The Things We Forget (or, “I can get better while not on the bike?”)

Ay, can't yous read? I'm off duty. Go take a hike!
Gimme a break, will ya?

I’ve been riding several years now, and still consider myself a newb (noobie, newbie, noob, and all other variants). ¬†Why? Because I’m always learning something new.

When fellow noobians (okay, now I’m just making stuff up) ask me how to get better at specific things, I’m happy to tell them what I’ve learned about intervals, climbing, breathing, form, sprinting, whatever. I almost always finish up with, “Just ride. Put in the miles.”

But I’ve found that there are non-biking things that can really help your on-bike performance. Wait! Wait! Don’t laugh yet, it’s true! Think about it. Cooking the greatest steak in the world doesn’t make for a complete dinner (though admittedly, said awesome steak would be promptly consumed). So, we need to add more to the mix. This will help us be healthier overall, as well as helping to target specific bike deficiencies (yes, I said there are deficiencies in riding… you can shoot me later).

Below are some off-bike things that cyclists often overlook, but have great on-bike benefits.

Stretching

I know, I know, stretching kinda sucks. And usually it’s something we only remember to do while we’re cramping. But stretching is very important. Tight muscles can lead to bad positioning on the bike, which can lead to aches and pains. It also reduces power output. It’s not like we evolved to do this stuff. So flexibility will help you achieve better/more comfortable positions without straining your muscles, and increase your power output by firing off relaxed, flexible muscles.

Avoid pre-ride, static stretching (holding a single position). Instead, use dynamic stretching like light lunges, torso twists, arm swings, etc. Light-spinning on the bike is good, too.

Post-ride stretching is probably the most effective, though the one you’ll want to do the least. You’re already tired, and so you’re inclined to just sit down and eat that recovery burrito. Instead, take 10-15 min. to add some stretching of the calves, ham strings, quads, back, shoulders, ankles, hip flexors, and glutes.

You don’t have to hold your stretching positions long (12-15 seconds at most). Typically, I run through a set of stretches, repeating each stretch a couple of times, reaching slightly further on each repeat. Make sure to breathe (if you don’t, you’ll be tense, and counteract the stretching), and relax.

Core Strengthening Exercises

Okay, now we’re getting into the “I barely read your blog before, now I’m going to stop altogether” territory. Stomach exercises are worse than stretching. Seriously. I can’t stand ’em. But our core muscles don’t do a lot of active work while riding. They’re passive, and are largely responsible for our hip and torso stability. If we have a weak core, then our hips and torso will roll more, and our legs won’t get all their power to the pedals. The stronger your core muscles (stomach, lats, etc.) the more efficient you’ll be, and the less tired you’ll get.

Another big thing is that your back – even in the best of riding positions – gets a heck of a workout. Too much compared to your stomach. Strong back + weak core = back pain. Do some leg lifts, v-ups, crunches, etc. and you’ll have a stronger core, which means less back strain.

Cross Train

Rollerblading is a great way to take the same muscle groups we use in riding, and use them in an entirely different way.
Rollerblading is a great way to take the same muscle groups we use in riding, and use them in an entirely different way.

At this point I know you think I’m being purposefully antagonistic, but other forms of exercise can work muscles and muscle groups that cycling doesn’t. The most dreaded example of course is running. But I’ve gotta say, as much as I hated running, I did notice the difference when I rode. Some activities to consider including:

  • Running: It hurts at first, but shorten your stride and watch your foot placement, and this higher-impact activity can go a long way to strengthening joint and ligaments, as well as working our cycling muscles in much different ways.
  • Swimming: very low impact, like riding, but works the upper body a lot more, and great for cardio.
  • Rollerblading: not that many people do this anymore, but it is great for working the outer and inner leg muscles, as well as the hip flexors and glutes. The same muscle groups as cycling, but in very different ways.
  • Skiing (particularly, cross-country): but obviously, you need snow. :p
  • Yoga: improves flexibility and strength, and will help with overall riding comfort.
  • Resistance/Weight Training: not to bulk up, but to build up strength in those areas we lack on the bike (shoulders, core, neck, chest, arms, etc.).