Ask an Expert: Training for bicycling events

Q: "I'd like to get back into exercise this year and am interested in cycling. Can you share pointers on getting in shape for that? I'm not out to win any races, but I do think it would be fun to participate in some cycling events."

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:  

Targeting a specific event is a great idea, because the date gives you something to look forward to and keeps you motivated as you train. If you start in the spring as a beginning bicyclist, you'll be ready in a few months for a moderate-distance event.

The training exercises I’m going to suggest will help a beginning cyclist to gain fitness and confidence to complete a 26-mile ride comfortably. However, it may not be necessary to follow the schedule exactly – you can modify the program based on your fitness level, your cycling ability, and the time remaining until your event. The most important thing is to spend enough time on a reliable bike to prepare your muscles and cardiovascular system to complete the 26-mile route, and to have fun doing it.

Readying your equipment
Do you already have a bike? A first step is to tune it up so it operates safely and efficiently. Area bike shops with service departments offer tune-ups for about $50-$75, plus parts. In addition, you can ask for a "bike fit analysis," a detailed review of the biomechanics and ergonomics of you and your bike. If you train on a bike that's a bad fit, you're opening the door to injuries.

If you're buying a bike, you face a choice of a mountain, road or hybrid bike. From a fitness standpoint, these bikes are equals at delivering aerobic benefits. Briefly, mountain bikes are great if you want to maneuver along forest trails and you don't care about going fast or very far. Road bikes are best if you want to use your bike to commute or to ride long distances, and if speed is important to you. Hybrids cover a bit of both worlds: They're fairly efficient on the road and thus OK for commuting, and they can handle some off-road riding, too.

For safety, don’t forget your helmet! Make sure you get one that fits you well, and wear it on every ride.

Cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and stretching
Getting in shape for bicycling (or for a healthy life in general!) requires a combination of cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and stretching. The bicycle training program that follows combines all three of these in four progressive phases working toward your event date. As someone who hasn’t been exercising regularly, you should check with your primary care physician before starting the program, and then begin with the conditioning phase.

People who are fit already, but who aren’t experienced bicyclers, may choose to modify or skip the conditioning phase and go straight into training. Experienced, physically fit bikers can modify the program as they see fit, depending on the time they have available and the level of fitness they hope to achieve.

Phase 1: Conditioning

Beginning exercisers should spend about six weeks on conditioning. People with a moderate level of fitness may need just a few weeks, and fit people may skip this phase altogether.
Cardiovascular exercise
This builds your heart strength and lung capacity, often referred to as your “fitness base” or your "training base."

The workout: At least once a week, ride a stationary or regular bike at a moderate pace for 20 to 40 minutes (the time can be cumulative: For example, biking 15 minutes to work, and another 15 minutes home). Repeat this two or three more times a week, or spend 20 to 40 minutes doing any enjoyable aerobic exercise that doesn't bother your knee. Swimming, walking and elliptical-style training are good options.
Strength training
Training with resistance equipment will help build muscular strength and endurance. Because cycling uses the leg muscles for power, and the chest, back and abs for stability, most cyclists will gain the most from a full-body routine. (Advanced cyclists may need to train a specific area of weakness to enhance performance.) Strength training will enable you to hold a biking position for increasingly longer periods.

The workout: Twice a week, do five to eight exercises that work muscle groups in your legs, mid torso, back and chest. For the first two weeks, do one set of 8 to 15 repetitions of each exercise. For the next four weeks, increase to two sets of 8 to 15 reps of each.

Moving your muscles through a range of motion lengthens the muscles, which increases flexibility and reduces the chance of injury. Stretching can be beneficial at any time; however, it's best to stretch when the muscles are warm, such as after a cardio or strength-training session. If you stretch when your muscles are cold, be more cautious and less aggressive with the stretches.

The workout: Ideally, stretch after either a cardio or strength-training session. Target the muscles specific to cycling, such as the muscles in the legs, low back, upper back and triceps. Stretch to the point where you can feel a dull sensation, but not so much that you feel pain.

Phase 2: Bicycle training

This phase prepares your body for the exact movements and positions you will need to endure in a biking event. Beginners should spend about six weeks in training; others may modify this program.

Cardiovascular exercise
Continue aerobic workouts three or four times a week, but shift the mix to include more time in the bike saddle: go for two or three rides a week on either a stationary or real bike. Gradually increase each week's longest ride; use this training schedule as an example.

Strength training
Continue with twice-weekly sessions, focusing on the muscles that biking uses most: legs, lower back, trapezius (upper back and base of neck), triceps and abdominals.

Continue concentrating on the muscles that are specific to cycling, ideally stretching after a cardio or strength-training session. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. Do not bounce.

Phase 3: Road time

Once you are in good shape and your body is accustomed to riding, the goal is to adapt slowly to the demands of the upcoming bicycling event.

Work out aerobically three to five times a week, including at least one longer bike ride each week. The longer ride should increase each week (see the training schedule in the previous section), leading up to the distance of your event 10 to 14 days before the real thing. If you register for the August Providence Bridge Pedal, for example, you should be able to ride 26 miles comfortably by the first of August.

Strength training
Return to working on muscles throughout your body, once or twice a week.

Following each cardio and strength-training workout, stretch the muscles that feel tight, as well as the cycling-specific areas of your legs, low back, upper back and triceps.

Phase 4: Event prep

Now that you're in great shape, celebrate and stick with the program. The week before you participate in a distance ride, though, back off on your training a bit so you and your muscles are rested, enabling you to really enjoy the experience.

Here are some tips for riding safely and comfortably:

  • Wear a well-fitting helmet.
  • Wear biking gloves.
  • Wear padded biking shorts.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Drink liquids at least every 15 minutes, before you feel thirsty (as you ride, you sweat, but the wind may evaporate it so quickly that you won't realize how much water you're losing).

Enjoy the ride! And once you’re done, stay motivated to stay in shape by signing up for another event. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club also offer links to fun-focused bike clubs.