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Riding is lousy all-around exercise
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” - William Shakespeare
With Shakespeare’s question in mind, and as a service to Bike Delaware’s readers, we offer the following caution on bicycling as exercise from Grant Petersen’s ”Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike“.
The title of this book means “ride without the influence of pro racing, peer pressure, posturing, commercial interests, and Hollywood” – not “ride your bike to the exclusion of all other physical activities.” If you want to be healthy and achieve functional, all-around fitness, you’ve got to do other things. A lot of bike riders, especially serious racer types who ride expensive bikes and dress in racing clothes, believe that ALL precious exercising hours are best spent riding their bike. That may be true for racers who need to cram 200-mile weeks into fifteen hours of free time, but it doesn’t make sense for anybody else.
Riding a bike is a great foundation exercise. It works the big muscles of your legs and butt. But reduced to its simplest biomechanics, pedaling a bike amounts to twirling your feet in 13.5-inch-diameter circles while the rest of your muscles don’t do much. Climbing hills is an exception, but I’m talking about in general, most of the time.
But when you focus solely on any once exercise, your muscles become super efficient, and after about four to six weeks, you stop getting better at it – or you at least reach the point of a bad return on investment. Pedaling a bicyle exemplifies this – probably more than any muscle movement in any other sport or pastime. Your muscles need shock, strain and variety to thrive, and turning pedals around in circles doesn’t do it. Plus, riding your bike on a smooth road isn’t load bearing, so it doesn’t fend off osteoporosis. It takes time away from weight-bearing, bone-building exercise. To double the threat, long, hard bike rides trigger a release of cortisol, a hormone that inhibits your body’s assimilation of calcium. Long-time, long-distance riders are famous for having porous bones. It’s a spooky, harmful adaptation to keep their bodies as light as possible for better climbing.
A lot of riders who push themselves to do longer and harder rides do it with the belief that overtaxing their bodies this way somehow supercharges their health. It doesn’t. Long, hard rides grind you down. They tone your muscles, but their biggest contribution is building mental toughness that prepares you for yet another grueling ride next week. Your prepare your pedaling muscles for the occasional killer ride far more efficiently with anaerobic training. If your purpose is health or fitness – as opposed to personal achievement or socializing or commiserating with others hour after hour – the long, mid-effort slogs that are a staple for most “serious” riders are a bad use of time.
Altogether, if you ride so much that you have no time or interest or energy to do any other kind of exercise, you’ll be a foam-boned, hunched-over weakling after thirty years of it. You’ll be fit for bike riding, but that’s it. So instead of grinding out forty miles in two and a half hours or eighty miles in six, try ten miles in forty minutes. Use the time you save for walking the dog, hiking with your spouse, chopping wood, push-ups, pull-ups, CrossFit, kettle bells, yoga, Frisbee, whatever. No matter how much you like it, bike riding shouldn’t be your only exercise. Ride your bike half the time, then work the muscles that bike riding doesn’t.
Excerpted from JUST RIDE: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike, by Grant Petersen. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.