If you have a rideable bike lying around your garage or apartment — and data (PDF) collected in 2015 estimated that 42 percent of households do — you have the means to get a challenging workout, no matter your skill level.
Whether you’re just getting started or you've been riding for a while and want to boost performance, here's a guide to help you embrace the cycling life.
What Is Cycling?
At its most fundamental level, cycling is simply getting on a bicycle and riding it. Any pedaling you do on that bike, whether it’s a few loops around the block or a century ride, counts as physical activity. But what makes a bike ride an intense or easy workout for you, of course, depends on your fitness level.
This type of activity does build strength, particularly in the lower-body muscles like the quadriceps — but it's primarily an aerobic exercise, according to Milwaukee-based Paul Warloski, USA Cycling–certified cycling coach and ACE-certified personal trainer.
That means you're improving your cardiovascular system, he says, since aerobic exercise conditions your body to use oxygen better and pump blood more efficiently.
There isn't much difference in performance or benefits with an outdoor bike versus a stationary bike, he adds. For some, staying indoors can be a more convenient way to exercise — you don’t have to worry about navigating different routes, for example, or making sure you have water, snacks, and repair kit handy (meaning you may be able to get a more intense workout in less time).
That said, many outdoor cycling advocates wouldn’t trade in those conveniences for getting outdoors if their bikes depended on it. "There's nothing like riding outside and connecting with your surroundings," Warloski says. "Add a fun group, a good place to stop and rest, and you've got an amazing day out."
While cycling can be your only form of exercise, most avid cyclists don't spend all their fitness time on the bike, adds Bekah Rottenberg, Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association–certified instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer in Hood River, Oregon.
"It's really important to incorporate both aerobic and strength work into any fitness routine," she says. "Strength and resistance training has tremendous benefits, from increasing bone density to improving mobility."
Plus, she adds that riding every other day — compared with every single day — or just a couple times per week can be beneficial for boosting performance, since it allows for more recovery time between rides. That's especially important if you're just getting started, she says, and getting used to upping your riding time.
The Health Benefits of Cycling
Cycling can deliver a host of both physical and mental health benefits (as can most types of exercise, of course). Here a few to know about that have specific links to cycling:
- Sleep Quality A meta-review of 15 studies published in the December 2021 edition of Sleep Medicine Reviews looking at different types of exercise and their effects on sleep quality found that cycling tended to benefit participants the most.
- Cardiovascular Health A meta-review published in August 2019 in Medicina found that indoor cycling can help improve aerobic capacity, blood pressure, lipid profile, and body composition.
- Brain Health and Mood A study in the February 2019 edition of PLoS One found that older adults improved both cognitive function and perceptions of well-being after an eight-week period of cycling three times per week. This was true whether participants were using traditional bikes or e-bikes with a motor to help with pedaling, which led the researchers to suggest it’s something above and beyond just the physical activity of cycling that leads to mental health benefits.
Is Cycling Good for Weight Loss?
Any aerobic exercise like cycling or running can have an effect on weight loss, says Rottenberg.
And research has indeed found that regular cycling can help people lose weight, particularly among overweight individuals. One study found that among women who were overweight and had a sedentary lifestyle, sticking with a 12-week indoor cycling regimen helped them lose weight (even though the women didn’t make changes to their diets).
But there are several factors to keep in mind when it comes to whether or not starting cycling will lead to weight loss, says Rottenberg. A big one is what you’re eating every day.
There are two main reasons for that, she says. First, cycling speeds up your metabolism, but only temporarily, according to Rottenberg. During the short-term surge, many people end up eating more calories than they burned while cycling (because you feel hungrier than if you hadn’t biked, and your body is looking for energy), putting themselves in a caloric surplus rather than a calorie deficit.
Second, our bodies are incredibly efficient and adapt to stress quickly, she adds. "That means if you continue to simply ride your bike more, you start to burn fewer calories on your rides, because your body adapts," she says. She also warns that many fitness trackers overestimate the number of calories you’re burning while riding.
How to Get Started With Cycling Workouts
Like any new fitness endeavor, be sure to check with your health provider first if you have any chronic or other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease or joint problems, that may interfere with your ability to safely work out — or if you have any other concerns.
