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RAGBRAI Training: Rule #5: Cycling is a Great Exercise, But Not Perfect

  • 5 July, 2016
  • TJ Juskiewicz

20160608_bp_PreRide_02by Coach David Ertl

Here we are at the final of my 5 rules of training.  As much as we all like cycling and think it is a great physical activity (it is), it isn’t perfect.  In fact, there is no perfect exercise. We should consider some variety in our workouts. Cycling is great for cardiovascular, aerobic and endurance fitness – working the heart, lungs and muscles for hours on end.  But it tends to neglect some other aspects of fitness including flexibility, upper body and core strength, and bone density.

Flexibility – if anything, cycling makes our muscles tighter.  If you think about your position on the bike and when pedaling, your legs make a limited circle well within the muscles full range of motion. When you get fitted to your bike, they want you to have a slight bend in your knee.  This helps you power your bike the most efficiently, but prevents you from extending your muscles all the way.  That’s why it feels good to get off the bike and move around after being in the saddle for a couple of hours.  The other factor about cycling is the way it recruits your muscle fibers.  When cycling you are shortening your leg muscles to contract them.  This is called concentric muscle contraction which is what powers your pedals. They generate force as they shorten. Think about your thigh (quadriceps) muscles as you push down on the pedals – they are shortening as they contract and extend the knee and lower leg.  In contrast, when you walk or run, especially downhills or down stairs, your muscles have to create force as they are lengthening, to act as brakes, which is called eccentric muscle contraction. If you have ever tried running or hiking, the soreness you feel is likely from this unfamiliar form of eccentric contractions.  In cycling, there is no eccentric action involved, so the muscles never get stretched. In addition, you are hunched over on the bike with a curved spine all day which tends to tighten the back, shoulders and neck.  The bottom line is that cycling can result in tight muscles and you should do some stretching following your rides.  Do not stretch before rides as that could injure your muscles. Instead just ride easily at the beginning of your ride to warm up. Stretching after a ride when your muscles are warm and looser is more beneficial.  Make sure you stretch your legs, hips, back and shoulders, all of which get tight during a ride.

Core and Upper Body Strength – Cycling is great for developing leg strength, but not so good for the rest of your body.  Be sure to consider other forms of exercise to work on these body parts.  You can do that by traditional strength training in the gym and doing Pilates or functional training workouts (e.g. boot camp type exercises).  But you can also work these body parts through other exercises like rowing.

Bone Density – Weight bearing exercises improve your bone density, delaying or preventing osteoporosis in later years. Weight bearing exercises are those where your body has to bear its own weight, such as walking, jumping, running as well as strength training.  Cycling and swimming are non-weight bearing; the bike and water holds us up and there is no impact. Normally low impact is good as it prevents knee damage, but on the other hand, it does nothing for bone density.  In addition, there is some evidence that exercising and sweating for long periods of time may actually encourage bone loss, so cycling has a double whammy when it comes to bone density.  To compensate for this, add some forms of exercise that will provide impact or resistance to the bones such as walking, running or strength training.

Rule #4 said to take some days off and allow your legs to recover. These are great days to do some form of activity to work on these other neglected body parts.  Be a well-rounded (but not round), fit person.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team, JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted at coach@cyclesportcoaching.com.


  1. Joanne Davis

    I hope to be a first time rider this year. I am looking to join a group. I am coming from Texas. My relatives from Iowa City used to ride and many years ago one of my sons rode with his cousins several times.

  2. LaVon Altenhofen

    Just went over these rules. I made some mistakes even though I put in all the miles. The biggest one to was to not make the recovery week a recovery time. Instead, because of seeing the decline in miles, I thought it would be a good week to practice climbs. This year, flat road riding and chilling out.

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