huffing and puffing on the bike trail by my house and most of the time those struggling the most have their saddles way too low so they are expending far more energy than they need to.
posted by cecic at 7:35 PM on August 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

All the advice so far is pretty much correct, but don't feel like not following it 100% will make you somehow fail.

What worked best for me was patience, and riding. Don't obsess over your speed; take as long as you need to get where you're going. High cadence is ideal, but honestly a lot of new riders don't have the aerobic fitness for it. Use your gears to make the pedaling as easy as possible, and let your legs go whatever speed they want. Your cadence will come with time as long as you recognize that higher is better, but let it come.

Walking uphill is fine. Taking a break halfway is fine. Taking more breaks is fine. Just stick with it, and your endurance will come, and it will come soon. As will speed.

I bet if you take things easy, but get out there 3 or 4 days a week, in a month you will be stunned how NOT a big deal your commute is, and you will be looking for reasons to just get out there and ride. And if it isn't a month, it'll be two months. But it will happen soon. In a year you will be passing people on fancy bikes in Lycra.
posted by Opposite George at 7:47 PM on August 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is odd. You shouldn't be so wiped out. Is this the first time you've been a student for awhile? Because concentrating for two hours without a break is also exhausting if you aren't used to it. Do you have snacks with you? If not, take and eat snacks. Your brain may be using up all your sugar in class.
posted by kjs4 at 8:26 PM on August 12, 2015

Are you breathing hard when you ride? Is your heart beating fast? Are you sweating a lot? Maybe you are pushing yourself too hard. Try slowing down and taking it really easy. 4.5 miles is not far and even biking very slowly should get you there in less than 45 minutes. If you can't bike a mostly flat 4.5mi route in 45 minutes without feeling exhausted, I would suggest you might want to consult a doctor and look at your fitness level, your diet, etc.

Also seconding that you should check your seat height. Your knee should be just slightly bent when your pedal is at its lowest point. And nthing that tire pressure makes a big difference.
posted by ssg at 8:47 PM on August 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a mountain bike, and it took me a while to feel like 4+miles was super easy. Now I do it no problem. I used to always remind myself that it was ok to take the bus part of the way if I got tired.

As others have mentioned, definitely check fit: seat, breaks and all such make a big difference. If you bought it from a bike shop, they can help. That your gears are all properly oiled also helps.

Be easy on yourself! Yes, a lighter bike is easier, but your current bike sounds like a good one. You'll just be getting more of a work out.
posted by troytroy at 2:00 AM on August 13, 2015

Two sets of suggestions:

1) Bike specific suggestions: Check out the things other people have suggested about the bike - especially tyre pressure & making sure nothing is rubbing & slowing down the wheels. If you can pick one end of the bike up, spin the wheel with your other hand and watch that wheel spin happily away for a significant amount of time without stopping then you’re fine. If it slows down & stops within a few revolutions then something is rubbing somewhere & sapping the energy from your bike. Is your saddle high / low enough? A misplaced saddle makes riding a much more tiring experience than it otherwise would be.

2) Physcial suggestions: Just go slower until your body is used to this new level of exertion. Eat something in between & make sure you get enough protein.

From your post, you’ve done this round trip twice, on successive Mondays & each time the experience has wiped you out. Your body *will* get used to it, but it does take time & two repetitions a week apart just isn’t enough. I suspect that if you go slower, you’ll find that it’s less exhausting & you’ll make it there and back without feeling exhausted the next day. Do try and up your protein intake (eggs!) - your body will struggle to build the muscle required to meet the demands your putting on it if you don’t feed it the raw materials it requires.

Best of luck! Cycling is great :)
posted by pharm at 7:15 AM on August 13, 2015

To best build endurance, make sure that you're not really wiping yourself out too much. If you're not in great shape, even if you think you're taking it slow, you might be getting your heart rate up too high, and just wearing your body down instead of challenging it to build up.

I suspect that you don't want to get a heart rate monitor (but hey, if you have an apple watch, or similar device bonus!), but you could take your pulse where convenient (at a stop light, top of a hill, end of the journey) for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to see where you sit. An approximation of where your heart rate should be is the Maffetone Method. Given your age, and that you're starting to get fit, your number would be 116. Which means if your heart rate is over 116 you might be over training. If your heart rate is under 106 you might not be training hard enough to really help with your endurance.

You really should raise your protein if you want to build up your body; especially given your age. It's recommended that the average person should have 0.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight, and that is for a sedentary lifestyle. Aim for at least 1 gram per kg, so at least 56gram of protein. (If you're healthy, up to 1.9g/kg of protein health hasn't shown negative effects on kidney function (cite))

Beyond that, I N'th the above advice of 90 revolutions of your pedals per minute (both pedals; so 180 strides per minute), make sure your saddle is high enough, and practice will increase your endurance.
posted by nobeagle at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2015

DON'T inflate your tires to the max printed on the sidewall! Unless you are a racer or if your tires flatten significantly when you get on the bike it will have little to no effect on your effort or speed. It WILL make your ride much more uncomfortable!
posted by TDIpod at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2015

Wow, this is all really great advice. Everyone brought helpful tips to the party. I'd like to mark every one of them as the best answer but that's not kosher. Just know that you are all the best as far as I'm convened. Thank you so much for the thoughtful responses.

Last night I made myself a protein-rich 7-day meal plan (which is so not me!) and actually ate well this morning. I'm aiming for 55-to 60 grams of protein every day.

My bike seat keeps slipping down and I forget to adjust it. So yes, that's probably a problem and will fix that.

