If you’re new to riding a bike or coming back after a long break from cycling, you might wonder, why is cycling so hard?
Cycling is an endurance sport, which means one that primarily uses the aerobic system for long periods at relatively high intensities. Success at endurance sports requires high cardiovascular fitness, so it’s no surprise that an untrained or out of shape cyclist will find it extremely challenging to keep the same pace as a trained, fit cyclist.
If you’re finding cycling hard now though, don’t give up! The good news is that you can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness in a matter of weeks, training for half and hour to an hour, three or four times per week. One study showed that untrained men were able to increase their maximum power by 7 percent in just 10 weeks, just by riding 30 minutes to work an average of 3.75 days per week. If you can get this kind of power gain just riding to work, you can imagine how much more you might benefit by adding something like interval training to your bike workout.
So keep at it, because you’re going to get faster on your bike as you continue to ride over time.
Calories Burned Per Hour Cycling
If you’re looking for another illustration of why bicycling is difficult, just look at the number of calories you’ll have to burn to ride a bike.
The number of calories a cyclist can burn in an hour gives you a good idea of the amount of effort used and energy spent riding. The average height and weight for a male in the United States is 5 foot 9 inches and 195 pounds. At that height and weight, you’ll burn an incredible 693 calories in a single hour, riding at a 12 mile per hour average speed, according to the Map My Ride calorie calculator. If you speed up to a 15 mile per hour average pace, you’ll burn 990 calories. To burn the same 990 calories running, someone at the same weight and height would need to run 6 miles in an hour, which is a respectable 10 minute per mile pace.
Which Muscles Are You Using on a Bike?
When you’re riding a bike, you’re primarily using your lower body — specifically your quads, your glutes and your hamstrings. Cycling is typically easier on both your muscles and your joints, which gives you the ability to build stamina faster since you won’t generate as much muscle soreness (DOMS — delayed onset muscle soreness) and damage as with running, for example.
How to Make Cycling Easier
As with other endurance sports like running, swimming or cross country skiing, you’ll become better over time as you gain neuromuscular efficiency — the ability of the nervous system to use the correct muscles for the best results with the least amount of effort. As your body gets more efficient, it takes less effort to generate the same amount of power on a bike.
Learning cycling skills such as how to ride safely in a group and how to draft will also help you ride dramatically faster as the riders around you block the wind and allow you to go at a faster pace with less effort. Even very fit runners will sometimes struggle on group bicycle rides with riders who don’t necessarily have the same level of cardiovascular fitness. This is because the runners don’t yet have these bike skills and have to work much harder than the riders around them who are taking full advantage of every wind cheating opportunity.
In cycling, wind makes a big difference in your cycling effort and speed. Cycling with the wind can give you a tremendous boost in average speed, but a crosswind or headwind can slow you down and make pedaling significantly harder and slow you down dramatically. Learn more about dealing with the wind.
Learning to shift your bike correctly can also make a gigantic difference when it comes to cycling difficulty. If you’re in the wrong gear, you could be pedaling so fast that you’re out of breath and not efficiently using your leg muscles, or in a gear so big that you can barely make it over a hill.
Want to Learn More About Cycling?
If you’re new to cycling and you want to learn more, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Road Cycling.