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Spin into spring

20 November, 2012

Using a combination of bike riding and sensible eating, you can soon be in great shape for the season of shorts and T-shirts, writes Stephen Huntley.

Image by Richard Jupe

For many, winter can be a time of indoor living and cosy comfort eating. It’s common to stack on a few kilos during those months, but with the weather improving and the daylight hours going up, it’s a great time to get back into peak condition.

Toning up

Recent studies have concluded that short-burst interval exercising is far better at burning calories, shedding weight and improving health than long, steady slogs. Interval riding means riding at a steady and comfortable pace for a few minutes, then going flat out for a few minutes, with the aim of getting your heart beat racing, the lungs gasping, and feeling a burn in the legs. A short period of recovery riding is followed by another few minutes of going flat out, and so on for twenty to thirty minutes.

You are not only burning calories doing this sort of riding, you are also shaking up your body’s adaptive processes.

The body is a marvel at adjusting itself to physical challenges in the most efficient way possible. Because bike riding is largely weight-supporting, the fact you might be carrying extra weight around the belly won’t necessarily have a big effect on your performance on long, steady rides. As long as your legs are strong enough to power you on, your body will be able to cope fine. Calories will be burnt, but not necessarily enough to lose weight, and your body systems will not find a compelling need for your shape to change.

Frantic bursts of riding are another matter. Your body is pushed beyond its comfort zone, and will look for ways to adapt that will make such efforts less taxing. As long as the calories you eat are under control, your body will start to shed weight to help you cope.

Heart fitness has been shown in many scientific studies to be an unerringly accurate predictor of mortality

The good news is, the time you need to put aside for this sort of training is quite short compared to long and steady riding. Thirty minutes seems to be ideal. One recent study even found that people lost more weight doing half-an-hour’s exercise than those that did a similar workout for an hour. Researchers struggled for an explanation, but concluded that those who did an hour’s exercise may have been too exhausted to do much else for the rest of the day, while those who did half-an-hour were still able to remain active.

Getting fitter by bike riding has enormous benefits for your overall health, as it is one of the best ways to give your heart a good workout. Your heart is a muscle, and as you increase your riding intensity it becomes fitter and stronger. Heart fitness has been shown in many scientific studies to be an unerringly accurate predictor of mortality.

If shedding a few kilos while adding fitness are your goals, go for a fast cadence during these exercise rides. Put your bike in a gear where you can spin the pedals comfortably at about 70 to 80 turns a minute when cruising. When going flat out, try to turn your pedals at something closer to 100 turns per minute. It is difficult to keep up, but that is the point; those bursts of intensive riding must be challenging.

Adding strength

The massively built bike riders you see on the track in the Olympics didn’t get their shape from bike riding alone. They’ve spent many hard hours in the gym doing squats, bench presses, and other power exercises. But it is possible to help build up lean muscle on the bike, depending on the type of riding you do.

The sort of riding that builds up leg muscles means pushing large gears at a medium cadence. Powerfully built pro rider Nick Mitchell explains that in his training to build strength, he has indentified a hill that takes him between 15 and 20 minutes to ride up in a big gear, going at about 60 turns of the pedals a minute.

A-grade rider Nick Mitchell

“To concentrate on working the leg muscles, and to strengthen the lower back and core muscles, I adopt a ‘piano touch’ on the handlebars; very light fingers, so the strain and effort is all on the lower body,” he explained. “I even tap my fingers up and down on the flats of the bars, like playing the piano, to ensure I don’t make too tight a grip.”

Another technique is to pick a hill that is steeper but shorter, taking between one and two minutes to climb. Use big gearing, a cadence of about 60 turns a minute, and a light handlebar grip, get to the top, ride back down for recovery, then go again. Repeat six to ten times.

Nick says that rather than riding the same hill again and again, he much prefers finding a route that has a series of reasonably steep hills, and doing a circuit, recovering on the downhill and flat sections, then powering up the inclines.

Another method to add strength and power is to do interval training on flat stretches with bursts of full-on sprinting for 200 metres, followed by a few minutes recovery, but once again, a big gear is used, which takes a lot of power to push.

If you wish tobuild up your quadricep muscles, the large muscles at the front of your thigh, try working up to this type of power training, but do so gradually. Try and keep in the saddle, and set a gear so that you can just manage a cadence of around 60 turns a minute. If you go with too big a gear when your body isn’t up to it, you may damage your knees and lower back.

The quadriceps, those big muscles at the front of your thigh, are the main leg muscles involved in the power part of your pedal stroke. Your calf muscles, at the back of your lower leg, are called on near the bottom of the pedal stroke, as your foot pushes the pedal back and through.

“Common thinking these days is that the calf muscles aren’t so important in the pedal stroke,” says Nick. “We train to try and have the heel slightly above the toe at the top of the pedal stroke, and to keep the foot in this position all the way down and through the power drive, to the bottom of the stroke.

“Calves come in to play at the bottom of the stroke, as you rake the foot backwards, but we are taught that it’s more important to try and unweight your leg on the pull back and upward part of the stroke, so that your opposite leg has less resistance while it is doing its power drive.”

Studies of bike-riders’ legs in motion have also shown that when you stand up on the pedals, calf muscles are used less, so if you want to give them a good workout, try and stay seated during the intense parts of your ride.

Your hamstring muscles, those at the back of the thigh, aren’t a big player in the pedal stroke. Some believe that with clip-in pedals, you can use these muscles to pull the pedal back upwards, but as Nick explained earlier, the pros try and unweight their leg rather than pull up.

