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Shape up for spring

1 September, 2011

Slim and lean, big and powerful or somewhere in between; whatever your body type, bike riding can help you get in shape, writes Stephen Huntley.

As the weather improves and winter layers are shed, you may be reflecting on the sort of shape you’ll be revealing to the world. A bit of weight loss may be desirable, perhaps a bit of toning up, or you might like to take another tack and add some muscle to your frame. The good news is you don’t need to splash out on an expensive gym membership to get in shape; it can all be done on your bike.

Natural predisposition will help determine what is ultimately possible, but different types of riding can help emphasise different body characteristics. Professional cyclists range from the thin and ultra-lean hill climbers to the massively muscled track sprint stars, with time triallists sitting somewhere in between. They are elite athletes, but the fundamental training techniques they use can be adopted by most riders.

Light and lean

If you want to shed some extra kilograms and tone up at the same time, target aerobic riding. One of the keys to this style is a high cadence; spinning your pedals very quickly (your cadence is how many revolutions a pedal makes in one minute). It means lots of gear changes to keep the cadence up, with very low (easy) gears up hills and into the wind, low to medium gears on the flat, and medium to high gears going down hills.

Professional bike riders will constantly change their gears up and down to maintain a consistent cadence; Lance Armstrong, for instance, will aim for 110 revolutions a minute no matter if he is on a flat road or going up a hill.

You can try and determine your own cadence by counting your pedal turns in 15 seconds and multiplying by four, and there are bike computers that can constantly measure your cadence automatically. For exercise purposes, try and build up your technique so you can maintain a cadence of at least 80 revolutions a minute on a regular basis. When you struggle, change down to an easier gear, and when the resistance to your pedalling is too weak, change up.

Long, flat and smooth routes are ideal for this sort of riding. It is great for your heart and your aerobic capacity, and if done regularly, the kilos will drop off (as long as you also eat sensibly: see below).

Light bikes, slim tyres, lots of gears and an aerodynamic riding position can also be of benefit to this style of riding.

You are what you eat

You burn off about 500 kilojoules of energy in 15 minutes of low-intensity recreational riding, and about 1000 at high-intensity riding. If you step up the amount of exercise you are doing, but decide to reward yourself for making the effort with some bonus sugary treats, you may find you won’t lose any weight (there’s 1050 kilojoules of energy in a 53g Mars Bar). And even things that appear to be healthy might be deceiving; muesli bars can contain over 700 kilojoules of energy, and a fruit juice smoothie can contain well over a thousand kilojoules.

The average person needs roughly 8,500 to 10,500 kilojoules a day, but it varies depending on your genetics, metabolism, height, amount of muscle, exercise levels, type of job, lifestyle, etc. You are your best judge as to how much you need. If you are gaining weight, or not losing as much as you want, increase your riding and cut back on your kilojoule intake. Make small, manageable adjustments and you will soon see changes. And don’t expect too much too soon; just 1kg of body fat contains the equivalent of 37,000 kilojoules.

Get into the habit of checking out food labels. Low fat may mean high sugar (carbohydrates). And if you’re trying to build muscle, try increasing the protein in your diet.

There is also some good news. A recent study has confirmed what many of us have long suspected; increasing aerobic exercise actually decreases your appetite; so by riding more, you may feel less hungry.

Bike-riding muscles

The most significant muscles used in bike riding are the quadriceps, the large thigh muscles at the front of each leg. A professional cyclist with well-developed quadriceps typically has a big V-shaped mass of muscle above the knee.

The quadriceps are brought into play from just before the top of the pedal stroke, then in the crucial power phase on the downward push of the pedal, aided by the glutes (buttocks). Peak power occurs when the pedal moves between 90 and 120 degrees. The calves, the muscle at the back of the lower leg, are more important at the end-phase of the downstroke, as the foot pushes the pedal through.

The hamstring, the large muscle at the back of the thigh, also gives some assistance as peak power is reached. The hamstring and shin come into play on the upstroke, although they are not heavily used.

Keeping a firm upper body against the pressure of pedalling brings into play the stomach and lower-back muscles, and some of the upper-body muscles, but they are more significant when hauling out of the saddle up a hill; the pulling of the handlebars works the forearms, the bicep muscles at the front of the upper arm, shoulders and back.

Increasing muscle and strength

Bike-riding styles and exercises that combine strong resistance with explosive effort lead to muscle growth. Typically they involve multiple efforts using high (hard) gears and quick bursts of power, interspersed with short periods of recovery.

As part of a regular riding style, that could mean riding at a slower cadence in a gear that needs some effort, taking on hills in a medium gear, and short, sharp bursts of close-to-maximum effort on the flat and going up hills. Using a heavier bike, and being deliberately less aerodynamic can also assist in building strength, as can mountain biking and BMX riding.

