With cycling exploding in popularity this century, the number of people consistently hitting the road as a form of exercise has never been greater, and during the COVID pandemic, the world saw even more cyclists feel the burn for the first time.
If you have decided to incorporate cycling into your life as a pursuit rather than a novelty, it likely means that you have made the distinction between riding for a one-off Instagram shot to committing to cycling as a lifestyle activity that can bring personal rewards and an injection of something that when done correctly might just help you live longer and healthier.
However, sticking to a cycling routine for the first time can be challenging. We all make mistakes in our approach, particularly as newbies, but the beauty of tackling something for the first time is that we can learn from the mistakes others have made before us on their journeys. Below are ten tips that will help you on your way and help to avoid some of the common pitfalls of starting out.
1. Get the ‘all-clear’ to begin
Starting a riding program for the first time is exciting and, in many ways, the polar opposite of waiting in a GP’s waiting room for an appointment. Before beginning any program, however, getting a tick from the boss to begin your training (particularly if you are new to cycling or are coming back from an injury) is as important as anything you will do.
2. Invest in a good bike fit
In a 20km ride, the average cyclist riding at 20km/h and pedalling at 90 RPM will complete 5,400 pedal revolutions, absorb thousands of vibrations through their hands and saddle, and hold themselves in what could be an uncomfortable position for an hour.
If your bike fit (including your footwear) is not optimal, this could quickly lead to hip, knee and ankle issues over the many thousands of pedal revolutions. If your weight is not distributed correctly, or you are reaching too far, or your seat is at the wrong height, this could lead to a myriad of non-specific back, shoulder, arm, neck and hand pain and a loss in handling ability.
Common signs of a poor bike fit include pain when cycling, numbness in the hands, feet, and genitals, lower and/or upper back tightness and soreness, post-ride headaches and potentially dangerous bike handling.
While a good bike fit from a dedicated fit specialist is not cheap, it is worth the investment. While most local bike shops may offer basic bike fits, many are not skilled in the nuances of bike fitting and personalisation. If you cannot afford the bike fit, there are fortunately many online resources and fantastic books written on the subject.
3. Don’t blow up the engine
When you purchase a brand-new car, the manufacturer recommends a ‘breaking in’ period, as it allows the internals of the car time to adjust to the workload we put on the car.
In sports science we call this the Principle of Progressive Overload; in essence, it means don’t go too hard too early and factor in regular days off and recovery weeks. Build a base slowly, and get your body used to the workload before asking it to go harder. The fastest way to failure is to push too hard and injure yourself or lose your love for the sport.
4. Ride slower than you think you need to
Most new cyclists ride too fast, too often. This early ramp in intensity often leads to injuries and a lack of enjoyment.
In fact, the same logic applies to elite cyclists too, not just beginners. In a recent study, it was found that professional male cyclists spend approximately 20 per cent of their training at intensities between 51-60 per cent maximum heart rate (MHR), about 55 per cent of their training at intensities between 61-70 per cent MHR, and about 5 per cent at intensities above 81per cent MHR.
For professional female cyclists, approximately 40 per cent of training time is spent between 61-70 per cent MHR, approximately 45 per cent between 71-80 per cent MHR and less than 10 per cent above 81 per cent MHR.
The rationale for the high volume at light intensities is that to train at higher intensities 2-3 times per week, athletes must spend the rest of their time training at lower intensities. For female cyclists, due to the relatively shorter races, slightly more time must be spent at higher training intensities, but still contrasted with easy riding.
5. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to strength train
Just like a car – if you feel something is not right, you shouldn’t ignore it. Niggles and pain are something most cyclists carry at times but when this converts to pain and a reliance on Vitamin I (Ibuprofen) to deal with the injury, it’s time to check in with an expert.
Don’t try and tough out the injury for the sake of increasing fitness; there are other ways to build fitness such as swimming and strength training while you take the time to rehab and strengthen the injured area.
In fact, strength training is becoming increasingly important for cyclists at all levels due to its performance-enhancing effects, including improved power output, economy, fatigue resistance and pedalling mechanics, and its ability to counter some cycling training shortfalls, which may promote poor posture and low bone density.
6. Fuel correctly
A riding program with the right nutrition and hydration can be the difference between enjoying what you are doing and giving in to the battle.
