Getting the most workout value from cycling
April 3, 2007 10:24 AM   Subscribe

How can I get the most out of cycling, in regards to a workout? I'm a real newbie.

During the past couple of weeks I've started pedalling my Trek mountain bike around town. There's some rolling hills here, so it's given me a bit of a workout. I do a moderate pace for 35 minutes every 2 or 3 days.

My main intent is to lose weight and regain my daily mental focus.

I'm wondering if there are any tips for getting the best "workout" value. Should I bother keeping track of heart rate? Should I shoot for a certain pedalling cadence? (Isn't there a rule of thumb on pedal strokes per minute that tells what gear you should be in?) Or should I just pedal faster if I notice I'm not breathing fast enough?

I know there are sites on the Internet that have tips, but most are designed for seasoned cyclists, and I want a personal MeFi perspective anyway.

Also a dumb question -- when I'm going faster than 15 mph or so I get this irrational fear that the front tire is going to come loose from the fork and I'll crash. Does a structural failure like this ever happen?
posted by rolypolyman to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
As novice, just do LSD. Not the drug, though maybe that would be good if you want the hills to give you encouragement. Actually, LSD means "Long Slow Distance." That's the first thing you need, and will build your aerobic base. Don't worry about sprinting or intervals or anything else until you've ridden at least 500 miles of LSD. Don't worry about heart rate for the moment, either, or "breathing fast enough." The fitness will come, even if you're not huffing and puffing. In fact, you should need to huff and puff for a while. And a good rule of thumb for cadence is about 90 rpm

Also a dumb question -- when I'm going faster than 15 mph or so I get this irrational fear that the front tire is going to come loose from the fork and I'll crash. Does a structural failure like this ever happen?

No. As long as your bike is in good working condition, this will not happen. But take care of your bike. Get it serviced once or twice a year, and learn how to do things like change the tubes and tighten the bolts and nuts.
posted by The Michael The at 10:32 AM on April 3, 2007

get yourself a bike computer. you can pick them up pretty cheaply at a department store. it's easy to track your progress, and give a good reference point.

as for your front tire falling off, that's not likely. what is likely is that you will blow out a front tire, which could be pretty rough. make sure your front tire is in the best condition--replace it if it shows any kind of wear. (putting it on the back is ok, but put the new one on the front). in my 30+ years of riding, i have never had a front tire go, but i did lose a back tire once.

and wear a helmet.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 10:40 AM on April 3, 2007

I spent a year subscribed to Bicycling magazine, and picked up a good book on bike maintenance and another on tips and tricks for cycling on busy roads. This helped me feel safer on the bike. I knew what to check before every ride in order to make sure that the chance of a catastrophic failure was minimized. In general bikes are very safe but I always felt better after I learned a 30 second 'preflight' to do to make sure the bike was not going to kill me. Feeling safer on the bike allowed me to quit thinking about safety and start thinking about exercising.

In general, my best workouts came when I did not eat beforehand and tried to keep my cadence over 60 at all times. When my heart threatened to explode out of my chest I would just downshift a little bit. I did find the cadence meter helpful, largely as something to focus on to take my mind off the physical discomfort of exercising; the heartrate monitor was not particularly useful.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:43 AM on April 3, 2007

The most bang for buck, workout wise, is indeed LSD but the S should stand for 'steady' not 'slow'. What road cyclists consider 'slow' is what you or I would consider 'pretty f'n fast'.

The key is to get into the aerobic zone, which is where you are exercising with moderate effort but you are not getting out of breath. You should be able to carry on a conversation, for example. Get into this zone and stay there.

The biggest tips I have for cycling workouts are:

1. Warm up. Do at least 10 minutes of easy cycling before you start to step on the gas.

2. Cycle longer. Minimum 30 minutes. An hour is better.

3. Pedal faster. Use you gears to increase the 'cadence' of your legs, and keep it steady. Most experienced cyclists have a cadence of about 80 rpm or better and use the gears to keep it there when going up or down hill. The advantage of this is that your legs don't get tired out on long rides and you don't run out of gas as fast as if you mash the pedals at a slow cadence.

4. Get a cheap bike computer and monitor your average speed on a ride. Many roadies try to stay above 15 mph but this is quite hard. Anything above 12 mph is going to be a workout.

