We’ve timed this month’s 30-Day Challenge with the annual May Is Bike Month campaign, so you’ll be in good company if you’re new to riding or just rusty.
The idea is to get people to replace car trips with bike trips – long or short.
Bikes are incredibly efficient and versatile. In addition to a workout-specific ride, you can commute, explore, go out to dinner, run errands. There’s bike parking at the Golden 1 Center. Same with the free Concerts In the Park downtown on Fridays. There’s probably a farmers market within a short bike ride of your home; same with the grocery store.
Mike Tentis, a digital marketing specialist at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center, has found plenty to like since he got into cycling in 2010.
“I had reached a point where going to the gym was not that interesting anymore and I was struggling to get enough exercise,” said Tentis, 52. “Rediscovering my bike was a great way to improve my health and my outlook on life. The middle-aged waistline was getting out of control. The bike really helped me to focus on keeping the pounds off.”
If you’re struggling with running or find yourself dealing with running injuries, don’t stop exercising — consider shifting to cycling, which is far easier on the body. You’ll probably have to ride 4 miles for every one you’d run to get the same fitness benefits.
Gabe Mirkin, a retired sports medicine doctor who writes a free weekly health and fitness newsletter, is a big advocate for giving up running in favor of riding.
“The faster you run, the greater the foot-strike force. Competitive distance runners are injured more often than football players,” Mirkin said by phone from his Florida home. “I raced at a fairly high level for a while, but I spent more time being injured than I spent competing and training.”
Now 82, Mirkin logs 150 to 200 miles a week on his bike and “I haven’t been injured in six years.”
To help boost your overall fitness, I’ve divided the workouts into three categories — entry level (returning to a fit lifestyle), intermediate (riding some but eager to get better), and advanced (looking to push yourself to make new performance gains). Those who haven’t been active for a while should get the OK from a doctor before starting.
Like most fitness experts these days, Mirkin is a strong proponent of intervals — relatively short bursts of speed, followed by a rest, and repeated 10 or more times.
“Intense exercise increases your ability to take in oxygen,” Mirkin said.
But intervals are too much for beginners, or those who are returning to exercising after a lengthy hiatus. Beginners should start slowly, riding until they feel somewhat tired and then calling it a day. Do that as often as possible, nudging your distance and level of exertion up only when you are ready. By the time you are able to ride for 30 minutes without stopping, feel free to take on the wonderful world of intervals.
Frankly, intervals are a physical and mental challenge. You’re pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Mirkin suggests keeping intervals short. Go all out for 10 seconds, then ride slowly until you catch your breath. Then hit it hard again. You might be able to do that 10 times or 50. When your legs start to feel stiff and tired, call it a day, Mirkin advises. You’ll likely be sore the next day. If that’s the case, do an easy ride, also known as a recovery ride.
Intermediate and advanced cyclists can try different kinds of intervals. The standard ratio is usually 3:1 for rest and activity. If your interval is one minute, rest for three. There’s also the popular Tabata Protocol, inspired by a Izumi Tabata, a Japanese sports doctor who worked with speed skaters. He discovered that the skaters improved when they performed eight 20-second all-out efforts with just 10 seconds of rest between each one. Yes, that adds up to four minutes. On paper, it sounds easy enough. By all accounts, it’s brutal to perform. I have a fitness timer app, Tabata Pro, on my phone that helps me do these. Advanced athletes can tackle several rounds of Tabatas.
In 2010, Bicycling Magazine published a story called “The Ultimate Interval,” which details how average cyclists can reach dramatically new fitness levels by doing intervals at their peak power level. That works out to going full speed for about 2 1/2 minutes followed by 5 minutes of recovery riding at a moderate pace. Work your way up to doing five or six of these and you will be riding stronger and faster than ever. But be warned. The article uses the word “excruciating” for a reason.
Beyond intervals, try to work in an occasional long ride at a moderate pace. It will help build endurance and give you a mental break from those taxing all-out efforts.
Tentis advises newcomers to not worry if other riders are zooming past. Getting better takes time.
“The only competition is with yourself and what you did yesterday,” he said. “You can’t look at the sleek, Lycra-clad superstars on the bike trail and feel bad about yourself.”
Tentis also advises folks to get a riding buddy or group to help maintain motivation. Knowing that your friends are waiting for you at a certain time can be just the push you need to get changed and head out the door.
“It gives you accountability,” said Tentis. “The fear of being mocked for wimping out on a ride is a great motivator.”
Even if you don’t want to get super fit and fast on a bike, you will start to see improvements with occasional riding at a moderate pace. You may drop a few pounds. You’ll probably have more fun. You’re likely to make new friends. And, as the May Is Bike Month campaign hopes you realize, the bicycle is a legitimate mode of transportation to replace the automobile, be it often or once in a while.