Road running: the sport where possibilities carry on for miles
Got to admit it, I’ve become a bit of a cycling evangelist. Cycling was my sport when I was young, it’s been my transport, and now I’m in my sixties it’s my workout and meditation. And I find cycling just as joyful as I did as a kid; there’s something about it that sucks you in. Once you master matching gear shifts to terrain, you sink into a natural rhythm.
There is a grace in pedalling; it’s a natural, flowing movement that is kind to your body, working major muscle groups without putting pressure on your knees and ankles – just some of the benefits of cycling waiting to be enjoyed.
The low risk of injury means cycling is ideal exercise as we age.
“Cycling creates very little ‘eccentric’ force, when muscle fibres contract while lengthening, unlike running or sports involving running,” says physiotherapist Phil Burt, who has worked with Tour de France and Olympic cyclists.
“In many years of my practice I’ve treated more musculoskeletal injuries in sports involving running than I have in cycling.”
His experience is backed by science: a 2020 review found that muscle and joint injuries made up only 2-17.5% of all reported road cycling injuries and illnesses.
Cycling at a steady pace increases ﬁtness and health by stimulating and therefore improving the cardiovascular system, but cycling is also very good for building and preserving muscles.
As we age we lose muscle, a process called sarcopenia, which – in the end – can leave people prone to falling and less able to live independently. Exercise helps slow that loss.
“Loss of muscle mass and strength are two of the highest predictive factors of all-cause mortality,” says Professor Andy Galpin, world-renowned strength training expert at California State University. “It’s about keeping yourself at a high level of function for the rest of your life – you’ve got to keep the nerve connections to your muscles ﬁring to do that.”
Hills, setting off from a standing start, accelerating after slowing down or riding around a corner all require short stretches of forceful pedalling, which means more muscle fibres are recruited and that helps preserve them. Of course, other kinds of exercise fire up nerve muscle connections, but most involve so-called ‘eccentric’ contractions, so they come with injury risks. Cycling is particularly good for strengthening the gluteus (bottom) and large leg muscles, but also works your back and core. It can help maintain balance, too, which tends to decline as we age.
However, the one thing that makes cycling so accessible – the bike carrying your weight – is also its sole weakness. Cycling doesn’t place bones under load, and they need load to stay healthy. It’s why you should also do some strength training, either with light weights or just body weight. I do one strength and conditioning session for every two cycling sessions, and it works a treat.
Cycling has some mental health beneﬁts, too. Like all exercise, it stimulates production of mood-enhancing hormones. Cycling outdoors puts people in touch with nature, which lowers stress and improves mood. One study on commuters in Spain found those who cycled four times a week or more were signiﬁcantly less stressed than non-cycling commuters.
It also brings opportunities to explore, which provides cognitive stimulation. In one small study of older adults aged 50 to 83 published in PloS One, researchers found those who rode for 30 minutes three times a week for eight weeks improved their concentration and memory.
Interestingly, those who used an e-bike – where a battery provides assistance when needed – also improved their brain’s processing speed and their mental health score.
This all backs up my experience, and that of my cycling friends: everything looks better from the saddle. If I’m a bit down, a bit preoccupied, before a bike ride, I’m quickly lifted and gain perspective once I start pedalling. Cycling in a group can be even better. Group rides are an opportunity to meet and mix with new people from all walks of life and different age groups, which is also good for mind and body.
Don’t dismiss e-bikes either, if you feel a traditional cycle is no longer for you. As the study above shows, they can provide many of the same beneﬁts. E-bikes are keeping lots of older cyclists active; they allow them to go further – and keep up with younger riders.
What about indoor stationary bikes? Granted, cycling indoors isn’t as much fun, but with a bit of music and perhaps some inspiring scenery on your laptop (I use videos of famous Tour de France mountain climbs) you get almost all the health benefits of outdoor cycling with the added extra of staying warm and dry. A review of the scientific literature in 2019 found that indoor cycling may improve aerobic capacity, blood pressure, fat levels and body composition.
You don’t even have to buy a special indoor bike any more. A device called a turbo trainer can support your normal bike indoors and offers resistance for you to pedal against – try those by Tacx or Elite.
So, what are you waiting for? Borrow a bike, buy second hand, or restore the one gathering dust in your shed. It doesn’t matter what, just ride. It won’t take long to start feeling better and fitter. Inside or out, on roads or off, cycling is a real health, fitness and wellbeing winner.