5. Cycle every other day.

6. Alternate harder shorter rides with easier longer rides.

7. Once you start getting fitter, you can have some fun with simple interval training, what the Swedes call 'Fartlek' or 'speed play'. All this means is that when you're cycling along and feeling good, you do a 1-minute sprint to see just how fast you can go, then rest, and so on

8. Look forward to hills. One of the best ways of tracking your progress is monitoring how you do on a particular hill. You'll find that a hill which you have to walk, or crawl up in the granny gear, will be a middle gear hill six weeks later.

9. For a different kind of workout, try some trail riding. Warning: this can be pretty addictive.

10. Hydrate. Buy a cheap camelback or a good, big waterbottle and USE IT. Water is fine, no need for exotic drinks.

11. Take bananas or granola bars with you and eat them when you start to bonk (lose energy after an hour or so of effort).

12. Helmet helmet helmet.

13. Consider buying a set of 'clipless' pedals (confusingly, these are pedals which you clip into). You can find ones which are regular ('platform') pedals on one side and have clips on the other. Combined with cycling shoes these make a massive difference to the workout since you use your legs on the upstroke as well as the downstroke.

14. Watch your back. Consider buying a set of cheap dumbells and doing some core exercises to keep your upper body strong.

15. Have fun.

16. Listen to your body.
posted by unSane at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2007 [6 favorites]

when I'm going faster than 15 mph or so I get this irrational fear that the front tire is going to come loose from the fork and I'll crash. Does a structural failure like this ever happen?

Learn basic bike maintenance, REI has a basic class that costs $20, many small stores would be willing to show you how to do a quick once over, or ask a knowledgeable friend. You'll learn how to check to see if the front wheel is secure among many other things, which should alleviate the fear. It's never a bad idea to give your bike a 30 second once over before you head out.

Incidentally, this is why you don't buy bikes from Walmart.
posted by hindmost at 10:59 AM on April 3, 2007

Also a dumb question -- when I'm going faster than 15 mph or so I get this irrational fear that the front tire is going to come loose from the fork and I'll crash. Does a structural failure like this ever happen?

Many forks now have so-called 'lawyer slots' on them. These are grooves in the dropouts where the wheel goes so that if the bolts of quick releases come loose, the wheel won't just drop out. You actually have to slack the bolts WAY off before the wheel comes out.

There is one circumstance where a front wheel can potentially pop out of a fork, and that is when you are using a front disc brake that is too big for the fork/axle combo. Hitting the front brake causes a twisting force on the wheel which can literally pop it out of the dropouts. The lawyer slots (described above) are designed to prevent this.

However unless you have deliberately upgraded a front disc brake to something too big, this shouldn't be an issue.

Front wheels may collapse if you jump off tall curbs or other drops on a bike not intended for that kind of thing.

The key is to (a) check your axle bolts or quick releases for tightness each ride, (b) check for loose spokes each ride and (c) check for tire damage, especially wall tears, each ride.
posted by unSane at 11:03 AM on April 3, 2007

Get Lennard Zinn's books if you have any inclination at all to do the mechanicals yourself. A lot of unSane's advice is good, especially point #3: keep your cadence between 80-100 - grinding away in a low gear doesn't make you stronger, it just trashes your knees. High RPMs in high gears helps your strength.

Also point #11 (eat every hour, or have a little drink of energy drink every 15 minutes == 20-32oz/hour if possible), and #13 - clips refer to the toe clips you'll still see on some road and even some track pedals (people are starting to use both mechanisms there these days). The first Cinelli clipless pedals made you actually clip in and out manually, which.. sucked.
posted by kcm at 11:08 AM on April 3, 2007

Here's part of that personal MeFi perspective that I imagine you were wanting: a voice of distention. :)

My advice is to avoid trying to compete with yourself and measure your progress in times and speeds, etc., but to rather just ride your bike around town in your plain clothes, as it fits into your everyday life. Bike to work or to the bus stop if you work too far away. Bike to the store. Spend your bike budget on utility items like panniers or a cool bag instead of spandex and cyclocomputers.

Bike because it is fun and because it makes you feel good. And have fun and feel good as often as possible.
posted by 10ch at 11:09 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

unSane gives good advice.

Assuming you aren't looking to change your current riding schedule, advice like "ride LSD" is kind of off-topic. I'd say just focus on maintaining a steady cadence around 80 and have fun. You should feel winded and sweaty at the end of 35 minutes, but not wrecked. I would not bother with a bike computer unless you want to.

Learn how to shift through your gears to use them efficiently. Not all beginners get this, but it's key to efficient riding. The goal is to maintain the same cadence regardless of conditions (up to a point). You can learn your shifting pattern just by feel, or you can make a little spreadsheet.