Heart rate too high? That seems likely. I've been slamming (for me) because I am slow. Google thinks I should be doing that 4.5 miles in 37 minutes and it's taking me 45 and I'm still sweaty and stressed and wild-eyed when I get there because I'm so worried about being late. So I will give myself more time to get to class.

It hadn't occurred to me that the brain power and emotional/mental reserves I'm using in class may also be a factor.

As for more riding, it's 8 miles to a movie theatre I like, so I'll do that every other week (very slowly) with much shorter rides a couple times a week. That's the plan, anyway, and I couldn't have come up with it without your collective wisdom. Thanks again!
posted by Bella Donna at 11:18 AM on August 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks, TDIpod. Do I understand correctly that I should keep my tires well-inflated inflated, just not to the max?
posted by Bella Donna at 11:20 AM on August 13, 2015

if your seat is slipping down then you need to tighten the fastening. when the lever is "open" (so you can move the seat up and down), have a close look at the mechanism and you'll see that the lever is fastened to a short rod, and that there's a nut on the other end of the rod. turning that nut slightly will make it so that the lever is easier or harder to close (depending on which way you turn the nut). you want it to be a bit harder to close, so it's holding the seatpost a bit tighter.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:27 AM on August 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Assuming you're using the stock tires, yours are much wider than any of the ones in that link about inflation. I'd still suggest inflating to max since you'll be losing a bit when you take off the pump anyway, and tubes lose air over time (you probably want to top it off weekly or so). YMMV, and it's an easy and harmless thing to experiment with to find the point at which you're most comfortable. Just don't under-inflate too much or you'll risk pinch flats!
posted by asperity at 11:29 AM on August 13, 2015

If you can squeeze the tyre between your fingers & thumb then it’s probably too soft. Beyond a certain point making the tyre harder just makes the ride worse without improving rolling resistance (in fact it makes it slightly worse). You still want the tyres to feel “hard” though for on-road riding in my experience - I usually run around 5 bar on my commuter bike, but 4 bar is perfectly fine.

Tightening up the seat post at the right height will also make a big difference - you really are *much* more efficient at cycling if the seat is correctly positioned!

Maybe try giving yourself an hour to cycle there next Monday? Google’s cycle times are for regular cyclists, so may not be appropriate for you (yet!).

Good luck & I promise it will get easier :)
posted by pharm at 11:34 AM on August 13, 2015

If your saddle is slipping down while you're riding the bike, that's a potentially dangerous situation - definitely fix that immediately. You don't want to hit a bump and have the seat post collapse under you while you're in traffic.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:54 AM on August 13, 2015

There is no reason to inflate the tires over 100psi; for 700x35 tires and your weight you can safely and comfortably ride at less that 90psi. Thin tires generally run at higher pressure and I ride at about 95psi on 700x25 tires and a weight of 175lbs.
Asperity is incorrect- when you remove the pump from the valve the air you hear escaping is coming from the pump tube, not the tires. It is true that they will slowly lose pressure over time.
posted by TDIpod at 12:23 PM on August 13, 2015

If your seat keeps slipping, you may have seat (um, pipe thingy) that's the wrong size. I bought a brand new bike and was frustrated with a seat that wouldn't stay up (and figured it was my large frame that was the issue) so I didn't think much of it.

I took it to a repair shop to get a tune-up and mentioned it to the owner. He looked and said that the seat was the wrong size and was able to install a shim to thicken it. It's now no longer a problem and makes me want to ride more.
posted by Twicketface at 1:07 PM on August 13, 2015

90psi = 6.2 bar. Ouch.

TDI is right - you don’t need to run your tyres *that* hard. 5 bar (72psi) would be fine.

(Twicketface: seatpost is the word you’re looking for.)
posted by pharm at 2:17 PM on August 13, 2015

Seconding TDIpod: Do NOT inflate your tires to the maximum pressure! That's a recipe for a very uncomfortable ride. The linked article gives you a starting point: your tires should drop by about 15% of their total height (distance from the rim to the ground) when you get on your bike. That's the sweet spot for balancing rolling resistance and pneumatic suspension. More recent tests by the author of that article have found that pressure has almost no effect on speed; the quality of the tires (in particular, how supple their casing is) is the most important factor. As long as your tires are sufficiently inflated that you don't get pinch flats from the tire bottoming out on the rim, you're OK.

Many cyclists think that highly inflated tires feel faster, but that is a misleading subjective impression, due to associating road vibration with speed.

If your seat post is slipping, it may be that it's slightly too narrow, in which case a shim would help, or it might be that your quick release isn't adjusted tightly enough. You can have a shop mechanic take a look.

I would advise having a mechanic take a look; if you're going 4.5 miles in 45 minutes, that's 6 mph, which is quite slow on a bicycle on flat ground. It should require 15 watts of power (with no wind), which is much less than walking at a normal pace. If you can walk for 45 minutes without exhausting yourself, you should be able to bike that long too, once your muscles adapt.

If you haven't had your bike tuned up recently, that would be a good idea. It's possible that a brake is rubbing or that the bearings in one of the hubs aren't turning smoothly. (My mother-in-law once rode up a mountain with a stuck brake; her husband insisted at the time that nothing was wrong with the bike...they are still married but she'll never let him forget that!) It's also possible that what looks like flat terrain really isn't; false flats can slow you down quite a bit. Wind, too, makes a huge difference; at that speed, heading into a 10 mph headwind more than triples the energy you need. Getting the saddle height correct and pedaling in an easy gear at a high cadence will also require less effort than riding with the saddle too low and "mashing" in a low gear.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Consider a fitting at a local bike shop? Some adjustments made a world of difference for me, between aerobic exhaustion to being fairly comfortable on my commute.
posted by SakuraK at 12:02 AM on August 15, 2015

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