Committed yourself to getting fit this year, but have no idea how to do it? Former professional cyclist and pharmacy lecturer Paul Coats talks the two massive benefits of getting on your bike.
So you're on a mission. You've made up your mind to use the bike instead of taking the car or public transport. The bike is ready, lights are good, you’ve got the correct clothing and you’re ready to go. So, where do you start?
If you’re new to cycling, I’d suggest to start small. Ride every other day, then two days on and one off, increasing this over a period of 4-6 weeks.
Getting into a routine of small, regular amounts of cardio is the best way to improve your overall health and control your weight. It’s better to avoid the occasional epic ride as – although one big ride every so often can be fun – in isolation it’s not that rewarding in terms of long-term health gains and waistline losses. These epic cycles can also lead to injury, mental torture and an incredibly sore rear end.
Less and often is the way to go. You’ll build up your fitness progressively, and reap the rewards in many ways.
Win #1: get healthy
Health and weight control are the major positives of cycling. Weight control – whether that be gain or loss – is fundamentally down to energy balance: energy in versus energy out. Get it wrong and you’ll pile on the pounds.
Here’s an example: a plain tea biscuit per day that pushes your ‘energy in’ (food you eat) above ‘energy out’ (movement and exercise) is around 60kcal. That might not sound like much per day, but multiply it and that’s almost half a stone of weight gain in a year. (I won’t tell you what this would be per decade). Chocolate digestives, beer, wine, curries, sweets, cakes… you get the picture! So it’s a fine line you want to be aware of.
I often used to say to non-cycling friends that cycling is a great way to socialise with like-minded people, see more of the countryside… and eat more cakes! It’s true that cycling is an amazing activity. You burn enormous amounts of energy in the process, so that when you do overindulge you’ve got a little credit – and you’ll burn off the extra calories pretty quickly.
Win #2: save cash
The other place you’ll save is transport costs. The average cost of return travel is £8 a day. This can run into thousands of pounds a year on nothing more than sitting – or most likely standing – to and from work. I commute 50 minutes twice a day on average five times a week. That’s a basic saving of £1600 per year… plus, you’re burning 180,000kcal which equals 51lbs of fat (a pound of fat has around 3500kcal of energy, so yes, 51lbs!)
A recent BBC investigation shows that cycling was the least stressful mode of transport in London city centre. Although the journalist failed to identify the positive cost and health benefits associated with cycling, there’s an extra point to take on board here. Cars and public transport are without doubt two of the most stressful and costly ways of getting around. So, along with keeping the calories at bay, you’ll also arrive at work relaxed and ready to ace your day.
Three times when you shouldn’t feel bad for taking transport
I tend to ride to and from work every day. But there are three things that stop me. First, illness. I don't ride or train when I am ill. Like most people, I get two or three cold viruses a year and take time off cycling to recover and get well quicker. When I have a cold, I tend to turn my legs using the indoor turbo trainer for 10-15 minutes at pushing pram speed. This seems to help when I get back on the bike, but it's in no way training!
The second thing that stops me is the wind. High winds – especially in the city – can be great fun and a real challenge of your bike handling skills. Up to a point, I enjoy that challenge. But even an experienced bike rider like myself must know their limits. The chance of being blown off or into traffic is a real possibility, and not one I am willing to embrace. Autumn storms – even those friendly-sounding ones like 'Barney' – can be a cyclist's worst nightmare.
The final thing that stops me is ice. Thankfully, the childhood memories of cycling in deep snow are rather distant now! Black ice can be really scary and can make your back-road route extremely dangerous. On these days, choose your route carefully and stick to treated roads.
I reckon over the year I might miss 10-15 days due to my three commute busters. Not so bad, considering! The weather is actually fairly kind here in Scotland – it’s not as bad as we often think! With the correct clothing the weather is certainly not a barrier to bike riding.
Did you realise that riding your bike slowly will make you fitter and faster? Next time, I’ll talk about taking it easy on the bike, plus how to maximise easy riding benefits to make you healthy and happy.
Paul Coats has been cycling since age 13, racing at both national and international level as an elite category road cyclist. A British Cycling Federation road coach, he's also lecturer of pharmacy, physiology and pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde. Catch him at his regular turbo trainer classes for South Lanarkshire Council, or tweet him right here.