In 2016 I cycled 200 km round Ibiza to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. I did the same race a few years before and found it to be one of the most rewarding challenges I have ever done. If you haven’t been on a bike since you were younger, then I highly suggest you try it (I got back on a bike after about 30 years at 38!), it gives you speed and strength, and a freedom in the great outdoors that I feel is difficult to gain from any other form of exercise. It also doesn’t come with the volume of injuries that, say, running does which puts higher strain and force on the feet, legs and body.
As for being good at it, well it’s taken me training for a few races to really feel confident on a bike (a few years back I was too scared to take one hand off the handle bars to indicate or grab my bottle of water!). I wouldn’t say I’ve turned into Victoria Pendleton since, but I now definitely feel like I’m in control of those two wheels, and I’ve learnt a few handy tips along the way. With the help of personal trainer Steve Mellor of Freedom2train , I focused my training on strengthening my legs through squats and lunges, and it’s unbelievable how much easier the hills now are.
If you are thinking of doing a long bike ride, a race or just want to gain some tips for bettering your bike performance, here are my top tips...
1. Get off your bike
It’s not all about going hard at it on the road, in fact some of the most important exercises you can do for bettering your performance on a bike are to be done at home or in the gym. Personal trainer and keen cyclist Steve Mellor has shown me how at-home exercises will make you faster and stronger outside. “You want to gain strength in your quads and hamstrings as well as stability in your hips,” he says, “It’s so important for everyone to do strength training, even if they are an endurance athlete.”
How to strengthen your quads:
Mellor recommends doing regular squats before progressing into weighted squats; lunges before progressing onto weighted lunges, and doing split squats (horrible but effective) regularly. “Just doing 8-12 reps regularly will make you faster on a bike,” he says.
How to strengthen your hamstrings:
If you are serious about cycling you will wear clip-in shoes (see point 9 below), which means you will also be pulling the pedal up to your bottom which requires the use of your hamstrings. The stronger these are, the more powerful you will be (and also Mellor says cycling can make your legs quad-dominant which in turn can weaken your hamstrings, so it’s a good idea to focus on them). Best exercises? Swiss ball hamstring curls, deadlifts and using the leg extension and hamstring curl machines in the gym.
2. Push Yourself
It’s one thing pootling about on a bike, but maximise your ride at the same time. How? “Do part of your bike ride at a higher intensity ,” says Mellor, which he says will increase overall fitness levels. “This will gain cardiovascular fitness, will increase your ability to deliver oxygen to muscles faster, but also your ability to use oxygen,” he says. What to do? This could mean doing 30 seconds of hard effort on/ 30 seconds off repeatedly for say five minutes, or consistently harder effort for 10 minutes, but what is key, says Mellor, "is to push yourself harder than you would for a steady ride of over two hours.”
3. Learn to love a hill
One way to get fitter on your bike is to do what Mellor suggests and find a hill that’s say a minute long and cycle up it and down it a few times. “It’s a perfect hill sprint session,” he explains. Not only will your legs get stronger but your fitness will skyrocket.
4. What if I have no hills?
Not everyone lives in the Yorkshire Dales. If you are city bound for example and are struggling to find a hill to practise on then get on a spin bike, a watt bike or a turbo trainer and set yourself tougher intervals at higher resistance.
5. If you see a Watt bike, hop on it
The eyes of every personal trainer I have ever met light up at the mention of a Watt bike. What makes them so good? Olympic cyclist Lizzie Armistead (who has recently become an ambassador for the brand) raves that it’s the most natural comparison to a road bike. Some of the other highlights a wattbike offers are: Full adjustability, a road like sensation, accurate power readings, pedal stroke analysis (so you can see if you are pulling and pushing evenly), and the ability to upload training sessions via an app. Brian Walpole Director of Personal Training at the Workshop Gymnasium in London says, ”They are brilliant at helping you get a consistently better stride on a bike.”
6. Strengthen your core
You may think that cycling is all about the legs, but a strong core will allow you to produce more force. Walpole likens a weak core to trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe, “The platform isn’t strong enough to be really powerful,” he says, "when your core is strong in cycling you can then transmit more force through your legs going up and down hills.”
Exercises to improve core strength are squats, planks and hollow holds. For the latter lie on your back and raise your arms and legs off the ground (arms over your head) keeping everything straight so you are in a 'V' shape (your bottom is the bottom of the 'v'), hold for 30 seconds.
7. To spin or not to spin?
Spinning can be helpful when it comes to improving strength in your legs and for working at a higher intensity than normal, but it’s important you find a good class. Both Walpole and Mellor agree that you should find time researching a good one and that you don’t fall for the gimmicks.
The music might be first-class and they might do a weights session half way through, but is the rest of the class pushing you out of your comfort zone? And a good instructor is key.
8. Always stretch
Stretching is extremely important if you start cycling a lot. “When you are on a bike you’re in a flex position which can shorten your hip flexors and hamstrings,” says Walpole, “Anyone who exercises should do a miniumum of 20 minutes flexibility work for every exercise session,” he says and recommends upping that if you are training for an event or race.
“Key areas to stretch are your hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes and quads,” he says, mentioning that if you don’t wear clip in shoes you will be working your calves hard so stretching them is very important too.
9. Stop thinking cleats are for the pros
OK I am guilty here. I have done three triathlons and two big bike challenges and I don’t wear clip-in cycling shoes (much to the hilarity of every other wannabe cyclist I know.) Why? Well the first and only time I tried them I fell off on hard concrete and grazed my whole leg, and I’m too scared to try them again. I totally understand I need to get going with them though as the benefits are huge.
Why wear them? a) Your foot is connected to the pedal meaning there is no gap between foot and force which equals a quicker, smoother, more powerful, faster cycling action. b) You can pull up with your feet as well as push down which means you are recruiting more muscles and using a far more efficient cycling action c) “You get a better distribution of force,” says Walpole, “The hard base means you get more power through your shoe than a trainer with a soft sole.”
10. Be mindful of your bike position
The right bike position can mean you can cycle comfortably for longer. A bad one may start to cause discomfort. Key elements of bike positioning are as follows:
- You should be able to reach the tops of your handlebars without overstretching, with your back at around 45 degrees. Your arms should not be quite straight
- The reach to the breaks should be longer and lower but maintainable for long periods and also comfortable when going downhill which is when you need the strongest hold on your breaks.
- The rule of thumb for seat height is that your knee should have a slight bend in it when it’s at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
11. Stop being scared of getting bulky legs
Many of my friends say they don’t want to start cycling or going to spin classes as they don’t want to get bulky legs. Mellor believes this is a myth, and I, for one have not gained bulky thighs or calves, and I spin or cycle a few times a week, if anything they have just gained more tone and definition and are actually hard to touch rather than wobbly. "Think of all those professional road cyclists - they don't have huge bulky legs," says Mellor, "And they do this all day every day. It is incredibly hard to build loads of muscle." So no excuses, get on yer bike.
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