In general, before a ride, it is good to consume some complex carbohydrates within 3-4 hours of the start. If the ride is longer than 60 minutes (or 30 minutes at high intensity), perhaps consume some sports drink or sports gels, and after the ride, consume a meal or drink containing a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
One mistake many newcomers make is falsely believing that exercise gives them license to eat as much they please. This is not true, and weight gain, even during exercise is very easy to achieve. This doesn’t mean you should stop eating, as that creates its own set of problems, just as overeating does.
The best way to sum up the situation is with the adage “you can’t out-train a bad diet”, which is most times true, and many of us could look to modifying our diet so we can fuel with healthier options. For specific advice regarding optimising food intake for performance, weight loss or recovery, you should consult a qualified dietitian.
7. Variety adds spice
Variety is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of sports training in general, yet variety can help avoid boredom and burnout, and can even add the training stimulus you need to break through a plateau.
Variety in cycling might be as simple as trying a new course, riding with a new group, tackling some trails, entering a club ride or Gran Fondo, or adding bouts of high and low-intensity effort.
If you are limited in where you can ride, then consider popping in some headphones (when riding indoors) and diving into some playlists, podcasts, or audiobooks. If money is not a concern for you, then a new training toy (power meters, head units, watches, motion sensors, etc) can be a great way of increasing variety and motivation.
8. Link your riding to a future event
Having a goal event in mind is a great way to add some clear direction to your training.
As sport scientists, we often like to perform a Needs Analysis and work backward from our goal event to now and see what we need to do to improve. If you know you want to tackle a 100km ride in 12 weeks and have a goal finishing time of 4 hours, then it is good to work back from that and perform your own Needs Analysis. How close am I to achieving that goal? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What can I do to improve? etc.
Working back from an eventual goal allows you to plan with a much greater degree of accuracy.
Alongside the increased ability to plan, the other benefit of a goal race is simply having a deadline. For many of us in our jobs, having a deadline usually means that we will get the specific task done when it is due, and the same is true for cycling.
If you know you have an event to prepare for, you are more likely to do the work required and less likely to look for potential convenient excuses like poor weather, housework, and post-work fatigue. These excuses might be valid for you, but usually, most of us have time to squeeze in a quick 30-60 minutes of exercise a day.
9. Enlist a training buddy or find a bunch ride
While not directly related to cycling, in the book Running to the Edge, Matthew Futterman describes how legendary running coach Bob Larsen unlocked the potential of many athletes by creating positive and competitive training groups designed to both challenge runners to run faster and to encourage runners to reflect on their performances and think about ways in which they could improve within their group.
Larsen in large parts credits this strategy to the success of his Olympic medalist athletes, and the same logic can apply to your training. The group you ride with doesn’t have to be fast and looking to produce Olympic athletes, but it should challenge you and motivate you to better yourself.
Many studies show that group exercise can increase exercise adherence, lead to reduced perceptions of pain and effort, and can increase an individual’s motivation. Interestingly, these effects seem to be much less pronounced when comparing exercise classes to sporting specific (i.e. dedicated cycling) groups.
The takeaway message — find the group that works for you and don’t be afraid to swap groups if you need.
10. Don’t over-analyse your paces and performances
For sports scientists involved in data-rich individual sports, such as cycling, running, and rowing, it is common to encounter the problem “Paralysis by Analysis” with athletes. This problem is as it sounds: athletes and sometimes coaches get into the habit of overanalysing every performance to look for ways to improve but end up creating a toxic training environment.
While well-intentioned, this strategy often leads to anxiety and doubt, as the athlete feels they must beat their personal records every session. This expectation is unreasonable, as daily variances in exercise performance of 3-5 per cent are common.
It is not reasonable to expect your rides to each be better than the last, especially if you are not an elite athlete, and have work and life pressures to consider. What is more important is progress over time. Instead of comparing each ride, look for improvements across months and years, not individual sessions.
Consistency of training will take you much further than one-off good performances. It is also important to sometimes leave all your technology at home and just ride by feel. You’ll probably find yourself enjoying the ride more, and you might even learn something new about yourself.
Dr Ryan Worn is a lecturer in the Exercise Science discipline at Federation University and a cycling tragic. This article was first published by AusCycling ahead of the 2023 Federation University Road National Championships and is part of a series by Federation University experts in the lead-up to the event which will be held in Ballarat and Buninyong from January 6-10.