Editor’s Note: Join Dana Santas for a seven-part series to learn how to reboot your workout routine — and stick with it. Here’s Part V.
If you’ve been following along, we’re well into the reboot of your workout routine. If you’re just joining now, take a moment to review how we’ve set the foundation for establishing a sustainable exercise habit, mastered how to move properly and learned how to use free weights to increase strength and boost our metabolism.
And last week in Part IV, we covered why and how to add cardiovascular exercise into your workouts. Cycling is also cardio, but, due to its popularity, I wanted to give it special attention.
During lockdown, both indoor and outdoor bike purchases rose dramatically, and for good reason. Cycling offers all the mental and physical health benefits of other forms of cardio, including weight loss, without many disadvantages.
Remember, in the last article, we talked about how too much long-distance running can lead to muscle loss and decrease in bone density? Comparatively, biking burns the same number of calories as running without diminishing returns.
That said, the rounded posture and repetitive pedaling motion of cycling can create tension in your back and hips that, over time, can lead to chronic issues if not adequately addressed. Utilizing the right exercises in your overall training, which I share below, can counteract the potential for bike-related aches and pains.
Select a bike that’s right for you
The first consideration when you’re taking up or restarting a cycling program is to determine whether you’ll be riding inside or outside — or a combination of both. Some factors to consider include year-round climate, traffic, access to bike trails, air quality and bike budget.
Outdoor bike options: When it comes to outdoor bikes, there are two main categories: road bikes and mountain bikes. Keep in mind that a standard road bike is designed strictly for speed on the road, with the goal of being as aerodynamic as possible.
Conversely, you can still use a mountain bike on the road, but its wider, deeper-traction tires will slow you down quite a bit unless you swap them out for road-style tires. I know this from experience because I have a mountain bike that I use frequently on the road. Since my goal is to exercise, I don’t mind having to work a little harder to go faster on a smooth surface, while still having the option to go off road.
The staff at most any bike shop will be able to help you determine the right bike for your needs and budget. Investing in a decent bike can be pricey but, with proper maintenance, it will last decades. My bike had a price tag of just under a thousand dollars 20 years ago (which was a lot for a bike back then). With basic yearly tune-ups, it continues to ride well.
Indoor bike options: When you think about indoor bikes, chances are the uber-popular Peloton comes to mind. With its attached screen and integrated app, offering both live and on-demand classes, this bike brings you the energy and community of a group cycling class in your own home. During a pandemic, this is a definite bonus! Despite Peloton’s popularity, the brand hasn’t completely cornered the market, though; there are numerous other indoor bike brands, like ProForm and NordicTrack, that can be used in conjunction with online cycling class apps.
Although early in my fitness career I was an indoor cycling class instructor, now, working as a coach in professional sports, my goals for indoor cycling have changed to be less about the thrill of the class and more about efficiency and efficacy of the exercise. For that reason, I prefer non-standard, fan-based, stationary bikes, like the Schwinn Airdyne and Assault AirBike, that integrate arm movement for a total-body workout. With the integration of upper-body work, these bikes burn more calories in the same time frame as traditional stationary and outdoor bikes.
When determining which indoor bike is right for you, practice due diligence. Research different brands, models and reviews online to help you make an educated purchase that fits your needs and budget.
Set up your bike for success
Whether you’re biking indoors or out, proper bike setup is crucial for safety and comfort. Setting your seat and handlebars at the right height and distance make a big difference in how confident and comfortable you are on your bike.
If you purchased your bike at a bike shop, the staff will help you set it up properly. Likewise, stationary bikes come with specific set-up instructions. However, as a rule of thumb, here are a few guidelines:
- Seat height: The most common way to determine appropriate seat height for both indoor and outdoor bikes is the “heel-to-pedal” method. Sitting on your bike, holding a wall or other support for balance, place your heel on the pedal and pedal backward to the lowest position (6 o’clock). Your leg should be straight without locking out your knee. If your knee is still bent, increase the height. If your heel loses contact with the pedal, lower the seat.
- Reach to handlebars: While sitting comfortably on your bike seat, you should be able to easily lean forward, using your core as support, to rest your hands on the handlebars with your elbows slightly bent. With traditional stationary bikes, a standard measure is to match the distance between the saddle and handlebars to the length of your forearm.