Once you have the all-clear, one of the best ways to start is by doing short rides of 20 to 30 minutes a couple times per week, suggests Manhattan, Kansas–based Garret Seacat, CSCS, a USA Cycling–certified cycling coach.
"When you're a beginner, simply being on the bike will be an adjustment," he says. "You're teaching your body to adjust to a new type of pressure on your hands, wrists, groin, and feet. It can take time to get comfortable, so if you feel awkward at first, that's completely normal."
For the first two weeks of riding, just focus on getting comfortable on the bike, he suggests.
After that, you can begin to play around with other variables like increasing your speed, taking longer rides, and riding more frequently.
In addition to feeling comfortably in control of the bike, you’ll want to get used to switching gears, says Seacat.
As a general rule, when you feel the need to pedal faster to keep up with how fast your tires are rotating (or start to bounce in the seat, or start to feel slightly out of control), that's when you should shift to a higher gear to make it more challenging to pedal (which tends to happen if you’ve just climbed a hill and are on flat ground, or if you’re heading downhill). If you're struggling to push through a full rotation (such as when you’re climbing a hill), that's your sign to shift into a lower gear to make it easier.
"The most comfortable range tends to be 70 to 90 repetitions per minute, so that's a good target range," he suggests, no matter which gear you’re in. Although an on-bike computer — a small device that clips into your bike and gives data on speed and other factors — can be helpful for assessing where you are in that range, Seacat says it's not necessary. Playing around with how the gears feel, especially on different terrain, can often give you a good understanding of effort and control.
Learn More About How to Get Started With Cycling Workouts (Plus a 4-Week Training Plan)
Getting Better: How to Make Cycling a Harder Workout
Here are some tips to up the intensity of your cycling training:
- Cross-Train One way to get more out of your cycling is cross-training, or doing other exercise that complements your on-bike workouts. That involves working on strength, flexibility, and range of motion, says Warloski. He suggests a practice like yoga, which can help with all of those.
- Introduce Low-Level Intervals Just as you'd begin incorporating brief periods of sprinting into a running workout to improve performance, bike sprints have the same effect, Warloski says. Going all-out can be challenging unless you're on a stationary bike, he cautions. Instead, he prefers increasing your endurance to get your heart rate up, which means riding harder than you normally would, but still being able to hold a conversation.
- Ride More Often If you've started with two days in a week, add one more day of riding, suggests Seacat. The more time you spend on the bike, the better you'll become at playing around with speed, distance, and intensity.
Nutrition Tips for Cycling
If you don't have enough fuel in your body's reserves, that's when you risk what's called "bonking" (or “hitting the wall”), which can happen with any endurance activity but is a term used often in cycling.
This means the body becomes depleted of glycogen — stored in your muscles as an energy source — which can cause a wave of fatigue and muscle weakness, according to a study published in 2018 in the journal Nutrients.
Being adequately fueled is the key not just to prevention of bonking, but in enjoying your ride overall, according to Stephanie Hnatiuk, RD, Winnipeg, Manitoba–based dietitian and sports nutrition specialist.
That means paying attention to the right foods before, during, and after a ride — especially a challenging one.
Here are her tips:
- Before Your Workout Choose easily digestible carbohydrates, suggests Hnatiuk, and a pre-workout snack should be mostly carbs. "As a general rule, the less time you have before a ride, the quicker the food should be to digest," she says. That means foods lower in fiber and fat. Examples include fruit, toast with jam, crackers, and pretzels. If you have an hour or more before a ride, she says to add a little protein like nuts or cheese.
- During Your Ride If you're on a ride under 90 minutes, you likely will only need to focus on hydration, says Hnatiuk. But if you're doing intervals during that time, or going on a longer ride, that's when your glycogen stores will be affected. To prevent bonking, have 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour, she advises. A sports drink can satisfy that need, or tuck some pretzels or a mini jam sandwich into a fanny pack or bike pouch.
- After Biking Post-workout nutrition is all about optimal recovery, and Hnatiuk says it's ideal to eat within one hour of your ride, and include a combination of protein and carbohydrates. The protein will help repair and build damaged muscles and reduce muscle soreness, while the carbs will replenish glycogen. Some examples are Greek yogurt and fruit, a protein smoothie, or a sandwich made with tuna, salmon, chicken, or egg salad.