If you are doing mostly street riding, switch your tires to slicks. Riding will be much smoother/quieter/more enjoyable, and you won't be wearing out the tread on your knobbies.

Re: front wheel. Are you feeling any vibration, or is this all in your head? If you are feeling vibration, do you frequently take off your front wheel to lock it up? If so, the cones may be loosening, which could lead to the feeling you describe. The cones should feel like they're just touching the bearings, with the nuts wrenched tight against the cones. Your options are A) regularly maintain the cones, B) use a cable with your lock to snake through the wheel, C) convert your wheels to "slow-release" skewers.

If your bike is in good repair and it's all in your head, well, I wouldn't worry about it. Structural failures can happen, but they're rare, and AFAIK, the only bikes where you can get catastrophic failures with no warning is on carbon-fiber frames (usually occurring after a crash). You could limp along for a hundred miles on a steel or aluminum bike with a cracked tube.
posted by adamrice at 11:14 AM on April 3, 2007

Don't ride to the point your legs get completely exhausted, you will end up putting too much pressure on your seat and may ding up your prostate a bit, or the nerves running through there (a friend whose will power temporarily overruled his good sense tells me his genitals were partially numb for 3 months after one too-ambitious ride on a hard leather saddle).
posted by jamjam at 11:46 AM on April 3, 2007

Get a heart rate monitor ( you can find a decent one for less than fifty bucks.) For at least two months keep your heart rate at about 75% of maximum (you can google a chart for that). This is building base and also trains your body to burn fat. After that you can do intervals, etc whilst still keeping some base riding in there.

This is how I lost my weight (albeit on a spin bike but the principles are the same.)

Working too hard too soon is COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. Also counterintuitive, I know, but this worked for me.
posted by konolia at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2007

Just ride. If you're starting out, dont over-analyze. Enjoy the hills. Just ride. Keep doing what you're doing.

If you're trying to lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn. All of the riding in the world wont take the weight off if you're not eating right. Trust me on that-email is in the profile.
posted by neilkod at 12:03 PM on April 3, 2007

I might aswell mention this plethora of information, as you'll probably be led there sooner or later. (Assuming you haven't been there already.)
posted by popcassady at 12:31 PM on April 3, 2007

konolia: Working too hard too soon is COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. Also counterintuitive, I know, but this worked for me.

This is good advice -- working too hard before your body has properly adapted to the new stresses put on it by cycling is a recipe for injury and burnout. Then you'll end up not riding at all for weeks or months while you recover. For now, just ride as much as you like and eat right, and worry about working hard once you've got a solid base of riding under your belt.

All the advice about specific workouts and heart rate monitors is excellent advice about what you should be doing once you've been riding regularly for some time. But hold off until you have been doing this for several months, especially considering that you are only newly riding regularly and only riding every couple of days.
posted by dseaton at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2007

Last question first:
I've seen riders with the front skewer completely undone riding around and not knowing any better. You're fine, and the confidence in the equipment will come with time.

Also in time: fitness. Just ride instead of drive and you'll be plenty fit in no time. Just pretend you're invisible to cars and you'll stay healthy. (No headphones!) Don't overthink it, just ride your bike.
posted by Elvis at 12:48 PM on April 3, 2007

I personally don't use a heart rate monitor and don't really look at the computer much either (in fact I use a GPS these days just so I can track where I've been, more than how fast I'm going).

What I do use is the Perceived Exertion Scale, which research seems to show is just as effective as a HRM for most purposes.

6 No exertion at all
7 Extremely light
9 Very light - (easy walking slowly at a comfortable pace)
11 Light
13 Somewhat hard (It is quite an effort; you feel tired but can continue)
15 Hard (heavy)
17 Very hard (very strenuous, and you are very fatigued)
19 Extremely hard (You can not continue for long at this pace)
20 Maximal exertion
The numbers are basically what the heart-rate of a healthy young person would be at that exertion, divided by 10.

You can rate your own exertion to any scale, but the point is that it is quite an accurate way of monitoring your effort AND it scales to 'how you are feeling that particular day' which many metrics don't.

