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GETTING GOOD: CYCLING

Bicycle your way to fitness

Work out like a pro with the help of an ex-Olympian. The first steps: Set a realistic training schedule, then get on your bike and go.

January 12, 2009|Jeannine Stein

This week, people are likely realizing that making resolutions is much easier than keeping them. Many are already faltering on their fitness goals, finding it difficult to brave the morning or evening chill. But don't reach for the doughnuts -- on this second week of a four-part series on starting a fitness program, we've got help from David Brinton, is a former Olympian, and currently an elite USA Cycling coach and president and founder of Technik Sports Inc., who takes us through four weeks of bike training. He explains how to work out like a pro and avoid beginner burnout, and he suggests some tools that make the process easier.

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Getting started

Before you even hop on that bike, set your training schedule -- and make it a realistic one. Brinton suggests starting with three to four days a week of cycling, gradually working toward a goal of five to six days a week by the end of eight weeks. "Often, new riders are so excited and jump into riding six days a week," he says, "then realize it's not manageable." (More on this later.)

Then set some goals, such as completing a race, or even one as grand as completing a "century," a 100-mile ride done in one day (there are races with shorter distances as well). That, Brinton says, has bragging rights, and it isn't as overwhelming as it sounds. "When you start recognizing your progress from week to week, then you realize, 'Maybe I could actually keep going.' "

Keep a training diary. "It gives you a reference of where you started and where you are today," Brinton says. "If you time yourself going up a hill at a particular heart rate, how do you know if you've improved if you haven't been logging it?" Seeing speeds and distances increase can be motivating. Brinton suggests going into a fair amount of detail in the log, and include distance, time spent on the bike, heart rate and how you felt.

Get your bike fitted properly. Rank beginners might need the help of an experienced bike store employee or cycling coach for this -- there are even people who just fit bikes. Don't skip this part, Briton says; a saddle that's too low or too far forward, for example, can strain key tendons.

Take a bike maintenance class, or have someone show you how to do basic repairs such as flat tires. It's also a good idea to practice those repairs.

Consider two gadgets in particular: One is a heart rate monitor, which can help determine various training zone levels. For the first few weeks, you should pay attention to your heart rate at various levels of intensity. Make mental notes of those numbers, and log them in if you can remember. Also be aware of how you feel at those heart rates; for example, at 165 beats, you might feel like you're putting out a great effort, while at 150, you're able to sustain that pace for a great distance.

The other useful device is a bike computer, which calculates pedaling cadence. "Many times, riders cycle at too low of an RPM," he says, which can hinder acceleration, since it demands more power from the rider.

Now for the riding . . .

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Weeks 1 and 2

Do a one- to two-hour ride at a sustainable pace on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, with a longer ride on Saturday. Whenever possible, try to pick safe roads with few lights and stop signs. If none are close, you may have to drive to a better location.

For the weekday rides, "the idea is to start off easier. . . . You don't want to have a week where you go so hard and so long that you're incapable of increasing mileage the next week." Doing too much too soon is also a formula for injury and burnout.

The major goals of these two weeks are learning how to ride at a consistent pace, getting the body used to constant pedaling, and maintaining a steady heart rate. You should be breathing hard, but able to sustain a conversation, talking in brief sentences.

That longer Saturday ride should be mostly flat terrain for 15 to 30 miles, with a 10-mile increase each week. On Sundays, do a shorter ride with some hill work, which will boost the cardiovascular system by making it work harder. But don't kill yourself. "You're not climbing to set a new record," Brinton says. He recommends cycling on a 4% to 6% grade.

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Weeks 3 and 4

Maintain the same riding schedule, adding the usual mileage on Saturday. Also add a one-hour ride on Wednesday that's the same intensity as (or slightly lower than) your regular pace on Tuesday and Thursday.

Now that you've gotten more used to checking the heart rate monitor, it's time to put those numbers to use.

Determining your lactate threshold will help set up various training zone levels, useful in building cardiovascular endurance, and in establishing when recovery time is needed. Lactate or anaerobic threshold is the point at which the body moves from working in an aerobic zone to an anaerobic zone, where blood lactate levels rise (causing muscle ache and fatigue) and the body burns more carbs than fat.

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