Even with these tips in mind, Hnatiuk says sports nutrition is highly personal, and what works for someone else on a ride might not work for you.
That's why she suggests keeping a food log that also includes tracking how you feel during your cycling workout, so you can start to pinpoint which foods keep your energy steady.
More FAQs About Cycling
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about cycling:
Do I need to warm up before my cycling workout? How?
Few people live right next to a bike path, says Seacat, but even those who do will usually start slow for a few minutes before building up speed. That means simply biking to your road, trail, or path is a good warmup. If you're biking indoors, five to 10 minutes of leisurely riding as you get ready for more intensity is enough of a warmup, he adds.
How many calories does cycling burn?
The amount depends on factors like your current fitness level, weight, age, and workout intensity. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) Physical Activity Calorie Counter, a 150-pound person cycling for an hour at a 12 mile per hour pace would burn about 544 calories. At the more leisurely pace of 5.5 miles per hour, the burn for the full hour would be 272 calories.
What muscles do you use for cycling?
Your quadriceps (the large muscles on the tops of your thighs) will be doing a majority of the work, says Warloski. But you'll also be engaging your core to keep you balanced and stabilized on the bike, and to a lesser degree, you'll fire up your arms, shoulders, calves, and hamstrings.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t try cycling?
If you have cardiovascular issues, joint problems, balance issues, COPD or other breathing problems, or diabetes, talk with your doctor before beginning a new routine, says Seacat.
That doesn’t mean you can’t cycle if you have these conditions, but your healthcare provider may suggest modifications or refer you to physical therapy or rehab specialists who can help you begin with more supervision.
What should I wear for a cycling workout?
If you're cycling indoors, any type of comfortable workout wear is fine, says Seacat. However, for an outdoor ride, you do need to be more strategic, he adds. Always check the weather before you head out, especially if you anticipate larger fluctuations in temperature, humidity, windchill, or precipitation.
Dress in layers, he suggests. Consider clothes that are moisture wicking; they help draw sweat away from your body so you don’t get chilled while riding.
What are the most common cycling injuries and how can I avoid them?
According to the sports medicine program at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the most common cycling injuries are:
- Knee pain
- Head injuries from a crash
- Neck and back pain
- Wrist and forearm pain or numbness
- Urogenital problems, especially in male riders, due to compression of blood supply to the genital region
To reduce your risk, the university recommends strategies like changing position on your bike occasionally so you're not putting strain on the neck, back, and wrists for too long, making sure your shoes fit properly, and getting a wider seat to solve that compression issue. And of course: Always, always, always wear a helmet (unless you're on a stationary bike).
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Oke O, Bhalla K, Love DC, Siddiqui S. Tracking Global Bicycle Ownership Patterns [PDF] .Journal of Transport & Health. December 2015.
- Frimpong, E, Mograss M, Zvionow T, Dang-Vu T. The Effects of Evening High-Intensity Exercise on Sleep in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews. December 2021.
- Chavarrias M, Carlos-Vivas J, Collado-Mateo D, Perez-Gomez J. Health Benefits of Indoor Cycling: A Systematic Review. Medicina. August 2019.
- Leyland L, Spencer B, Beale N, et al. The Effect of Cycling on Cognitive Function and Well-Being in Older Adults. PLoS One. February 2019.
- Alghannam A, Gonzalez J, Betts J. Restoration of Muscle Glycogen and Functional Capacity: Role of Post-Exercise Carbohydrate and Protein Co-Ingestion. Nutrients. February 2018.
- ACE Fitness. Physical Activity Calorie Counter. 2022.
- University of Rochester Medical Center. Cycling Injuries. 2022.
- Higgins S, Fedewa MV, Hathaway ED, et al. Sprint Interval and Moderate-Intensity Cycling Training Differentially Affect Adiposity and Aerobic Capacity in Overweight Young-Adult Women. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. November 2016.
- Bianco A, Bellafiore M, Battaglia G, et al. The Effects of Indoor Cycling Training in Sedentary Overweight Women. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. June 2010.