I basically peg my effort at about 13 on the road, while on the trails it various enormously between 11 and 19.
posted by unSane at 12:50 PM on April 3, 2007

Here's another perceived exertion scale from here. You want to be around 5-6 for the workout you are talking about.
Level 1: I'm watching TV and eating bon bons
Level 2: I'm comfortable and could maintain this pace all day long
Level 3: I'm still comfortable, but am breathing a bit harder
Level 4: I'm sweating a little, but feel good and can carry on a conversation effortlessly
Level 5: I'm just above comfortable, am sweating more and can still talk easily
Level 6: I can still talk, but am slightly breathless
Level 7: I can still talk, but I don't really want to. I'm sweating like a pig
Level 8: I can grunt in response to your questions and can only keep this pace for a short time period
Level 9: I am probably going to die
Level 10: I am dead
posted by unSane at 12:53 PM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

My advice is to avoid trying to compete with yourself and measure your progress in times and speeds, etc., but to rather just ride your bike around town in your plain clothes, as it fits into your everyday life. Bike to work or to the bus stop if you work too far away. Bike to the store.

This is honestly the best advice in this thread. Don't worry about cadence, RPMs, cycle-computers, or workout plans. The best thing to do if you want to bike for fitness is to make a lifestyle change - just work biking into your regular routine. Just replace your normal transportation with biking as much as possible - because it's fun and gas is expensive - and the health benefits will follow without any charts or scales or funny acronyms.
posted by bradbane at 1:49 PM on April 3, 2007

popcassady was trying to link to sheldon brown, a well respected web bike guru. not to be missed.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 2:01 PM on April 3, 2007

N-thing the advice to just get out there and enjoy it. Cyclecomputers are tyrranical little beasties and can ruin otherwise perfectly good rides. Sure, get one in time but for the moment just focus on getting the miles in, becoming more confident with the bike and with traffic.

As for heart rate monitors, fageddaboutit. Most people *with* HRMs don't really use them in any capacity other than 'wow, my heart is beating really fast!'. A simple rule is that if you can carry on a conversation (or sing to yourself), then you are probably at or below your anaerobic threshold. Which is where you want to be for the most part when you're starting out.

One other thing... and I wish I could get in a time machine and go back to when I first got serious about cycling... stretch after a ride. Stretch your hamstrings, your back, your forearms. Especially your hamstrings. After 20 years of riding I can barely touch my knees let alone my toes!
posted by tim_in_oz at 2:50 PM on April 3, 2007

Hey, my hrm is my bestest friend. It gives me permission to work less hard when it is in my best interest, and lets me know when I need to step it up a notch-plus it keeps me outta the red zone.

Perceived exertion just doesn't do it for me. I've been doing this for over three years, and having a more precise measurement of what is going on has been VERY useful.
posted by konolia at 4:19 PM on April 3, 2007

Piggy backing onto this question, how much of this pertains if my goal is to work up to 30-50 mile weekend club rides? I've been doing 30-45 minutes every other day of a pretty steady pace in the 5-6 exertion range, no problems; what would the next step be?
posted by everichon at 4:33 PM on April 3, 2007

everichon, you need to do some longer rides.
posted by unSane at 4:35 PM on April 3, 2007

I've biked all my life. Transportation, nothing fancy. But a few years ago I got old. Then I needed a kick in the pants. Started some hill training a couple times a week, just straight up a steep hill until failure, three times per session. Of course, if you are young, you may not experience this failure. I have no idea, but you can read up on it. It is like weight training to failure. Really gives a boost afterwards. Seems to produce gains. This is a simple and primitive solution. I see there are much fancier ones given by others.
posted by Listener at 5:16 PM on April 3, 2007

Watch out for the pedal cadence nonsense. You're not a racer. I knew someone who swore you have to pedal like a demon and it should be like water. I like a heavier touch. Do what feels right, and keep paying attention to your body. She wrecked her knees.
posted by Listener at 5:25 PM on April 3, 2007

It's not nonsense. Less instantaneous strain means less risk of damage. It's simply proper form that maximizes efficiency (as well as exercise) and minimizes risk.
posted by kcm at 5:29 PM on April 3, 2007

Pedal cadence is definitely not nonsense. Super high RPMs like Lance Armstrong's are silly for casual cycling but maintaining 60-80 RPM will definitely help you cycle longer before your legs give out, and make then ache less the next day.

Slow cadence also has its uses, especially uphill (try riding a singlespeed) but the muscle fibers you use tire much faster.
posted by unSane at 6:45 PM on April 3, 2007

everichon: again, I agree with unSane. You need to get comfortable sitting in the saddle for 2-4 hours at a time (with a break or two, as needed). Even then, your first (and second…) club ride may well wreck you, but that's OK. Getting to the point where you can actually hang with the pack for two hours is another plateau to ascend to.
posted by adamrice at 7:30 AM on April 4, 2007

adamrice, unsane-- thanks, that's what I was afraid of.
posted by everichon at 8:03 AM on April 4, 2007

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