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Don’t Become a Bike Potato

On a bike trip in Colorado, I got my butt handed to me on a Frisbee by guys who were 15 years older than me.

I blamed it on the altitude. And it's true that after a few days I could almost keep up with them. At least close enough that they mostly stopped making fun of me.

This was my introduction to middle age. I thought I was in great shape, but really I've been turning into a bike potato.

For years I scorned people who deliberately trained. "Just get on your bike and ride," I thought.

I also avoided any talk about racing. I'm all about bike touring, not racing.

Now I've done a bit of reading, and I learned the shocking truth: Bike touring can be an emasculating, power-sapping habit.  It can turn your strong, youthful body into a flaccid meat suit.

A physical therapist told me I should never do another bike tour again after the age of 40. I will not be following his advice.

If you're a stubborn fanatic like me, and you insist on bike touring, here are the dangers and how to reverse them.

Danger #1: Repetitive Stress Syndrome

If you take a short bike ride that lasts a few hours, you're going to gain a lot of physical benefits. Bike touring is different.

On a bike tour, you're in the saddle for hours on end. Probably six hours or more. Maybe 10 or 12 if you're a fanatic. I've done this on bike tours of Italy.

During that time, your back and shoulder muscles are straining to hold up your head. Your arms are locked on to the handlebars. Your knees are grinding along, over and over, with continuous pressure on the exact same spot.

In a more natural activity, you would be moving around a lot, using different muscles in different ways, shifting your weight around onto different joints, and generally stimulating and using most of your body.

On a bike tour, you're concentrating all the effort and all the strain. Many muscles are cramped far inside their normal range of motion. Other muscles aren't used at all.

Danger #2: Depletion of Your Reserves

bike tour california mountainYou have a limited amount of glycogen stored in your muscles and your liver. On an extended bike tour, you may not have time for your muscles to recover. Your glycogen may be used up without sufficient time to replace it.

When this happens, you might start burning protein instead. Keep this up for too long, and you can end up with a loss of muscle mass.

You may have noticed the skinny leg syndrome that some people have on a bike tour. Over time, you'll lose power and stamina because of the loss of muscle.

Danger #3: Inertia

If you're on a bike tour, you're probably trying to cover a lot of ground each day, and you'll likely have an interest in conserving your energy.

You're probably also thinking of the bike tour as a vacation, which means you'll be more relaxed.

These two factors have a tendency to make you ride more slowly. The problem is, you're essentially training yourself to ride slowly. A slow rider tends to get slower.

The Solutions

One of the most useful and practical bits of advice I've found is from Roy M. Wallack in his book, Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100--and Beyond. (see below) He suggests taking shorter tours.

This is great advice for many reasons. First, it minimizes the damage of the three dangers. If you're only touring for 3 days, a lot of the problems with bike touring simply won't have time to develop. It's also useful against the mental and psychological damage that bike touring can inflict.

Short tours are also more practical. You can fit them into a busy life. Do a weekend bike tour, and you won't have to miss work.

Better yet, you can turn a long tour into several short ones. For example, when I bike the via Appia next time, my plan is to ride for a day or two, then stop in one place and take a few days to really explore, talk to the locals, and have a learning/cultural experience while my body recovers.

One of my dreams is to tour around the entire Mediterranean sea. Realistically, my wallet and the geopolitical situation won't allow it. But maybe I'll reach my goal over several years, one country at a time. Turns out this will be good for my health, too.

Another way to defend yourself from the ravages of bike touring is to tour the way you train. Alternate long tours with short tours. Have days when you ride as fact as you can, or at least include sprints into part of your journey. Make a conscious decision whether to attack a hill all-out or to merely endure it.

Finally, add some cross training into the tour. Stop for a day and go hiking. If you're strapped for time, just do a bunch of push-ups in the morning, or take a 20-minute yoga break when you find a good spot along the route.

A bit of thoughtfulness will let you reap all the benefits of bike touring while avoiding the dangers. You may even finish the tour feeling fresh and invigorated.

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