Repetition sprints are a good way to target your quadriceps. There are various techniques, but fundamentally it is about using a big (hard) gear, pedalling flat out for 200 to 250 metres, spending ten minutes recovering, then going again. Try building slowly up to doing three or four and see if there’s anything left in the tank.

Another great exercise is repetition rides up a small but hard hill, going all out in a tough gear and staying in the saddle (if you need to come out of the saddle, hover above it, not forward of it).

Champion track sprinter and conditioning coach Paul Parker, of Cycle Finesse, recommends a constant cadence of about 60rpm up a hill that takes between one and two minutes, then a turnaround, descend to recover and repeat (total recovery no more than five minutes). Try to build up to doing six to 10 efforts per session.

“Try not to go for too much gradient as style and technique will go out the window, and try to keep cadence around the 60 mark, so as not to put unnecessary load on the joints,” he says. “It is important to keep thinking in circles throughout the stroke. Poor technique will only reinforce problems rather than improve strength.

“I would favour seated drills for the first month or so. If climbing on large gears out of the saddle, be mindful of not jarring the lower back and hyperextending the knees.

“ If you did this kind of workout once a week, within six weeks there would be noticeable improvements in strength.”

Target building your calf muscles when doing power riding by keeping the heel level or slightly lower than the pedal during the upper part of the down stroke, and then lifting the heel and pushing back with your foot at the bottom of the stroke (described as like trying to scrape something off the bottom of your foot). You should also try and stay in the saddle. Studies have shown that when you get out of the saddle, there is a change in emphasis on which leg muscles generate the power, and when. Calves are used less, the glutes and parts of the quads are used more. Quads come into play earlier, and the glutes and quads stay in use longer.

The core of your body, including your stomach muscles, is worked hard during explosive repetition work. To give your upper body a workout, try getting out of the saddle when going up a hill in a tough gear and pulling on each handlebar alternatively. The pulling motion, similar to a rowing motion, will work your forearms, the biceps, shoulders and upper back. You can also get out of the saddle and pull while doing sprint work, alternating ten turns of the pedal out of the saddle, ten seated, and so on. Once again, to stimulate muscle growth, short, repetitive explosive exercise works best.

Strength training can be very exhausting, and muscles can take quite a few days to repair themselves after a workout. Many experts now agree that exercising a particular muscle group for strength just once a week is ideal. Try to get in tune with your body and see what works best for you.

Paul Parker also recommends that after a very big endurance event or workout you should wait at least two days before doing a strength workout.

Mix it up

An ideal programme for you could well consist of a mixture of aerobic and strength-building riding. It can also be a good idea to supplement your routine with some simple exercises you can do at home, including some forms of push ups, sit ups, pull ups, tricep dips, simple squats and calf raises.

Will my bum look big doing this?

One of the reasons some women baulk at the idea of bike riding is the fear the exercise will build up a big bum and thighs. In practise, this is rarely a problem; it is much more likely that they will become more toned. If you are concerned about building up muscle, try adopting the aerobic-style riding mentioned earlier in the article.

Weight-loss myth and the six-pack

Some people believe that if you’ve got a big belly, the best thing to do is stomach exercises. The truth is, you can have a magnificent six-pack from doing hundreds of sit-ups, but no-one can see it because it is still covered in a layer of fat.

You can’t target weight loss on a specific area by exercising that area. You will put fat on and take it off on parts of your body predetermined by your genetic makeup. Often women will tend to put weight on around the hips, thighs and bum. Men tend to put more on around the belly. But to lose weight you must simply burn more energy than you are consuming. So by a combination of bike riding and sensible eating you will burn off the fat no matter where it is on your body.

More muscle, less fat

Increased muscle leads to a faster metabolism, which will burn off more kilojoules. Research has shown that if you only have a limited time to workout, explosive strength-building exercise burns more energy than aerobic exercise, as the metabolism continues to be stimulated long after the exercise is finished.

Bike riding to add strength may also be of benefit as you age, by helping to increase your bone mineral density (BMD). Increased BMD reduces the risk of osteoporosis in later life.

And don’t let your scales deceive you on how healthy you are; muscle weighs more than fat. You may burn off fat, add healthy muscle and increase your metabolism – all good, healthy things – but the scales might show you have put on weight. Trust your instinct, and how good you feel.

Better out than in

There is another good reason to use your bike to shape up and get fit; a new study has revealed that those who exercise in natural outdoor environments have more energy, feel happier and are less stressed than those who exercise in gyms and recreation centres.

Go easy on yourself

If you are going to alter the style or amount of riding you do, and/or the food you eat, make sure you introduce change gradually. Going flat out too soon may lead to injury, and if it is too hard, you’ll just be put off. Better to set long-term goals through short-term achievable targets – and stick with it!

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