Don’t pound the pavements, cycle your way to fitness.
Competition cyclists are arguably the fittest athletes in the world. Former Tour de France winner Miguel lndurain had an at-rest pulse of just 28 beats per minute, an incredible level of fitness. And sports scientists were always in awe of the seven times Tour winner – and physiological wonder – Lance Armstrong.
But you don’t have to be as super-fit as this to enjoy cycling. All it takes is a few gentle rides of about five miles, ridden at a moderate pace, and you’ll soon be strong enough to tackle ten mile jaunts with ease, or even long distance charity rides.
All forms of regular exercise are of benefit to the body but cycling is especially good because the bicycle acts as a supportive platform, reducing the risk of impact injuries such as ‘shin splints’, common in sports such as running.
When runners are out of puff they have to stop, they cannot stand the constant pounding. But when a cyclist runs out of puff, the bicycle as a supportive platform means the rider can still ride, albeit slower. The cyclist also has the advantage of being able to stop pedalling when tired, and freewheeling instead, resting the muscles in the process. And, of course, when going downhill the forward motion is totally free … speed without taxing the muscles at all.
Lose a decade
Riding a bike helps improve muscular fitness and blood circulation and can be a valuable part of a weightloss programme. According to the British Heart Foundation, cycling at least 20 miles per week reduces the risk of coronary heart disease to less than half that for non-cyclists. Cycling also makes you feel younger and reduces stress. According to Sharp – the National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention – regular cyclists typically enjoy a fitness level equivalent to being 10 years younger.
Heart & Lungs Cycling is chiefly an aerobic activity, i.e. one that uses great gulps of oxygen. This is beneficial to the heart and lungs. The heart and lungs work together to bring oxygen and nutrients to the muscles: the lungs expand to bring as much oxygen into the body as possible; the heart beats faster to transport this oxygen around the body. A strong heart and powerful lungs are the building blocks of general fitness.
Muscular fitness Even if you only cycle a few miles per day your muscles will feel and look stronger. The main muscle groups used when cycling are the upper thigh muscles (quadriceps); the backside muscles (gluteus maximus), and, to a lesser extent, the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus). Contrary to popular belief, cycling does not necessarily lead to bulging leg muscles. What most people find is that their legs become trimmer and more toned, in other words, shapelier.
Weight loss Cycling increases energy levels. This helps the body to burn fat when you’re exercising but will also help your body burn lots of calories even when sedentary. A period of 20 minutes cycling at moderate speed, five days per week, will also significantly increase your energy levels.
Stress reduction Exercising releases endorphins into the bloodstream – substances produced in the brain which create a feeling of contentment and happiness. Aerobic exercise therefore can help to reduce stress.
How fit do I have to be to race?
Competitive cycling can be as tough or as casual as you like. Naturally, the fitter you are (or become) the better you will do. All the forms of cycle sport have different categories suitable for your age, sex and abilities.
There’s a lot more fitness advice on the cycling section of the NHS Choices website.