- Foot position: Don’t let the foot position for the seat-height measurement confuse you. When actively cycling, you want to place the balls of your feet on the middle of the pedals. If you choose to wear bike shoes that clip into your pedals, they’ll keep your feet in the right position.
Ride to meet your needs and goals
Just like other forms of cardiovascular exercise, you should ride your bike for at least 30 minutes three times per week to realize the long-term health benefits. And, if weight loss is one of those goals, remember that a well-rounded program that includes weight lifting is the most effective means of reaching that goal.
As important as physical health goals are, keep in mind your mental health needs. As we’ve covered in past articles in this series, exercise facilitates the production of feel-good brain chemicals — biking is no different.
And depending on how you choose to bike, you can fulfill other mental health needs. Do you need to get out of your house more? Outdoor cycling does that. Feeling disconnected socially? Join a cycling club or get your social fix virtually with live online cycling classes.
Avoid bike-related aches and pains
Although proper bike setup will go a long way to helping you avoid undue stress and tension, there’s no denying that the rounded cycling posture and repetitive pedaling take a toll on our backs and hips. To keep those areas healthy, it’s important to integrate exercises into your overall workout program that counter the impact of cycling.
Kneeling T-spine rotation
This rotational exercise promotes mid-back and side-waist mobility to loosen up tension in those areas caused by the static posture on the bike.
Start on your hands and knees. Sit back on your heels, sliding your hands back to so they are directly in front of your knees. Replace your left-hand position with your right hand.
Then inhale as you lift your left arm to rotate upward to the left. Keep your hips shifted back with your low back stable. Do the prescribed number of reps, then repeat on the other side.
This move opposes the forward flexion of bike posture by increasing strength and mobility throughout your upper back and shoulder complex.
From standing, hinge your hips back and bend your knees slightly in a semi-squat position. This is often referred to as “athletic stance.” Place the backs of your hands against the insides of your knees.
Inhale as you raise your straight arms out and up in front of you in a Y position. Exhale to return your hands to the insides of your knees. Maintain athletic position with a flat back and weight in your heels as you move your arms through each repetition.
Tall kneeling kettlebell hold
This exercise strongly counteracts bike posture by activating your core, upper back and glutes to stabilize your position while releasing your hip flexors and opening your chest.
Place a 10- to 20-pound kettlebell on your mat, then take a tall kneeling position in front of it with your back to the weight. Sit back on your heels and reach behind you with both hands to grab the handle of the kettlebell. Exhale as you engage your core and glutes, pushing your hips forward to lift the weight behind your back as you come up to the tall kneeling position. Your knees should be hip-distance apart and your toes curled forward with your heels up (as pictured).
Maintain vertical alignment of shoulders, rib cage and hips over your knees without letting your back arch. As you hold the kettlebell behind you, keep your arms straight with your shoulders and chest open. Hold for five long, deep breaths, using your breathing to control your rib cage position. After five breaths, sit back on your heels to return the weight to the mat. Rest for 15 to 30 seconds then repeat for another five breaths.
Understandably, back tension is a common complaint among cyclists, but, unfortunately, too many misunderstand how to handle it and think stretching their back out is the answer. However, it’s really less about a need to stretch (remember that cycling posture puts the back in an excessively flexed stretch) and more about needing to restore natural spinal curves.
To prevent back pain and restore posture, the areas that actually need to be stretched/inhibited (turned off) are the pecs, anterior shoulders and upper trapezius (chest, front of shoulders and upper back/neck muscles). These are the same upper-body issues you encounter when working at a desk, hunched over a computer for prolonged periods. Consequently, for additional relevant exercise ideas, check out my article “5 exercises to offset too much sitting.”
Stay safe while cycling
The biggest health risk to outdoor cyclists is crashing. That’s why it’s important to wear a properly fitted bike helmet and always follow the rules of the road. Additionally, be sure your bike is equipped with reflectors, and it doesn’t hurt to wear reflective biking gear.
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Whether biking indoors or out, as a cardiovascular exercise, cycling is going to make you sweat, so you need to replace those fluids by staying hydrated. One of your most important bike accessories is a water bottle holder!
Now that you’re moving faster and working up a good sweat, get ready to ramp it up. Check back here next Monday for Part VI, where we’ll dive into high-intensity exercise routines.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”