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A Bicycle Touring Fitness Plan

A Bicycle Touring Fitness Plan

How to Train for a Long-Distance Bicycle Tour

Back in May I returned from a heavy duty work assignment in a city away from home. I worked many long hours and the assignment was successful. Unfortunately in the process I ate restaurant meals every night and severely reduced my usual fitness related activities.

When I returned in May I weighed in at 213 pounds. I am 5’10” and according to some charts this put me in the low end of the obese category. These same charts showed that a more “optimum” weight for someone of my height was 153 pounds. This is a 60 pound difference.

I decided at that point to set a goal of reaching 170 pounds by the end of December 2003. This is a reduction in weight of 43 pounds.

Initially I had very few ideas about how to achieve my goal other then to start bicycle commutting to work on a daily basis and possibly doing a two to three week tour later in the summer as a way to peel the pounds off.

I also decided that I had better do some research.

As a result of lots of reading I came up with the following five things that I needed to do. I didn’t start all of them at the same time however since in some cases it took some research before I realized that I needed to add this extra thing.

  • Element One: Cardio exercise
  • Element Two: Nutrition/Calorie Counting
  • Element Three: Strength training
  • Element Four: Improving flexibility
  • Element Five: Rest

Looking at this list today each element seems very logical and self-explanatory. It wasn’t that simple on day one so I will go over these elements in the course of this discussion.

Before I continue I should probably let you know where I am today. It is now September and I have completed a 12 day tour around Lake Erie.

I weigh 171 pounds. My body fat percentage is now 19 percent and my aerobic capacity, strength and flexibility have increased very measurably.

I still have more to do but I have already achieved significant success.

How does this apply to Bicycle Touring?

The obvious answer is that a tour is more enjoyable the better prepared you are for it. Many people think of equipment and the bike when discussing preparation. Another key area is your level of physical fitness.

By the time I left for my tour I was down to 185 pounds and my cardio endurance was significantly improved. I had been doing strength training for about five weeks so muscles no longer ached on the bike as quickly as in the past. My flexibility training was a recent development which only really got going about three weeks before the tour.

All of these added up to me doing seven metric centuries (100 km) and one imperial century (162 km) in 10 movement days and most importantly in every case I could have continued pedalling further had I wanted to.

So let’s talk about the five elements with emphasis on how they help on the bike.

I should mention one more thing first. I am not a doctor nor am I a certified fitness trainer or a nutritionist. In actual fact I work in computers. What I am is someone who is recounting what I’ve done and what has successfully worked for me over the past five months. By writing this article I am hoping that you may be able to use a few of the things that worked for me to help yourself.

Here we go….

Element One - Cardio exercise

The first thing I thought of when starting on the path towards achieving my goal was to get back on the bike and start exercising again.

For me the best way to make sure I bike enough and therefore get enough exercise to make a difference was to start commuting to work on a regular basis.

Bicycle commuting doesn’t take much longer then driving a car and it’s stress relieving as well.

By bike commuting I gained 10 cardio sessions a week in little more then the time that it would take me to drive in.

Variety is important so I planned out three different ways to ride in to work.

Different commuting routes

Route One is a very quick and very direct route that takes me on roads right into work. It’s about 4.5 km and when I need to be at work right away I can actually get there either the same amount of time as a car or faster depending on the time of day.

Route Two is an extended road and multi-use path route. This one is approximately 10 km long and takes about 21 minutes at this point in my fitness plan. Originally it took about 30 minutes.

Route Three is 95 percent offroad on nice singletrack trails that wind through woods, up and down small hills and alongside a river. This is 11 km in length but it generally takes about 35 - 40 minutes to ride.

The nice thing about three different routes is that it gives me options to avoid concerns about being late, I have variety so that I don’t get too bored and when I take the longer route I have a ride that gives me an opportunity to exercise for a longer period of time.

The nice thing about all of this is that even when I take the longest route twice I only end up spending 40 minutes more a day then I would if I drove the car in to work and did no exercise at all. This is less time then an exercise class.

As time passed I added a longer ride about twice a week. This was usually an extension of my normal commutting ride home except I would just keep riding for another 60 to 90 minutes.

Like I’ve mentioned, variety is important so I also take step and aerobic classes at the gym with my girlfriend.

Have fun!

The most important thing is to make sure that you are having fun!

If you are pushing too hard and too fast you may feel like you are torturing yourself. Sometimes you just need to have a long but slow “take time to smell the flowers” ride.

As time passes you can add variety a bunch of ways.