Upper body workout

Bike riders can get away with a fairly lightly-muscled upper body, but there are riding techniques that can give these muscles a good workout. Hauling back on the handlebars in an alternate motion, almost like rowing, when going up a hill in a tough gear will help work your arms, shoulders, back and stomach muscles, as will pulling back on the bars when doing sprint intervals.

Mountain biking can also give a great all-over body workout, as hauling a relatively heavy bike over obstacles and up steep inclines can take a lot of upper-body as well as leg strength. The short, sharp and manic nature of BMX riding also provides a great workout that taxes all muscles.

Off the bike

Bike riding is a great form of exercise, but it is low impact. This suits many people, as it means less strain on joints, but some impact training can be beneficial, as it stimulates bone density. So if you’re able, try and mix up some bike riding with some regular jogging, or some work with weights.

You’ll find the cross training will help with your bike riding, adding strength and core stability. But take it easy, and don’t do too much too quickly. If you’re used to bike riding, but haven’t done any jogging for a while, you’ll be aerobically able to run for ages, but your muscles and bones won’t be up for the task. It is easy to overdo it, and you’ll end up injuring joints and muscles.

Exercises you can do at home to improve your strength and help your bike riding include pushups (chest and the back of your upper arms), pull ups (back and biceps), dips using a chair (chest and the back of your upper arms), simple squats (the front of the thighs) and sit ups (stomach and lower back).

Eating to shed kilos

You can trade off your intense riding effort for a nice big chocolate donut, but don’t expect to lose any weight in the process. You really have to combine a good, sensible and varied diet if you want to reap the benefits of bike riding.

Most dieticians agree that, as a nation, we eat far too much sugar in our diet, and the obesity problems we face can be, to a large extent, blamed on a lack of exercise combined with a huge increase in sugar intake.

Gradually cutting out much of the sugar from your diet is a good way to start improving your health and losing weight. Combined with bike riding, you’ll soon notice great changes.

Changes on a regular basis will mean you will eventually end up with an exercise regime

Small steps are the key. For instance, cut in half the amount of tomato sauce you put on your food. Eat one less slice of bread a day. Cut out one biscuit. Only eat dark chocolate, and gradually cut down how much you allow yourself a day. Switch from soft drinks to soda water, and eventually, just water.

Sugars are hidden in many foods, many of which seem to be healthy. For instance, an original-sized strawberry Super Smoothie from Boost has an incredible 2659 kilojoules, and the equivalent of 19 teaspoons of sugar (there are about 4 grams of sugar in a level teaspoon). You’d have to do over 50 minutes of riding to work this off (you’ll burn off about 1,500 kilojoules in half an hour of reasonably hard riding).

Get into the habit of reading labels and nutritional information for all the food and drink you consume. Make informed decisions, and don’t trust the marketing hype. Take note of the carbohydrates per 100 grams, and more importantly, the carbohydrates that are sugars. For instance, on breakfast cereals, Special K has 14.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams, All Bran 13.6 grams and Weetabix 3.3 grams.

Try and eat fresh produce when possible. Judge how you’re going by how you feel, not by the scales. Don’t expect instant results. Keep eating a bit less, and riding a bit more, and eventually you will notice your body changing, and you’ll feel healthier. A positive circle will then start to develop; the healthier you feel, the less you will crave nutritionally poor food, and the more energy you will have.

Eating to increase strength

“It’s important to eat a combination of protein and carbohydrates within thirty minutes after a strenuous, power-building ride,” says Nick Mitchell. “Your muscles will immediately start rebuilding themselves, and they need the right sort of nutrients to do it effectively. Protein on its own doesn’t seem to be as effective; you need to add carbohydrates.

“In fact, you get a perfect mix with chocolate-flavoured milk. There’s protein, sugar and a bit of fat in a good combination. It’s a very popular recovery drink among serious bike riders.”

During a long ride, Nick will refuel on the bike to keep him going. Rather than eating overly-sweet energy bars, he likes to pack his own food. “You’re looking for a simple mixture of carbohydrates, so I’ll often prepare something like peanut butter and honey sandwiches the night before to take on the ride; I actually look forward to eating them, unlike some of the energy bars.

“Another good alternative is to go to the bakery and get some sort of pastry, like a Danish, and cut it up into small helpings to take on the ride. They’re delicious, as well as giving you an energy boost.”

Nick is also a fan of bananas, and will often combine them in a sandwich with peanut butter or honey. But he emphasizes it is important to get the balance right between the number of calories you take in with the amount of riding you are doing. As detailed earlier, if you want to cut weight you should combine riding with a gradual cutback in sugary foods.

A little patience

Image by Richard Jupe

One of the secrets to establishing good exercise and eating habits is incremental gain. Don’t go full-on with massive changes to your regular routines from the start. Drastic changes may have immediate short-term results, but will be very hard to maintain, and old bad habits will eventually emerge to take charge again.

Little, sometimes barely perceptible, changes on a regular basis will mean you will eventually end up with an exercise regime, and eating habits, that easily fit into your lifestyle, that will become ingrained habits, and will be manageable for the rest of your life.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Leara permalink
    12 December, 2012 6:38 pm

    Thank you. Such a good informative article. As a recreational female cyclist I found doing hills was giving me big thighs – the men may like it but not really the look I was after! Am going to try the short burst training and see how it goes.

  2. Phillip permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:51 pm

    great articale. regards phillip

  3. 12 September, 2013 10:31 am

    Great idea about the sandwiches. Been having trouble digesting power bars. Thanks for the info, it all makes a lot of sense

  4. Keith permalink
    12 September, 2013 11:03 am

    Tried this on the way home last night, yes it hurt, but I will continue to try this. Thanks for the great article


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