Almost half the population owns a bike, and cycling enjoys unparalleled popularity among UK adults. According to the CTC, the national cycling charity, almost 800,000 people now use a bicycle as their main form of transport to get to work.An increasing number of city dwellers in Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh are using a bike to get around and Transport for London has said that 10 per cent more cycle trips were made in the three months to December 2014 than in the same quarter in 2013. We are also cycling farther: we pedalled a billion more kilometres in 2013 than in 1998.
In a 2015 survey of global leisure trends by the World Travel Market, middle-aged men in particular were increasingly likely to swap activities such as golf for cycling; according to Sport England there are now about three times as many regular cyclists as regular golfers, a huge change from 20 years ago.
It’s not surprising, says trainer Matt Roberts, because many adults experience joint problems as they get older. “Your body is supported on a bike, which makes it a low-impact activity,” he says. “It means people with vulnerable ankles and knees can tackle an intense workout with less risk of injury.”
Quadriceps, hamstring, calf and gluteal muscles in the legs and buttocks perform the bulk of a cyclist’s work — good news, says Roberts, because these large muscle groups burn more calories than smaller muscles such as the biceps. “Even coasting along you can expect to burn 180 calories an hour,” he says. “Add some hills or bursts of speed to turn your bike ride into a real workout and you are looking at 400 calories or more.”
As for cycling’s long-term health benefits, Roberts points out that a Dutch study of more than 30,000 people published in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people who did not cycle to work were 39 per cent more likely to die during the 15-year trial.
In January, researchers at King’s College London and the University of Birmingham revealed how regular cycling can ward off the effects of ageing. Their study of 85 men and 41 women aged 55-79, all of whom cycled regularly, showed that on almost all measures of physical functioning and fitness, the cyclists didn’t show their age. “There are so many ways to vary a cycling workout so that you get the most out of it,” Roberts says. “It is among the best ways to stay fit, strong and toned.”
How to turn your commute into a workout
Building up endurance is key, Matt Roberts says, and you should gradually increase duration in the saddle until you can comfortably manage a 60-90-minute ride. “Once you’ve reached that level of fitness, you can start to include performance training methods that will really boost your power and speed,” he says. “They will also help you to burn more calories and achieve greater levels of muscle tone.” Here are Roberts’ top tips on how to get more out of your cycle:
Traffic light intervals (leg-toning and toned calves) This is a favourite session of mine, which I do regularly when cycling to work because it’s a great way to perk up a commute. Warm up by cycling at a steady pace for five minutes before picking up the intensity and pedalling hard until you reach the first set of traffic lights or a roundabout. Take a breather until you need to go again and repeat at the same high intensity. I also like to race to catch up fellow cyclists; you can develop your own speed games like these. Maybe ride fast for 5 lampposts or 15 parked cars, recover, then repeat. Use your journey well.
Over-gearing (strengthens thighs) If you tend to spin along in a relatively unchallenging gear, over-gearing is a tremendous way to boost leg strength and work on your technique. Warm up with a ten-minute steady cycle. Then, on a flat or slightly downhill stretch, switch to an uncomfortably big gear that makes you slow almost to walking pace.
Don’t make it so difficult that you struggle to move the pedals — aim for a cadence of 60-70rpm. Stay in your saddle and pedal for 30-60 seconds, focusing on good technique: pedal in circles rather than stomping up and down, apply even pressure under the foot within each cycle. Return to an easier gear for two minutes then repeat 3-5 times.
Hill-sets (works buttock muscles) Performing hill repetitions at the end of a steady cycle will really ramp up calorie-burning and build leg strength. Find a hill that takes roughly 90 seconds to climb on the bike. As you cycle, use your gears to maintain a high leg speed of about 80-90 rpm all the way to the top. Turn round, recover on the way down and repeat 3-5 times.
Tempo training (boosts endurance) If you always cycle at the same pace, you will remain stuck at that pace. A tempo session adds variety and gets you fitter more quickly. Start with a ten-minute steady warm-up on the bike, then pedal hard for 1-2 miles, maintaining a pace that is tough but manageable. Gradually increase the tempo section to about 20 minutes. Cool down with a ten-minute steady cycle afterwards.