  • Switch between road riding on one session and offroad riding on another.
  • Do intervals with a heart monitor. Make yourself go at one intensity for a set period of time before changing to another intensity.
  • Pick a distance or a time limit and go and ride until your done.
  • Ride to a fruit stand, a small town or to an attraction that you’ve wanted to check out.
  • Do some walking, jogging, running, swimming or anything else that will give you some exercise.

Remember you need this to be fun so that you will develop a hunger for it. Over time you will likely feel grouchy if you don’t get your fitness “fix”.

Bike touring content

By improving your cardio exercise level it gets significantly easier to ride your bike! You are stronger and have a lot more energy. This in turn means that you CAN do that extra side path you’ve always wanted to explore or you CAN go further then ever before on a bike in a day.

Basically improving your cardio level empowers you to be able to do things that you didn’t think were possible before.

On to Element Two……

Element Two - Nutrition/Calorie Counting

Here are a few sayings for you:

  • Change in weight = food intake minus exercise
  • We are what we eat….

There is a lot of truth to both of these statements. However when I started working towards my goal I didn’t have a clue how to go about keeping track of either the number of calories I was eating or how to determine what foods were good to eat.

Research was definately in order!

I started with a software package called DietPower. This software has a list of 11,000 foods and more importantly has the ability to let you enter your own foods using the infomation on the nutrition label if you need to. Once you enter or select a food you can tell the software how much you ate and instantly see the number of calories in the food. By right clicking on the food you see a pie chart that shows you what percentage of the food is fat, carbs and protein. Very useful when trying to decide what foods you want to eat again!

Now in order to be able to tell the food sizing I went out to Walmart and picked up a simple food scale for a minimal amount of money.

Another feature in the software is that you can type in how much you exercised in the exercise log.

The combination of these two main features gives you the ability to control how much you eat and be able to see at a glance how much you are eating compared to how much you are exercising.

As time passed I became more interested in good nutrition so I read a bunch of books. I found while reading the books that I looked for common themes amongst a bunch of books.

Lifestyle change not quick fix

I kept the fun rule in mind too. I am trying to make a lifestyle change here not make a quick fix. In that case if I felt like a cookie I tried to substitute a fruit. If that wasn’t appealing then I would limit myself to one cookie.

There were days when I felt the need to indulge in a piece of cheesecake or something similar. Oh well as time passes the need for that is less appealing and I miss it less.

By keeping an eye on the big picture I found I could be less rigid in terms of the odd “bad” thing and yet still enjoy the whole eating process.

So how does this apply to touring on a bicycle?

As time passed and I learned about nutrition I started making food choices that helped me to reduce my weight as well as improve my performance on the bike.

Another thing I did was eliminate exercise bars and special exercise drinks on any rides shorter then 90 minutes. Instead I relied on water and my fat stockpile. I never bonked as a result so for me this strategy worked.

On to Element Three…..

Element Three - Strength training

I will admit that the idea of strength training was really not appealing to me at all. Even today I still probably find this the least addictive of the things I am trying to do.

I originally started doing it because I had read that many people who exercise actually lose muscle rather then fat. My thinking was that my cycling was likely preserving and possibly enhancing my lower leg strength but not doing much for my upper body.

However recently I added lower body weight training to my upper body weight routine and now I am noticing improved performance when riding the bike.

My speed has increased along with my ability to go greater distances? Coincidence? I kind of doubt it.

About two years ago I did some weight training at a gym using machines and free weights. I found that I liked using free weights more then machines but I hated adding the extra time to do weights to a gym day that already included a 60 minute cardio class.

This time around I purchased an exercise mat and a set of dumb bells that featured the ability to change weight plates. As time passed I also obtained some resistance tubing to use on touring or business travel trips as well as a bench, a barbell and some of the options that are available for the bench like a leg extension/hamstring curls device.

I now aim for three strength training sessions per week and I go for a high number of repetitions (20) across three sets. This is enough to give me strength and toning gains without being so much weight that it gives me a high risk of an injury.

One thing that I am considering for the future is moving to a split routine. This way instead of three long full-body sessions I would have six shorter sessions that focused on specific body areas. So one day I might do upper body and lower body the next day.

So far I like having a day off between strength training days so I may just keep it to a three day routine.

As I mentioned before doing lower body weight training has improved my speed, performance and endurance on the bike. The upper body training seems to be reducing shoulder pain on long rides and assisting with climbing.

On to Element Four….

