Whenever I’m talking about bicycle touring — especially long distance bicycle tours — I’m often asked about physical preparation. “You must’ve been so fit to start something like that,” people say.
The answer, however, is “not really.” Of all the different forms of exercise, cycling is one of the lowest-impact forms of human movement. Cycling doesn’t create the kind of hard, repetitive impacts on joints that comes from running or hiking, for example. It’s not hard to get right, and once you’re doing it right, your body won’t be damaged by long distance cycling — it will just grow tired over time. The good news is that because cycling (on a properly configured bike — more below) won’t stress your joints or cause injuries, you can keep cycling for as long as you like, provided you don’t completely toast yourself by pushing too hard in the early days before your fitness has caught up.
That said, there are a couple of crucial ways to physically prepare your body for a long distance bicycle tour:
1. Find a bicycle that fits you
Human bodies are finicky machines, especially when it comes to the kinds of repetitive exertion required of cyclists. If your seat isn’t high enough, or your handlebars are too far away or too low for your body, or if you don’t have a comfortable place to rest your hands on the handlebars, injuries will occur — typically in your knees or lower back. The moral of the story here is to make sure your bike is perfectly fitted to your body. For a long distance tour of many weeks or months, the extra money you pay up-front will more than make up for itself in the hundreds or thousands of kilometers of painless cycling it will buy you.
There is a lot to take into account when fitting a bicycle: seat height, frame size, frame length, handlebar height, handlebar configuration. The Adventure Cycling Association has a great set of resources to get you started but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, your local bicycle shop will almost certainly be able to help configure your bike or size you up for a new build specified to fit your body.
2. Ride bicycles everywhere
When you’re about to ride a bicycle a lot, the best training you can possibly do is… ride bicycles. A lot. Not only will it condition your body to long days in the saddle, but it will condition you, as a rider, to life as a cyclist in a civilization thoroughly infested with cars. If you live in a city, regular cycling trips will heighten your awareness of the traffic as it moves around you, and make you feel more comfortable as a part of it. This is an especially important skill if you plan to ride in and out of any major cities during your journey.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that city and country riding are two vastly different experiences. City riding requires plenty of awareness and navigation — hopping from car lane to bike lane to separated bike path, for example — and a constant stop-start rhythm as you move through traffic lights and intersections. Country riding is more of a momentum game. There’s less traffic (though you should always be aware of automobiles as they approach) and you’ve got time and quiet to contemplate your surroundings. The concept of momentum becomes especially important once you start riding with loaded panniers clipped to your bicycle, and it’s probably a good idea to do a few test rides with a full load before you set out for the first time. A loaded touring bike will feel heavy, wobbly and fatally flimsy the first time you set your feet to the pedals. With time, however, the added weight will give you a sense of momentum and even purpose.
While your legs are working for hours at a time during a day in the saddle, your upper body is doing little more than holding you in place — and that can get pretty stiff after a while. It’s always a good idea to stretch out your legs, neck and back after a day in the saddle. During longer tours, I usually give myself 15 minutes of “warm up” riding each morning before I pull over and have a good, deep stretch. I usually focus on calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and groin, as well as some basic back and neck stretches. Bicycling.com has a pretty comprehensive guide here.
4. If something starts to hurt, stop
If your knee, back or neck does start to hurt during your tour, you should find somewhere to stop and rest as soon as you can. If possible, a bicycle shop or even a doctor will be able to help you diagnose and fix the problem. At the very least, a day or two of rest will help your body get on top of things without aggravating it further. If you continue to ride through the pain, that pain will only increase with time — don’t assume it will just go away.
In her excellent book 50 Shades of the USA, Anna McNuff gets some knee trouble but keeps cycling during the early stages of a bicycle journey through every state of the United States. Her determination is admirable, but likely only caused unnecessary aggravation to her injury.
5. Go at your own pace
One of the many beautiful things about bicycle touring — especially on longer distance tours — is that you can take things at your own pace. The important thing is to listen to your body, as it is the equivalent of your car’s engine. If exhaustion or pain in your joints or muscles is flashing your body’s “engine light,” it’s time to find a shady spot, take a break, take a look at what might be causing the pain and maybe think about taking a rest day. In an earlier post I recommended planning out your first few days on the road, so you have a decent idea of where you’ll be sleeping each night. When you do that planning, be conservative about the distances you plan to cover that day. You’re likely to be burning many more calories than you usually do in everyday life, so let your body become accustomed to its new reality without shocking it too much on the very first day.
6. Potential long term issues, and how to avoid them
I have heard of a few long term issues that can arise after months on end of bicycle touring. For example, I have personally experienced numbness in the palms of my hands which, I’m told, is caused by resting the weight of my upper body on improperly configured handlebars, and may have been a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome. There two ways of avoiding this during your own tour:
- Use a handlebar setup that offers multiple hand positions. Cyclingabout explains the various types of hand positions in this guide.
- Make sure your riding position isn’t causing any undue strain. Any bicycle mechanic should know the basics but in case you’re building your own touring rig, here’s a comprehensive guide to handlebar fitting.
Another potential issue facing long distance cyclists comes from sitting for long periods of time on the perineum, which is between your genitals and your anus. Some studies suggest that long periods of cycling can cause numbness and even erectile dysfunction for men (though other studies refute that claim) and could damage the pudendal nerve for women.
However, cyclists of all genders can take some basic steps to avoid numbness or damage to their genitalia. Give your perineum frequent breaks from the saddle by standing on the pedals for at least 20 percent of your ride to get the blood flowing down there again, and take frequent rest breaks. Oh, and padded shorts are definitely a good idea, as is a leather saddle — Brooks makes one of the most popular saddles in the business.
And that’s really all there is to it! Many people tend to think of a long distance bike tour in terms of its entirety — say, from coast to coast of the United States — and think you must be some kind of elite athlete to be able to pull it off. But in reality, long distance bicycle touring is just an easy, low-impact activity repeated for days, weeks and even months, at a pace that’s comfortable for you. Take it a day or even a kilometer at a time, and before you know it you’ll have traveled further under your own pedal power than you ever thought possible.
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