HIIT session (burns calories) High intensity interval training has become hugely popular in gyms, but is also great outdoors. Warm up with a steady cycle and then perform ten 15-second bursts (15 seconds recovery); eight 30-second bursts (30 seconds recover) or six 45-second bursts (45 seconds recovery). The effort should be hard and fast, a sort of eyeballs-out approach. Always cool down at the end with a 5-10-minute gentle cycle.
Five faster ways to get fit
The speed at which you cycle has huge fitness dividends. You will become leaner and more toned far more quickly when you cycle faster, says Roberts. That doesn’t mean you have to emulate Bradley Wiggins. “There are surprisingly simple tweaks you can make that will enhance your speed,” he says. Here are his recommendations:
Pump up your tyres properly It sounds simple, but poorly inflated tyres are among the most common reasons why cyclists slow down. Check tyre pressure before every ride (you can usually find the tyre pressure printed on the side of your tyre) and pump to the recommended level. Your bike will roll faster and you’ll be less likely to get punctures.
Use cleats or clip-in pedals Cleats or clip-in pedal systems are not essential, but many cyclists find that the power and speed improvements mean there is no turning back. Because they fix foot to pedal, technique becomes more efficient. You can pull the pedal up behind you which means more power output from less effort. They can be tricky to get used to, particularly in cities where you stop and start, so take time out to get used to them.
Become part of a chain gang Joining a pack of cyclists will help you to get faster. There are more than 1,500 cycling clubs affiliated to British Cycling (britishcycling.org.uk) and each has a different focus, from clubs for families and leisure riders right through to clubs that focus on racing. The CTC (www.ctc.org.uk), the national cycling charity, has local groups and events around the country.
Learn to control your braking technique Using the brakes too often is a comfort blanket for many recreational cyclists, but you then have to pedal hard to regain speed, so it interrupts your flow and slows you down. When it’s safe, practise letting the bike roll without braking down slopes and round wide corners. It can be quite liberating to freewheel rather than slam on the brakes.
Make yourself more aerodynamic Wind resistance is the No 1 factor when it comes to slowing down cyclists. And there are simple ways to remedy it. One way to streamline your body so that you go faster is to lose weight and several weeks of regular cycling should see to that. However, also think about your body position, especially when it’s windy. Lowering your upper body rather than sitting up straight and tucking in your elbows will make a huge difference to your speed.
Exercises to do when you are out of the saddle
It’s a simple truth that if you want to become a better cyclist, more cycling is the way to improve. Cross-training with sports such running and swimming will help to increase your overall fitness, but you won’t necessarily work the muscles you need for cycling in quite the same way. And while Spinning-style classes are a fun way to train indoors, they won’t improve your bike-handling skills. “Some strength and conditioning training off the bike will directly enhance your performance on it and leave you with a better looking and better functioning body),” Matt Roberts says. “It will also increase stability and balance and improve bone health.” Here’s what Roberts would include:
Pump your arms It’s easy to forget the upper body as a cyclist, but a long or tough mountain-bike ride can put a lot of strain on your arms and shoulders. If you get tired in the upper body, it will limit the efficiency with which you can handle the bike and can affect your lower body. Ultimately it will make your ride less enjoyable. You don’t have to use weights as body-resistance exercises can strengthen the upper body, but a set of dumbbells is useful. What to try Press-ups and triceps dips should form part of your upper-body routine. With a set of dumbbells you can add bicep curls, lateral raises and shoulder-press exercises. At the gym the seated row is a good all-round exercise for the upper body.
Strengthen your stroke Cycling is a tremendous way to strengthen the lower body. However, there are exercises that will strengthen your pedal stroke. Cycling works one leg at a time — as your right leg pushes the pedal, the left leg goes through a recovery phase — exercises that simulate this will be helpful. What to try Lunges, the single-leg hamstring curl using an exercise ball and single-leg squats, are perfect.