Outdoor cycling – it’s as easy as riding a bike! Not so fast. “Cycling outdoors is often dismissed as being easy,” says Craig Undem, head coach and founder of Cycle University in Seattle, WA, “because most adults learned to ride as a kid and ‘everyone can do it.’”
The reality is that not everyone knows how to ride a bike and riding around your neighborhood as a child is far different from hitting the path, the trail or (especially) the street. “Much like snow skiing or motorcycle riding, the skills required to enjoy cycling on city streets, in traffic, on steep hills, slippery corners and with other riders in close quarters takes a big skill-set to do in a safe and enjoyable manner,” says Undem who adds that the good news is that he’s seen many transformations in his more than 20 years teaching and coaching outdoor cycling so it’s never too late to learn.
If you’re new to outdoor cycling, continue reading for some tips to steer you in the right direction.
The Benefits of Outdoor Cycling
Any form of exercise comes with it’s list of benefits and cycling is no different. Outdoor exercise can boost the mood and battle depression even more than indoor workouts and, depending on the length and terrain of your commute, biking can double as transportation for even more of a win-win scenario. If bike commuting sounds fun but isn’t practical on a regular basis, participate in National Bike to Work Day (on May 20th) or National Bike to Work Week each year. Find out more from The League of American Bicyclists.
Weight Loss and Fat Burning Potential
Since outdoor cycling is form of cardiovascular exercise, it makes for a great fat-burning workout with a lot of weight loss potential. Of course, weight loss is always a combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle but significant weight loss is unlikely without significant cardio and cycling is a great way to get fresh air and burn calories at the same time. The caloric burn is similar to running but without the medium- to high-impact that comes with running so cycling can be a great cardio option for those with joint injuries or pain.
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
Although cycling is primarily a cardiovascular workout, pedaling will help you build strength in the muscles of the legs (especially while hill climbing) and stabilizing yourself in both sitting and standing positions will help increase core strength. Ideally, you should include separate strength training and flexibility work to compliment your cycling routine and to improve your performance if you’re interested in getting faster or for racing.
Training Tips & Classes
It might seem that indoor cycling would be a great practice for outdoor cycling but it really depends on the class. These days, some indoor cycling classes include dancing on the bike, no reference to RPM’s (revolutions per minute) and no talk of gears. These classes can be a fun way to get in a workout but don’t consider them training for cycling on the trail, path or street.
“Indoor cycling is very good to increase fitness but does not help you navigate or handle challenges you face riding outside,” says Undem.
If you want your indoor rides to improve your outdoor rides, skip the typical indoor cycling group fitness classes and seek out classes that specifically train for outdoor riding or for triathlons so you can relate your instructor’s cues to your outdoor ride. If you’re really new to the bike, check out classes that teach you how to adjust your bike or even repair your bike if you like to maintain your toys yourself. Sometimes you’ll find this style of class at a gym or health club but, more often, you’ll find them at bike shops and associated with organized races. At Undem’s Cycle University, they offer a variety of outdoor classes from one-on-one private lessons to Road Skills 101 to Advanced Hill Climbing and more so no matter what your goals are with outdoor cycling, you should be able to find appropriate classes that match your interests.
To increase your confidence on the bike, Undem offers the following tips that have worked for his students throughout his years as a coach and outdoor cycling instructor:
Master these skills for any style of outdoor biking:
- Standing Up
For group cycling (where higher speeds and several bikes increase risk), learn:
- Drafting (riding closely with other riders)
- Paceline (working with a group of riders to increase overall speed)
For Hill Rides, study up on:
- Gear Selection
When it comes to keeping up your training as the weather changes or while avoiding sickness, Undem recommends lots of hydration. Hydrate to keep your immune system at it’s peak and hydrate to keep riding into the winter months. Most people decrease their water intake when the weather cools off but your body still produces sweat and all of your systems need adequate hydration no matter the weather. If you’re new to cycling outside in the cold, he recommends increasing your time on the bike while it’s still warm out to prepare yourself.
No matter what style of biking peaks your interest, do the following to ride as comfortable as possible:
- Focus on Form: Cycling can wreak havoc on your posture if you don’t pay attention so remember to keep your core engaged and roll shoulders down and back throughout your ride.
- Strengthen your Core: Although cycling will help strengthen your core, strengthening your core will help improve your posture and make your back feel better on the bike so you can ride longer.
- Open your Shoulders: Loosen up your shoulders before and during rides and practice shoulder-opening stretches after rides (and throughout your week) to combat bad posture and ease neck and back strain.
- Stretch: Cyclists are notorious for only beginning a flexibility routine once they’ve experience injury. Don’t wait, stretch regularly from the beginning to ease soreness, prevent pain and injury and improve your cycling experience and performance.
Clothes and Proper Attire
As with any cardiovascular activity, dress in comfortable layers made of athletic, wicking material but, since you’re outside, also be sure to take the weather and the sun into account. Wear sunscreen year round and have a hat, visor or sunglasses handy for sunny days. If you wear full-length pants, make sure they are fitted leggings so the material doesn’t get stuck in the bike and, depending on your climate, pack some rain gear just in case. Just like with indoor cycling, you can, of course, cycle in regular workout shoes but as you get into the activity and you start to increase your mileage, you might look into cycle-specific shoes that clip into your pedals. Practice a lot before you set out on the street or path so you don’t panic when you need to get your shoe unclipped in the moment.