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With gyms closed, yoga studios shuttered, and your group fitness classes cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cycling world is welcoming a whole host of new members. If you are one of them, welcome to cycling! We’re here to help you with five tips from our experts as you get started.
Sure, when Billy “Crank It Up” Johnson zips by with his fancy socks up to his mid-calf where all eight of his clothing items are the exact same shade of cyan on his shiny $15,000 road bike that looks like it came from the year 2050, it may seem like you and Billy are actually doing two different sports. But don’t be fooled by the “peacocking.” You don’t need to spend a fortune to be fast, and just because someone has every bell and whistle, doesn’t mean they are fast. “The most important thing is the engine that powers your bike,” says Hunter Allen, legendary cycling coach and author. “So don’t be intimidated by any rider. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, so ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Cycling is for all people, and the vast majority of cyclists are friendly and welcoming, and ready to help you if you show that you want help. Just ask!”
Remember, all cyclists were beginners at one point, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re riding an expensive bike, an entry-level road bike, or a beginner mountain bike, we can all enjoy the great outdoors on two wheels.
Safety is paramount, and while there are always risks when cycling, you can mitigate those risks by practicing your handling skills and learning the rules that cyclists should follow.
Learning how to handle your bike comes with time spent on your bike, but you can expedite that process by practicing certain skills and drills. First, try reaching for your bottle and placing it back in its cage. Repeat 20 times even if you don’t take a drink, and do that at some point during each ride for a few weeks. You’ll be surprised how quickly you become more stable and confident in using this important skill. Next, remember to keep your weight towards the back of your saddle when descending. One of the most common ways to crash on a descent is to have your weight too far forward—if you hit a bump, you could go over the handlebars. Keeping your hips back will keep you on the bike. Finally, use your hips to turn (cornering), not your handlebars (steering). By shifting your weight to one side of your bike and applying pressure on the opposite pedal, you can turn the bike without turning the handlebars. This will lead to smoother turns and a safer ride. Try this on a straight road first.
Being predictable is key for a safe ride, which means you need to know the rules of the road. What is listed here is only a start, so do a little reading and pick the brains of the more experienced riders you meet to learn more. Always ride with the flow of traffic (not on the sidewalk), and yield to pedestrians and to other vehicles already on the road. Obey all traffic signals and signs, and familiarize yourself with all of the vehicle laws in your area. Finally, use hand signals to tell drivers and other cyclists what you intend to do. By following the rules, you greatly increase your chances of a safe ride and an enjoyable start to your cycling journey.
If you’ve come from other sports like swimming, spinning, weightlifting, or running, you may not be accustomed to eating while you exercise. For various reasons (including the fact that bikes are fun and awesome), cycling adventures tend to be longer than other sports activities.
“If you find yourself going out on your bike for more than about 90 minutes—60 minutes if it’s an intense ride—then you will want to consider bringing some calories with you,” says Bob Seebohar, dietitian for the 2008 US Olympic Triathlon Team. “That’s especially true if you haven’t eaten anything in a while.” There are three macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein and fat—but carbohydrates are the best to eat during exercise since your body can most readily use them.
“Most sports nutrition products have simple sugars and/or maltodextrin in them which tend to provide a ‘spike and crash’ type of effect, can be harsh on the stomach, and may be detrimental to long-term health due to their high glycemic nature,” says Seebohar. “I encourage my athletes to use longer lasting sources of energy that keep blood sugar stable to promote better long-term health.”
With temperatures soaring over the summer months, hydration is of utmost importance for your enjoyment of cycling and for your performance. Hydration can be broken down into two things: water and electrolytes. Water by itself is actually a poor hydrator, and you need electrolytes (mainly sodium) in order to retain the fluids you drink. Furthermore, drinking too much water relative to electrolytes can lead to hyponatremia, a dangerous condition that can lead to severe harm or death.
"It's important that you take in electrolytes along with water to stay hydrated, potentially preventing cramping, and improving your performance,” instructs instructs Registered Dietitian Lauren Mitchell. “Clinically, dehydration can be defined as losing more than 2-3% of your body weight during exercise. Signs and symptoms of mild dehydration include feeling lightheaded, experiencing reduced cognitive function, and feeling thirsty.”
Studies have shown that losing more than 3% of your body weight in sweat is detrimental to performance as well. So how much should you drink? Mitchell notes that everyone is different, but a good starting point is to consume half your body weight in fluid ounces of water per day, plus what you sweat out during exercise.
“Your body’s hydration is influenced by various factors such as your own body’s sweat rate, sweat sodium concentration, activity level and age.” Environmental conditions cause sweat rates to vary dramatically as well. You can more accurately determine your sweat rate, and your body’s hydration needs, by weighing yourself before and after a ride. If you drank nothing during a 1-hour ride and you lost two pounds, you know that you sweat about 1 quart (32oz) in one hour under those conditions. Mitchell recommends replacing what you lost in sweat but by consuming it throughout the day, not in one sitting.
Pacing is a tough skill, but it is key to finishing stronger, enjoying the sport and performing at your best. It’s a key component and skill that each of us learn when we begin endurance sports and we continue to refine and improve over the years. There are several different ways to pace, but “pacing yourself by effort level is the most critical and key skill you need to successfully ‘meter’ out your energy during your ride,” says Allen.
“Pacing by speed is challenging as terrain and wind can strongly impact your speed. Pacing by heart rate is also a very good way to pace yourself as you can easily hold between a certain range of beats per minute in the right ‘zones.’ Heart rate does have some flaws though, as it can be affected by a number of other factors like heat, humidity, hydration status, level of caffeine in your system, and others. The gold standard in pacing is by using a power meter as it is a completely objective measure where 200 watts is 200 watts no matter if you’re going uphill or downhill, or if it is 90 degrees or snowing.”
If you want to learn more about power meters, you can pick up Hunter Allen's book called Training & Racing with a Power Meter here. Pacing well will make your whole cycling experience more enjoyable, and with these tips you’ll be on the fast-track to strong pacing.
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