Element Four - Improving flexibility

I originally started working on flexibility as a form of injury prevention. My hope was that by improving my flexibility I would be less likely to become injured in the event of a fall.

I mountain bike and I seem to be progressing skill wise at about the inverse rate of the number of times I fly over the handle bars. I haven’t broken any bones but I did manage to give my shoulder a good strain sometime in April.

As the training progressed I found that by stretching on a daily basis it seemed to reduce muscle pain after a hard workout. An additional benefit of my increasing flexibility has been the ability to get down into the drops more comfortably.

When I toured I found that stopping every so often for a stretching break was very useful. This seemed to reduce pain.

Knowing what stretches to do in advance made these breaks easier to do.

There are also stretches that you can do on your bike while pedalling. The are described in “Long Distance Cycling” By Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka. I plan to try them out in the next little while.

On to the fifth element…..

Element Five - Getting some rest

Everyone has to sleep right?

Well like most people sleep was something that I wasn’t really getting enough of. Instead of going to sleep at 11 o’clock and sleep eight hours until 7 o’clock I would stay up until 2 o’clock and survive the next day on 6 hours of sleep.

The problem with this is that when you are resting the body is repairing itself. Frankly I find that I feel better when I sleep enough.

During my recent tour Round Lake Erie tour I actually went to sleep before dark at around 8 o’clock at night. The next day I would get up around seven or eight o’clock and feel ready to go!

I am currently making a real effort to get to bed by eleven o’clock every night. When I do this it seems to result in an easier and less stressful day the next day!

So even though rest is often overlooked, to be successful I recommend adding it in.

On to Setting Realistic Goals…

Setting Realistic Goals

It’s important when setting goals that you be realistic and it’s ok to have multiple goals.

My original goal was to reduce my weight to 170 pounds from 213 but no one said that I couldn’t do it in reasonable steps so my first goal was to get below 200 pounds.

Another side to being realistic is a recognition that weight alone doesn’t necessarily tell you much. As my fat loss continues I will need to emphasize weight less and focus on other things like body measurements or body fat percentage.

There might even come a time when I am not being realistic. I read somewhere that 12 percent body fat is a reasonable amount for a man. Apparently 17% is the equivalent for a woman. A woman aiming for 12% body fat percentage is not likely to be healthy.

The other side of being realistic is giving yourself enough time. Losing a pound a week for 26 weeks means that you should be down 26 pounds within six months. Trying to lose 26 pounds in one week is just not reasonable.

As long as you make your goals reasonable you are very likely to succeed at them. Creating unrealistic goals on the other hand will just cause mental anguish on the way to probable failure.

On to Hitting Plateaus…..

Hitting Plateaus

You are very likely to hit plateaus.

When it happens keep calm and give it a few days. If after a few days or weeks you are still stuck there then carefully look at your food intake and your current exercise levels.

As your weight decreases your food requirements will also decrease. At some point you will likely need to make another adjustment to your food intake to take this into account.

On to Using a bike tour to gain fitness level and better health…

Using a bike tour to gain fitness level and better health

There has been a lot of discussion here about various ways to reduce your body fat percentage and increase your strength, fitness and flexibility but how does it relate to bike touring?

Well simply put you are the engine that takes you, your bike and all your equipment up the mountains, across the plains and down the hills that make up our touring world.

Bicycle touring itself will improve your fitness level. I was already receiving a good cardio fitness score on my Fit Tests prior to actually leaving on my tour. During the tour I could actually feel my fitness level improve and when I returned my Fit Test reflected even higher values.

Still many people who rely on a bike tour to get them fit are possibly overlooking a few things.

  • It takes time for your body to adapt and make the needed changes to improve your fitness level.

During this time you will be working pretty hard and you may not enjoy this process at all. Wouldn’t you rather be looking at the nice scenery without feeling like you are about to upchuck or die?

  • Bicycle touring puts a lot of emphasis on the lower body but not a significant amount on the upper body so you aren’t really improving your strength as much as you could be.

So what? Well everything I’ve read suggests that increased upper body strength will reduce the chance of injury and should extend the amount of time you can go before muscles become painful (ie. sore back, sore shoulders etc).

While I’m at it I might as well mention abs. I hate doing crunches with a passion. However it appears that doing them is going to have huge benefits on the bike for everything from riding endurance right through to climbing monster hills.

  • Flexibility is something that takes time. I found that I felt like I gained a lot of flexibility when I stopped for constant stretch breaks while on tour.

