This page should really be titled “How I Ride For Optimal Health and Longevity” because that is what motivates my riding. I focus on the general principals of my approach here. It’s intentionally not prescriptive because I believe you have a functioning brain and will take these principals and run with them, if you so choose. Thoughtful feedback is always appreciated.
Mimic the Nature of Nature
I vary ride intensity to approximate a power law, the statistical distribution that describes the fractal movement of wild animals (and wild humans).[1-3] This helps exercise efforts approximate the ancient movements human genes evolved for (hunting, carrying, climbing, walking). I try to mix quick bursts of max effort sprints with longer periods of easy riding. Read Arthur De Vany’s brilliant Essay on Evolutionary Fitness for more.
I don’t worry about caloric intake and expenditure. It’s a hopeless pursuit, unless you can tolerate a semi-starvation diet. Even then, I doubt it’s the healthiest way to lose weight, if that is your goal. Remember, we’re creating the context the body needs to be healthy. Trying to control it like it was a simple, linear machine misunderstands it’s complexity. That approach suffers from a mistaken pretense of knowledge. I am trying to optimize metabolic function so the body can self-regulate eating and burning calories the way it has evolved to. High intensity training can improve one’s hormonal profile in ways that will make this happen.
Avoid Chronic Cardio
I don’t ride at steady, consistent intensity for long periods of time. In other words, I don’t ride like a professional cyclist or a calorie counter. Humans haven’t evolved to exercise that way and the evidence is mounting that it results in chronic disease and shortened life expectancy. One can lose weight doing cardio and counting calories (starving yourself), but given enough time, it will wreck your health.
Throw it away. It will encourage you to focus on measures like average speed, average heart rate, and distance which are measures of cycling fitness not health. I don’t want to have a high average heart rate for hours and hours. I want to to stay lean and live a long time. My bike computer doesn’t measure my health, it measures my cycling fitness.
OK, fine. Time to fess up: I still use one, I just look at it differently. I look at max heart rate and max speed to get a rough idea about my workout’s intensity. I DO NOT compare these stats to previous rides to try to improve them. Remember, the goal is to improve and maintain health, not cycling ability.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a formal training method that applies power law training principles. It mixes max effort bursts of sprinting with very low-effort recovery periods.
Warning: This training method places incredible demands on your cardiovascular system. Talk to your doctor before trying it. It could be disastrous if you have an undiagnosed medical condition. Do not do this simply because you read here that I do it.
A great way to get started with HIIT is by doing bicycle hill repeats (BHR). I start by finding a steep hill that might take a minute to climb. Attack the hill–don’t use your easiest gear, make it as hard as tolerable while remaining seated. Keep the intensity as high as possible. If you have a heart rate monitor, try to get above 85% of your max heart rate range. Coast down at the summit. Ride easily to recover for a few minutes away from the hill then ride back at an easy pace. Repeat. Keep it short, 15 to 30 minutes is all you need. You don’t need to completely exhaust yourself.
Beginning interval work with hills will ensure that the intensity is high but you aren’t riding at dangerously high speeds. Once you’re used to the effort, try some sprinting on flat roads. Don’t do the same hill every ride, mix it up, keep it fresh, and make sure your legs get a wide range of effort.
Don’t go all-out when you’re getting started, especially on hills. Start with an easy gear, then progress to harder gears as your body adapts to the efforts.
Keep in mind: The health benefits occur when the intensity is highest and every fiber of your being is screaming to stop. Learn to embrace it. Think about your future health, not the present agony. Find an idea that motivates you. Want to dance at your grandkid’s wedding? Want to look better naked? ATTACK. THAT. HILL.
It’s hard to beat a day out on the bike in great weather. It’s a long distance adventure, helps reconnect the rider with nature, and boosts psychological well-being. Keep these points in mind to protect your heart and lean body mass on long rides.
- Make these “fun” rides, not training rides, and take it easy. Forget about average speed, average cadence, distance goals, calories, etc.
- Vary intensity between very intense and an easy, leisurely pace. Don’t ride steadily at a moderate or high pace for too long.
- Attack the hills for a good high-intensity burst, but give yourself plenty of time to recover at a very easy pace afterwards.
- Eat. Go out with a full belly and bring along plenty of food to prevent muscle wasting.
- Recover. Eat immediately after the ride. Include berries, vegetables, and fruit (foods high in antioxidants) to couter the oxidative damage from the ride.
Sorry to be a buzzkill, but I don’t ride everyday. In fact, I don’t workout everyday. Too much cycling is going to destroy your back, lower your bone mineral density,[11-13] and lead to upper-body muscle wasting. Cross-train. All of these problems can be addressed by mixing up your exercise routine with other activities, and by getting adequate rest.
Probably the most important exercise a dedicated cyclist can do for their health is strength training. Endurance exercise leads to muscle wasting and weak bones, and this frailty becomes a serious problem as we age.[16-18] Strength training will counter these effects. I lift free weights with a spotter, aiming for weights that I can only handle 6-10 reps per set with to increase strength and build muscle mass. Don’t punish yourself with more than 2-3 sets per exercise. There is little benefit, if any, to doing this.
Women: Don’t worry that you’ll get bulky from strength training. You must have higher testosterone levels than women naturally do for that to happen. Bodybuilding women look the way they do because they take steroids to artificially increase their testosterone levels. Also, low-weight “toning” is exercise mythology. The fat-burning effect of strength training requires heavy weight.
Run, but keep it brief. I never run more than 5k (usually a mile or less) and I always vary the intensity to approximate a power law distribution. Just like on the bike, sprint up hills, walk to recover, then sprint again. Keep it short. Jogging is OK, but don’t jog for extended periods.[23-25]
Hiking or walking is a good way to get started with exercise if you are sedentary. Walk for as long as you’d like. The intensity is low enough that you won’t risk cardiovascular damage, and it’s a great way to reconnect with nature.
Got kids? Play with them! It won’t feel like “exercise,” but your body doesn’t know that, and the results are the same. Run around in the yard, play hide and seek, wrestle, throw a frisbee and chase it, etc. You’ll improve your health, your kids health, and you’ll build a better relationship with your kids.
Play sports like basketball, ultimate frisbee, touch football–sports that mimic power law training.
After a hard workout your body is hard at work rebuilding torn muscle fibers, refilling glycogen stores, dealing with stress hormones and an increased oxidative load.[26, 27] Give yourself days off to recover. Give yourself the occasional week off. You don’t have to workout everyday to achieve optimum health.
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