Get on your bike … and pedal?

Walk through any MotoGP or Superbike paddock and you’ll see motorcycle riders as lean and fit as professional bicycle racers. Yoshimura Suzuki’s Mat Mladin, for instance, is trained by a disciple of Chris Carmichael, who coached Lance Armstrong back to Tour de France dominance after his bout with cancer.

Fitter athletes are more relaxed. Being more relaxed improves reaction times. So those tour de force workouts make sense–though not just for factory racers. Club racers, track-day riders, even street riders benefit from that state of relaxed awareness that comes with being in shape.

What does this mean for you? It means being fit will make you faster and safer. It means you’ll be more relaxed on your motorcycle, which will make learning to ride it better even easier.

A heavier rider raises the combined rider/machine center of gravity, exaggerating pitch movements under acceleration and braking. Excess weight slows acceleration and increases braking distance. And because the rider moves his body weight (or more in a high-G corner) whenever he shifts side to side, it compounds fatigue, which lessens control. When your quads those large muscles in your thighs–are spent, you can’t move around on the bike as needed; if your hands and arms are cramped, you can’t be precise with steering or controls; and an imprecise rider is an unsafe rider.

Even if you’re not overweight, being in better shape will make you a better rider. Top racers know from experience that cardiovascular fitness gives them a competitive advantage. Ask any club racer, track-day rider or canyon carver; they know that after 30 miles of knee-dragging, they’ll pull in breathless and sweaty. Why? Isn’t virtually all the work performed by the engine and brakes?

Answering those questions would make a great PhD thesis, but there’s already a weight of opinion suggesting riders’ increased heart rates are the cumulative result of several factors. Emotional stress, increased oxygen use by the brain, the effort involved in moving around on the bike, intense use of certain small muscles (notably in the hands, forearms and neck) and isometric muscle effort (by large muscles such as the quadriceps) all contribute to a serious need for oxygen. And don’t scorn the notion that much of the work done while riding happens inside your helmet; as much as a third of all the energy consumed by your body is burned in your cranium. Up to 10 percent is used in processing visual information alone.

What are the essential elements of riding fitness? It’s best if neither you nor your bike is handicapped by excess weight. And it’s key that your heart and lungs can meet your body’s-and your brain’s-oxygen needs. A no-nonsense cardiopulmonary fitness program will help you on both counts.

Step 1:

See your doctor. Ask if you can safely start a cardio fitness program. If the answer is yes, go to Step 2. If the answer is no, seek professional help.

Step 2:

Buy a heart-rate monitor. Any good sports shop sells them.

Step 3:

Calculate your target heart-rate zone. The rule of thumb has long been 70-85 percent of your peak heart rate. Peak heart rate is measured in beats per minute (bpm), and can be approximated as 220 minus your age. Thus, a 40-year-old will have a theoretical peak heart rate of 180, and should train between 126 and 155 bpm.

Step 4:

Pick a suitable activity. Plan on training at least three days a week, with five to six days being even more effective. If you’re height/weight proportional and in good basic shape, your training sessions should reflect the length of your sport rides (typically 20-30 minutes for club racers or track-day riders). Try to train in the upper end of your target zone. Every workout should begin and end with a gradual, 5-10 minute warm-up and cool-down period.

If you’re overweight, you’d be well advised to train for at least 45 minutes at a lower intensity. Use your monitor to ensure you’re in your zone. If you’re not breathing hard and working up a sweat, you’re not working hard enough. But if you can’t carry on a simple conversation, you’re probably working too hard.

Because you’re not training to compete as a swimmer, cyclist or runner, you need not specialize. In fact, you might benefit more from switching between workouts. If you train three or more days in a row, feel free to alternate between more- and less-intense sessions.

Step 5:

Monitor results. Your gym or corporate health plan might offer a comprehensive fitness evaluation you can use every six months to monitor your improvement. If you’re training on your own, track your weight and occasionally perform some standard test, such as measuring the time you take to swim 40 lengths of a swimming pool. Another good tip is to keep track of your resting pulse. Take it in the morning before getting out of bed. If your resting pulse is trending down, you’re getting fitter.

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