Spring is finally here, bringing warmer weather and longer days—the perfect time to venture outdoors with your bike. For most of us, however, returning to cycling after the off-season can feel like one long uphill climb. Bryn Mawr Rehab Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Ryan Algeo, PT, MPT, CSCS, offers these suggestions to make the transition go smoothly.
First, check in with your local bike shop for a tune-up to ensure that your equipment is in good shape. Next, check your expectations. For most people, returning to cycling after time off will mean having to build back to your former level of capacity. The good news is, with the right approach, you can bounce back relatively quickly and avoid getting sidelined by injury.
Know your fitness level
Whether you are getting back on a bike after taking the winter off, or you are recovering from a surgery or injury, it’s important to understand your current limitations. After a four-week break, you can lose up to 20 percent of your VO2 max (V=volume, O2=oxygen). VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise—a measure of aerobic endurance. A physical therapist or trainer can help you assess your current fitness level, or there are formulas online for calculating VO2 yourself.
Go slow and steady
The key to avoiding injury is to slowly increase the intensity of your workouts as you build back your endurance. Whether you measured your previous workouts in miles cycled, minutes per week, or difficulty of the terrain, it’s inadvisable to simply pick up where you left off when you first resume training after a break. Instead, start at a steady state (which is a continuous, steady effort, as opposed to an interval cardio workout where you vary your energy output) and slowly build your strength and endurance. Avoid jumping back into intervals or increased resistance training. A good guideline is to reduce your prior distance or wattage by 10 percent as you start out, and build your target goals from there.
Ask a pro
If you are new to cycling or unsure of the best approach to training, you might benefit from a few sessions with a physical therapist, trainer or cycling coach. Bryn Mawr Rehab, part of Main Line Health, offers personalized care for outpatients at all fitness levels, working with individuals to reduce their risk of injury while increasing their strength, mobility and flexibility. If you are returning to activity, physical therapy can address range of motion restrictions, limitations in muscle length, and other risk factors for injury.
Ryan recently helped a client who was returning to cycling following a meniscal repair to his right knee. Because he was compensating too hard with his other leg, he ended up with pain in his left hip. Having a professional observe how he moved proved valuable; the patient was able to get back on his bike after a few sessions of physical therapy.
Mix it up
Cross-training is an effective way to give your body a different training stimulus. This is especially important with a sport like cycling, which is a repetitive motion activity. When you ride a bike, your body is primarily moving forward, on what we call the sagittal plane. By adding activity with some lateral motion or rotational components, you can decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries. Activities like swimming can enhance your range of motion and help maximize your potential on the bike.
Focus on your own goals
While building back to your previous fitness level, be mindful of your limitations when taking classes such as spinning, which tend to create competition between riders. In fact, anytime someone else dictates the speed or intensity of your ride, you risk an overuse injury from pushing beyond what your body may be ready to handle. Try to stay focused on building at your own pace.
Listen to your body
Remember the old saying, no pain, no gain? That approach is frowned upon by therapists and trainers. We actually don’t want you to push through minor aches. Doing so can lead to compensatory movement patterns and bigger problems that will be harder to fix down the road. If you follow a good training routine and start to have pain, see a health care professional who will determine if your injury is serious or can be taken care of with a session or two of physical therapy or a couple of exercises.
Ryan Algeo, PT, MPT, CSCS is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a physical therapist at Bryn Mawr Rehab, part of Main Line Health. Bryn Mawr Rehab offers hands-on, individualized care in convenient locations throughout the suburbs of Philadelphia. Learn more at mainlinehealth.org/rehabnetwork.