As well as being fun, cycling is great for our physical fitness and mental well-being. Endurance racer and physiotherapist Scott Cornish takes us through the benefits of building and maintaining cycling fitness..
It’s the perfect compliment to and/or an alternative to high impact sports, it gets us from A to B faster than walking, we can travel further than running and with all the tech and available bicycle designs, riding away from roads on tracks and trails has never been more accessible and comfortable.
Along with that healthy glow cycling generates, the fitness benefits are well documented and it’s a suitable activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. You don’t have to be a super dooper racer type to reap its health benefits. Whether it’s getting a few miles in on the daily commute, rolling at the weekend or competing, fitness quickly accumulates.
Starting out in any aerobic sport is never easy in those first few weeks – you will feel slow, it’ll be hard work, especially those pesky hills, but the body is incredibly adaptable. Be patient, it’ll take a few weeks for the body’s physiology to come round to the changes you are asking it to do. Building fitness takes time and all of us adapt at different rates, depending on our individual recovery rates, which also improves as we get fitter. If you and a friend are following the same 12 week training plan for example, you may not both be the same speed/fitness by the end of the period. Whatever level of cycling fitness you are at, it’s not the activity itself that improves fitness, but the periods of rest and recovery and the harder the bout of cycling, the more recovery is needed. Rest is an active part of becoming fitter.
Hills are of course the biggest challenge. Don’t be downhearted by others zooming off at the start of a climb, chances are they will have started too hard and you’ll catch them half way up anyway. Hill fitness comes gradually and it does get easier as you work out how to pace yourself. Modern bikes have a huge range of gears – don’t be afraid to use them when starting out to gradually build muscular strength in the legs. Cycling is a very specific muscular action so it does takes time to develop. A hill that may be a total lung buster initially will feel like a mere pimple after a few months and you’ll soon be planning trips to the infamous cols of the Alps.
Fitness gains come in leaps and bounds in the first year or so, but unfortunately, doesn’t continue like that! As you become fitter, those incremental gains become less and we have to work harder and be more specific with training, depending on what your personal goals are. That’s what the racer types look to achieve, making their engine as efficient and as strong as possible for their chosen events. Becoming faster and fitter isn’t about trying to ride harder all the time, but about riding smarter. Fitness gains are often accompanied by a desire to ride further and hatching plans for adventures by bike! Whether it’s as simple as riding to a cafe in the countryside for tea and cake on a sunny Sunday, a few days bikepacking or ventures out with the kids, cycling fitness is ever rewarding.
Mental wellbeing is so important in today’s fast paced, electronic society and being able to separate ourselves from the stresses of daily life and/or get away from the desk is important for our overall health. Even if commuting to work is the only chance to ride in the week, whether it’s a mile, 5 miles or longer, riding in can make us feel more in tune for the day ahead or as a way to wind down after a day at work. Extend the route on the way home, via the trails or quiet back country lanes. Spin the pedals, wind down, let those endorphins do their work, relaxing the mind.
Off road riding isn’t just about pure fitness, there’s an element of skill too, skills to be learnt for riding rooty, rocky, muddy and steep terrain, both up and down. It’s a full body workout riding technical terrain, the upper half having to work hard too, to manoeuvre the bike and keep the body and bike balanced. The extra physical effort to make it up challenging trails often goes ‘unnoticed’ as the focus is on taming the trail ahead, all good for making the legs and lungs stronger. Sections of trail become challenges, a great way to focus the mind on the simplicity of riding the trail ahead and away from life’s stresses, whilst also improving balance and coordination. Simple rewards that can be achieved each time we ride off road, especially as the trails change with the weather. The more balanced you feel, the more confident you become on a bike and the faster you’ll ride!
Cycling is a great way to get children into sport, as an activity that is about having fun as opposed to focusing on the fitness aspect. I have yet to see a child who wasn’t excited about getting a bike! It’s amazing to see their smiles as they achieve a tough section of trail or as they make it all the way round a circuit in one go for the first time. Although they do seem to manage to come back 10x muddier than the parents! A bacon sandwich at the end often seems to help too..
Cycling is an activity that is recommended for return to fitness following knee injury and/or surgery, such as an ACL reconstruction, as an initial way to improve joint mechanics and lower limb muscular strength. Due to being low impact and lacking in lateral or rotational forces which can otherwise over stress the knee in its rehabilitation phase as well building general cardiovascular fitness of course.
There’s nothing quite the exhilaration and joy of freewheeling down a hill, whether road or sweeping. singletrack mountain trail, or the reward after the effort of the climb. It’s a sport that can take us as far as we want it to and it’s perfect for all ages. Cycling isn’t restricted to its physical benefits, but the psychological ones too, helping us to take a break from thinking about the daily grind and general demands of life. Whether it’s commuting, multi day trips, riding the trails or racing, cycling fitness is for life.