Cycle commuting is a great way to improve your cardiovascular fitness and to lose or maintain weight. It's easier and often more effective than going to the gym because it integrates seamlessly into your daily routine. You don't have to go out of your way to do it: you'd be travelling to work anyway, so going by bike enables you to use this dead time for exercise. The more cycling you do, the fitter you'll get as a side effect. For many of us, that's enough. If you specifically want to get fitter or lose weight, there are things you can do to accelerate the process.
Extend your cycle to work
The most time-efficient way to get in more cycling kilometres is to extend the rides that you're already doing, such as your daily commute. Pre- and post-ride activities like getting changed, getting your bike out, or having a shower are already accounted for. So an extra half hour on your bike will cost only an extra half hour of your time.
Your normal route to work is doubtless quite direct, deviating here and there to make it quieter and more pleasant by bike. Don't abandon this route. It's ideal to use in the mornings or whenever time is tight. Instead, literally go out of your way to create one or more additional, longer routes that are less direct. Take a longer route once or twice or week, or even on every journey home and you'll clock up more kilometres with minimal extra effort.
Head for the hills
When you're cycling to work, going around hills is often quicker than going over them, and it's certainly easier. So these are the routes we tend to choose for regular journeys. But riding uphill is a great way to get fit faster precisely because it's harder. You raise your heart rate and tax your muscles. If you can include a hill or two in your long route home, do it.
Ride more often
Increasing the frequency that you cycle means more miles on the bike too. If you currently cycle to work two or three or four times a week, add another day. If you cycle to work every day, go for a ride on one of your days off. Look for opportunities to use your bike for other utility trips, not just riding to work. Need to pop into town? Go by bike instead of driving or taking the bus. How about doing the weekly shop by bike? Get a child seat (not available on the Cycle to Work scheme) and take your pre-school child places. The extra weight of a child or groceries makes you work harder. Fitness instructors call this hypergravity training!
More time on the bike isn't the only way to get fitter; the other is to increase the intensity. Ride harder. You'll want to commute in cycling gear for this, and ideally have a shower to use at work, as you will sweat. A smartphone or GPS-enabled computer is useful as you can log rides, upload them to a website such as strava.com or mapmyride.com, and track your progress – and your weekly distance.
A word of warning if you're going to push yourself when you're commuting: the safety of you and every other road user is paramount. This is training, NOT a race. Every second DOESN'T count. Don't try to ride at speed through congested streets or on shared-used paths. Don't blitz through traffic lights that are changing. Don't risk rear-ending a car because you're staring at your cycle computer. Any targets you set yourself can only be rough guidelines and MUST take account of the conditions.
Rather than having a target for your whole ride, a better option is to focus on shorter segments that you can safely speed up on. Uphill sections without junctions are ideal. Mixing a few hard efforts in your ride like this is essentially interval training and is very effective.
On a typical ride, you might freewheel for around 15% of the time. When you're freewheeling, you're not exercising. If you were pedalling constantly, you'd do about 15% more exercise, effectively turning that 10-km each day commute into 11.5 km. So shift up a gear or several when going downhill and keep those legs turning. Alternatively, invest in a fixed-wheel bike. It's not possible to freewheel on a fixie, so you're guaranteed to spend 100% of your commute pedalling. You'll pedal at different cadences too – slow and hard uphill, fast and fluid downhill – turning every journey into a spin class.
Remember to rest
Rest is a critical component of exercise: it's when your body adapts to the extra stress you've put it under. Don't just hammer out long, hard rides, day after day. Alternate long or fast rides with easy ones. Maybe have a day or two off the bike entirely. Set incremental goals.
A half-hour each way commute by bike isn't a licence to eat anything. Nor will weight suddenly fall off you. An hour of fairly gentle cycling will burn around 300 calories. That's 1,500 over the course of a five-day week, or a bit less than the calories in half a pound of fat. Losing almost half a pound in a week isn't trivial. Over the course of a year you'd lose a stone and a half (9.5kg) if you made no dietary changes at all.
On the other hand, 300 calories is about two cans of any sugary soft drink or a single Danish pastry. If you treat yourself because you're commuting, your weight will stay static – and might even go up. On the other hand, if you're commuting regularly AND you kick the daily treats into touch and eat sensibly, weight will come off you much quicker.
Cycle commuting improves your physical and mental health, as well as boosting productivity at work – so long as you do it right.
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