A lot of the advice you've been getting ever since you became a bike rider is flat-out wrong and is actually bad for your health. Done right, bike riding can tone your muscles and make you fit for more bike riding.
Riding is lousy all-around exercise: A lot of bike riders, especially serious racer types who ride expensive bikes and dress in racing clothes, believe that all precious exercising hours are best spent riding their bike. That may be true for racers who need to cram 200-mile weeks into 15 hours of free time, but it doesn't make sense for anybody else.
Riding a bike is a great foundation exercise. It works the big muscles of your legs and butt. But reduced to its simplest biomechanics, pedaling a bike amounts to twirling your feet in 13.5-inch-diameter circles while the rest of your muscles don't do much. Climbing hills is an exception, but I'm talking about in general, most of the time.
Plus, riding your bike on a smooth road isn't load bearing, so it doesn't fend off osteoporosis. It takes time away from weight-bearing, bone-building exercise. To double the threat, long, hard bike rides trigger a release of cortisol, a hormone that inhibits your body's assimilation of calcium. Long-time, long-distance riders are famous for having porous bones. It's a spooky, harmful adaptation to keep their bodies as light as possible, for better climbing.
Carbohydrates make you fat: Yes, it's true. All your cycling life you've been told to "carbo load" before exercising. Why? Because carbs are the racer's choice, and racers are positioned as role models for the rest of us. Racers need carbs because, at race-pace carbohydrates deliver more oxygen to their muscles than fats and protein do, and oxygen makes them go. They're lean because they're genetically predisposed to leanness (they are sensitive to insulin and don't need a lot of it to get rid of the glucose), and because they ride so many hard miles burning up the glucose. Unless you're similarly gifted with genes that make it easy for you to stay lean and, on top of that, ride ungodly miles, don't follow their high-carb, sports-drink, energy-bar, cereal, and pasta regimen and expect to look like they do. You'll just keep getting fatter and beating yourself up for not riding enough (even though you are) and eating too much (even though you aren't).
Electrolytes for dummies and cheapskates: Electrolytes are acids, bases, and salts that help regulate your salt and water and your blood's pH. A normal diet supplies all the electrolytes you need, and if you don't do long, hard rides all the time, you don't need to replenish lost electrolyses with special sports drinks.
Sports drinks are non-carbonated sugar-laced sodas with added sodium, phosphate, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate. They're dangerous because, under the guise of improving your performance, they just make you fat. Up through 2010, the main sweetener in most of them was high-fructose corn syrup.
Alternatives to high-carb sports drinks:
- Mix half water and half orange juice. Add salt. If you expect to sweat a lot, use a teaspoon of salt per pint; otherwise, a teaspoon per quart. You aren't shooting for a magic ratio or optimum formula; you're just putting back the most important electrolytes lost in your sweat -- sodium from the salt, and potassium from the orange juice.
- Tomato juice. Even lightly salted tomato juice has plenty of salt, and tomato juice -- or V8 -- is packed with potassium and is low in carbs.
Stretching is overrated: Stretching fanatics want you to stretch all of your muscles before exercise, after exercise, and every day, whether you exercise or not. Stretching books and videos show lithe, nubile, strong people stretching, sending the message that stretching makes you that way, but it doesn't. Stretching won't change your body's shape. You can work your way up to pressing your nose to your knees, but the danger of having such far-out stretching goals is that you'll stretch your tendons, not your muscles. Tendons connect muscle to bone, and you can overstretch them, loosening your joints too much and making them prone to dislocation. Stretch like a cat or dog does, which is to say, not too often, not too long, and definitely not too hard.
Adapted from Grant Petersen's Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike (Workman Publishing Company)