Cycling for Better Aerobic and Endurance

I prefer biking to running for “base training” because it provides aerobic and endurance training. Although running does provide aerobic training it doesn’t have the other advantages of biking like low impact for aging knees. Biking also builds muscle tone and strength much more so than running.

If you are new to serious biking, here are some basics. Biking should be done three times a week at the beginning of the training program. Two times a week will be fine but other training activities (the circuits) should be added after the first few weeks to supplement the two-day bike program.

Biking Technique
Serious bikers talk about something called spinning. Spinning is the most efficient way to move on a bike. It means you form a complete circle of power with your pedaling action. Pedaling isn’t a series of alternating downward pressure strokes, it is a continuous circle of pressure on the pedals. The downward push shouldn’t do all the work. As the right foot comes to the top of the pedal circle the left foot begins to pull up during the back of the pedal circle. Combining the pull back and up with the push down and forward gives the circle no weak points. Alternating these movements from right to left foot and from pushing to pulling requires some practice, but once you have the idea of spinning, biking enjoyment is reached. It’s hard to explain because it feels so powerful yet requires much less strength. You become an efficient machine, in tune with the bike.

Here’s how it’s learned:

  • Spin at ninety or more revolutions per minute. This means you are in a low gear and your feet are turning very fast. I often practice the spin early in the season at 120 RPM to speed up my feet. Bike stores sell little bike computers that tell you exactly how fast you are spinning. At only $20 – $30, they are worthwhile and a great training tool.
  • A good way to measure your improvement is to ride the same loop or a number of loops that you can repeat. After the first week, time your ride. The computer can also be used as a timer and it records your average speed. Do not try to improve your time during the first two weeks. Ride for the enjoyment and experience.
  • Your first weeks of riding should be half to three-quarters of an hour long. Your ride can have some small hills and you may need to learn how to ride standing up.
  • If you are riding at 90 RPM as recommended and you come to a hill your cadence will decrease. You can maintain the same gear by standing on the pedals. Standing gives you more power but it is more demanding aerobically. It is good to do some standing as it develops other muscles and requires bike handling skills and balance.
  • The really dedicated enthusiast will want to use a heart rate monitor. The monitor tells you how hard you are working or not working. People who are new to biking usually say they have a hard time getting a workout. They try to compare it to running, where they are immediately out of breath. Biking will get you out of breath, have no worries, but you have to learn how.
  • Make sure you are in good health and have no medical conditions that keep you from participating in strenuous physical activity. If you are unsure about your ability to start a physical program consult your doctor.

Bike Intervals

Now that you’ve been biking regularly for a few weeks, you’re ready to add a weekly bike interval workout. The interval workout will improve your fitness faster than steady cycling does. Two workouts are described here. Start with the “Faster Mile” interval workout, once a week. It will improve your aerobic capacity and leg strength. Once you’re comfortable with that workout, try the “All-out Effort” workout, which will improve your anaerobic capacity and your lactate threshold. (That’s the point at which your legs cry for mercy.)

For either interval workout, begin with 5 – 10 minutes of easy spinning, gradually increasing to your standard steady-ride pace. You want your muscles and joints thoroughly warmed-up prior to beginning the intervals. After the intervals, cool off with about 5 minutes of easy spinning.

IMPORTANT: If you haven’t been riding several times a week for at least three weeks, don’t do these interval workouts! You must have a sufficient base in order to derive benefits from these workouts. If you don’t, you will simply hurt.

“Faster Mile” Interval Workout
Using a cyclocomputer, your car odometer, or other method, find a one-mile section of road or trail that you enjoy. It should have distinct starting and ending landmarks, be fairly flat, and have several hundred yards of speed-up and slow down zones at either end of it. You’ll be doing U-turns in order to ride this section back and forth, so keep traffic safety in mind.

Ride the mile once at your normal, steady pace and time how long it takes you. Your interval pace should be about 80% of your steady pace. For instance, if it normally takes you 5 minutes to ride the mile, your interval target time will be 4 minutes. If you normally ride it in 4 minutes, your target time is 3:12.

Here’s the workout…
Once you are warmed up, spin up to your desired speed in the acceleration zone. Try to be at speed when you pass the incoming landmark. Remain at your higher speed throughout the mile, and don’t let off until you pass your exit landmark. Slow down through your deceleration zone, do a U-turn (LOOK FOR CARS!!), and pedal easily back to your acceleration zone.

Repeat the round trip 4 times. Try to meet your target time in each interval. If your later intervals are slower than your early ones, aim for a slightly slower pace. Keep pedaling at 90-100 rpm throughout the interval – you may need to adjust your gears.

“All-out Effort” Interval Workout
This workout can be performed in a loop, as above, or you can incorporate it on your regular bike routes. Once you are warmed up, go as hard as you can for 30 seconds. Keep your rpm’s between 90 and 100; you’ll need to shift to a harder gear. After the interval, pedal easily until you have recovered. If you have a heart rate monitor, recover until 120 bpm. If you don’t have a monitor, when you’ve recovered you’ll be able to have a conversation without difficulty breathing. Repeat the effort/recovery 4 times, then pedal easily to cool off.