For the first five days of my tour I used my heart monitor and noticied that I was using about 5000 - 6000 calories of energy a day to keep me moving. As a consequence I could basically eat ANYTHING I wanted to and not gain weight. In actual fact I lost 1/2 pound of weight every day on average based on my weight when I returned home after 12 days.

This leads to it’s own problems however. If you were practicing proper nutrition prior to going on tour but discovered only fast food restaurants on the tour itself then the fact that you can eat anything you want and still lose weight can make it quite difficult to get back to your normal eating habits when you return.

Additionally I’ve read several messages from other cycle tourists who have returned from their tours enthused about riding their bikes only to discover boredom when they tried to get back to their normal cycling routines. This goes away after a short period of time but it also means that at the same time you are trying to get your nutrition back in order you are also going through a reduction in your exercise level. This can easily translate into a weight plateau unless you carefully work to correct the problems.

My suggestion is to try some new things!

Instead of cycling your normal routes try to create a couple of new ones or if you normally ride on road then do some off road riding for awhile. Alternatively do your normal bike commute but add some different kind of exercise instead of your longer bike ride. Consider trying a long walk, or a game of tennis. Your goal is to keep the exercise happening. Within a short period of time you will want to be back on your bike!

Even with the potential negatives I’ve mentioned in the last few paragraphs I want to state that going on a bicycle tour is a great idea. You will improve fitness level, reduce stress, and if you think of another tour you want to do then you will likely increase your motivation to keep working on your fitness level.

I added a tour to my fitness program back in May when I was creating it. My original intent was to use it to kick start my fitness program at roughly the 50% point. For this purpose it worked admirably by reducing my weight by six and a half pounds in just under two weeks.

More importantly it kept me excited about cycling and now I’m very motivated to do another tour!

And of most importance the weight I lost on the tour has still not returned.

Success!

Goal achievement and what’s next? As you may have been able to tell from reading this I achieved a number of goals.

My original goal was to reduce my weight from 213 pounds to 170 pounds by the end of December. Today (September 11) I achieved this goal.

In reality I always had a number of smaller goals throughout my journey to reach this point. Here they are:

  • Reduce to 199 pounds
  • Reduce to 189 pounds
  • Reduce to 179 pounds
  • Reduce to 170 pounds
  • Complete tour around Lake Erie successfully
  • Reach the point where I can ride my friends to endurance exhaustion during an offraod single track ride. (In May I was always the one who was slow and exhausted even after short rides).
  • Reduce my pant size by at least one size.
  • Increase flexibility to the point where I can touch my toes while standing upright.

ALL of these goals have been achieved! I should have been in pants that were 40 - 42 inches in size when I started my plan. Now my waist is 34 inches.

I recently rode on two separate rides with good friends on singletrack. The first ride was with my regular cycling buddy who normally leaves me dying in the dust. This time I controlled the speed and set the pace. We set several new speed records on a set of singletrack and my limiting factor wasn’t strength or endurance but rather my skill level riding on singletrack. This friend quickly told me that I was riding extremely fast and well.

My other friend is my sister’s significant other. He last rode with me back in May when I was definately not in shape. He rode with me last weekend. His enduring comment from the ride was…

“You looked like an orange blur riding through the woods. Just when I was about to catch you it’s like you had nitro and you would just disappear at mach speed).”

(I should mention that I was riding an orange shirt at the time).

My average speed riding on the touring bike on roads has increased from 22 km/hour to 28 km/hr. More importantly I am less tired climbing hills and my endurance is greatly extended.

Flexibility is improved. I can now touch my fingertips on the floor while standing. Still lots of room for improvement through.

So what’s next?

That’s the hard part. Here are a few goals I am considering.

  • Reduce weight to 160 pounds and/or
  • Reduce body fat percentage to 15 % and/or
  • Reduce BMI to 22 % and/or
  • Reduce waistline to 30 - 32 inches and/or
  • Eliminate abdominal fat (there is still some remaining).
  • Reach the point where I can ride my friends to endurance exhaustion during an offraod single track ride. (In May I was always the one who was slow and exhausted even after short rides).
  • Reduce my pant size by at least one size.
  • Increase flexibility to the point where I can touch my toes while standing upright.

My goals are more complex now simply because some of them may be unrealistic for me. As I continue to gain muscle mass it may not be possible to reduce my weight to 160 pounds. Perhaps a 30 inch waist line is out of reach? I think the flexibility goal should be an interesting challenge.

The other three goals should be reachable.

As long as I continue to have fun then they will be achieved.