The Fitness Workout: Cycling
Iain Hollingshead perfects cycling to work
There is a crucial difference between being "a cyclist" and someone who cycles to work occasionally. Partly, of course, it’s the Lycra. But it’s also a state of mind, a tendency to smell like stale cheddar at one’s desk, and a useful shorthand to know whom to avoid at parties.
I am not a cyclist. But I do cycle to work every now and again – at least in the spring and summer months when it’s not raining and I can remember where I left my bike. And then, I have always wondered how healthy I was being – and whether there were ways to do it better. I met Greg Chapman, a personal trainer based in Kensington Gardens, west London, to find out.
“Cycling is great for you,” Greg tells me. “It works out your quads, your glutes and your hamstrings – essentially, your entire lower body.”
As a low-impact form of exercise, it is particularly effective for those with knee, ankle or hip problems. “Clients who can’t run for an hour can often cycle for an hour,” says Greg.
My route to work is more like 12.52 minutes (not that I’ve ever timed it, you understand, or tried to beat my personal best…). But there is still plenty you can do in a short period of time to get the most out of the exercise.
Interval training – alternating short sprints with longer, gentler periods – is almost as effective on a bike as on a running machine. “But be smart about it,” advises Greg. “Burn uphill and power off downhill. And if you’re worried about sweating at work, or can’t have a shower, take it easy on the way in, and push it harder on the way home.”
However fast you plan on pedalling, it’s always worth thinking about posture: chest out, head up, arms slightly bent, back straight but not arched, leading knee at an angle of 90 degrees. If you think about keeping your core muscles slightly tensed, everything else fits into place. It also gives your abs something of a workout.
And if that seems like a lot to think about – whoever came up with the phrase “as easy as riding a bike”? – there’s also the question of minimising power loss. Greg watches as I tackle a small hill, standing on the pedals and jerking from side to side. We try again, concentrating on driving power through the pedals and keeping the bike stable.
After six or so weeks of regular cycling, one’s body apparently comes to a plateau: to get fitter you have to up the ante, cycling further and faster. You’re also unlikely to burn as many calories as you would while running. One study found that 20 miles ridden at 10mph is equivalent to only 4.8 miles of running.
The good news, however, is that cycling is an excellent way of maintaining a base level of fitness. More importantly, according to Greg, “cycling is great for the mind”. And as I meander happily through the park to work, it’s difficult not to agree. It’s also an excellent excuse for a second breakfast once you get to the office.