The bicycle offers an opportunity that is tough to pass up. It’s a chance to see what’s going on, it’s good exercise, and it’s available to a wide range of ages and fitness levels.
“It’s just fun to ride a bike,” said Tony Smoragiewicz, a Sanford Sports Science Institute intern and professional triathlete from Rapid City, South Dakota. “It always puts a smile on my face. I live in the Black Hills and it’s great going out to your favorite spots and ride loops. You don’t hear anything except maybe the noise of your tires and maybe your bike chain. Otherwise it’s just peaceful and quiet.”
Now not all of us go for long and intense training runs in the mountains like Smoragiewicz, who is aspiring to make the next U.S. Olympic triathlon team. On the other hand, most of us can get up on two wheels for a few miles on the bike path or a tour of the neighborhood.
Contingent on mileage and speed, it’s an activity that puts much less stress on your joints, knees and hips than running or walking.
“Cycling is a pretty good sport for just about anybody,” said Smoragiewicz, who has been competing in triathlons since he was 12 and was a Division I distance runner at the University of Michigan. “You can go fast or you can go easy. I just love getting on my bike.”
Kathy Grady, Sanford Wellness aquatics supervisor, is a Level I USA Triathlon coach and also a competitive triathlete herself. She bikes more than 100 miles a week with the ultimate benefit that it doesn’t take as much out of her knees as running does. Obviously she still runs, but not as much.
“Swimming is still going to be one of your best exercises, but biking is very good, too,” Grady said. “It’s a great aerobic workout that won’t put too much stress on your joints.”
With this in mind, here’s how to get the most out of your ride, whether you’re cycling on vacation, around your neighborhood, or to and from work.
Sizing up your bicycle
Getting your bicycle adjusted to your body is a huge element in comfortable and safe riding. It’s best, however, to make sure it’s mechanically sound first.
“People who haven’t been biking in a while are digging them out of their garage and trying them out again,” Grady said. “The first thing you have to do is to make sure that bike is usable. If it’s been in the garage for 20 years, it’s best to take it in and get it looked at before you start riding it regularly.”
If buying a bike, choose one with the correct frame size. A good gauge is to put a leg on either side of the top tube, stand with both feet flat on the ground, and check the room between the top tube and your crotch. The recommended amount of room depends on the type of riding you will be doing: one inch to two inches for road riding and double that for off-road riding.
Seat height also is important. To make sure your seat is at the right level, sit comfortably on the saddle and fully extend your right leg with your right heel resting on the pedal in the 6 o’clock position. Sit squarely on the seat with your hands on the handlebars.
If your seat is at the correct height, you’ll have a slight bend at the knee (the knee should be bent at an angle of 25° to 30°). For the most comfort, the seat should be level or tilted slightly downward.
“There are a bunch of online calculators that can help with this,” Smoragiewicz said. “It’s connected with your inseam length. Determine that and set your bike seat height accordingly. In terms of riding comfort — especially knee pain and saddle comfort — getting your seat at the right height can make a big difference.”
Use your gears
Most all-terrain bikes have 15 to 21 gears. To get a good workout on the trail or on the road, learn to use all of them. In general, gear down when you’re bicycling into the wind or uphill. Gear up when riding with the wind or downhill. The gears should be used to keep a steady pace whether going uphill or down, into the wind, or with the wind at your back.
Ideally, you should always ride in a gear that allows you to maintain your target heart rate: 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Your target heart rate is the range at which prolonged physical activity — running, cycling, swimming laps, or any other aerobic exercise — is considered safe and effective, experts at the CDC say.
You can figure out your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Multiply this figure by 0.50 and 0.70 to get your target heart rate range. The fitter you are, the higher the percentage can go. Consider using a heart rate monitor to get an exact measurement as you exercise.
Get in bike shape
Every time you ride, practice these principles to make sure you have a safe workout:
Don’t start off intensely. Instead, gradually raise your heart rate by warming up for the first five or 10 minutes of your ride by pedaling slowly and riding on flat ground. Otherwise, you will probably feel sore and increase your risk of a chronic injury. At the end of your ride, cool down for five minutes by gearing down and pedaling more slowly.
Interval training can be an effective means of advancing your overall speed if that’s a target of your riding.
“After a 15-to-20-minute warmup, you could include 30-60 seconds fast followed by 30-60 seconds of recovery, repeating this interval six-to-10 times. Or you could find a hill and do six-to-eight repeats,” Grady said. “It’s all based on your goals and what you want to accomplish.”
Grady puts her triathletes on a 12-week training program that is aimed at gradual advances.
“We progress every week,” she said. “Then we’ll back off the fourth week because you always need a recovery week in there. Then you can build it back up. Ultimately, you have to be smart about biking. If you haven’t been riding and then decide on a two-hour ride, you probably won’t last too long.”
Bicycling sensibly and safely
Always wear a bicycle helmet and, if you cycle often, consider wearing padded cycling shorts to increase your comfort. Padded gloves can reduce the pressure on your hands. It’s also wise to keep a water bottle handy and take a sip every 15 minutes.
“You have to have a helmet on,” Grady said. “Accidents can happen so fast. I’ve had two pretty major crashes. For one of them I went head-first into a brick wall and if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, my injuries would have been much worse. Bike helmets save lives!”
Avoid riding on streets with heavy traffic. When you’re on the road, signal to drivers when you are going to make a turn. Ride on the right side of the road, in the same direction as traffic. Wear clothing that reflects so that drivers can see you. Overall, follow common sense safety rules and ride only in areas where you feel comfortable and safe.
Remember that bike paths are not automatically safer. There is increased traffic during the summer months. Sharing these paths with pedestrians and runners also adds to the potential for accidents.
It goes without saying, but a safe bike ride is a good bike ride.
“Biking is such a great activity and a great way to stay fit,” Grady said. “Anybody can do it and it’s something you can do the rest of your life.”
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