So, you started bike commuting and after a few days you feel fatigued and you are wondering whether it gets any easier with time. Let’s understand what’s going on in your body and what you can do to help overcome fatigue.
Does cycling to work get easier? For a beginner bike commuter who is not used to regular physical activity cycling to work will get easier with time. Within 1 to 3 months you can be fully used to bike commuting. The time it takes and the degree to which it gets easier will vary based on the fitness level of the rider, the length and terrain of the commute.
So, if you feel exhausted after the first couple of rides and you don’t want to stop, there are quite a few tricks to keep on pedalling. If you would like to know more about them let’s dive in!
How long does it take to get used to it?
Getting used to 2 to 5 days of bike commuting on a weekly basis with a certain intensity can take anywhere between 1 to 3 months.
There is a huge difference between a 5 mile flat route and a 7 mile hilly route, whether you pedal full steam or take it very easy. When you ride your bike to work the first time pedalling too fast can be really tempting because you want to see and prove how fast you can be.
Getting to work quickly on the first day, or going really fast on some segments is not what you are aiming for! You are building the habit of cycling to work. To achieve that you need to find what’s sustainable and try to get on your bike as often as it feels good!
Pace yourself and listen to your body! When you start building the habit choose a pace that you can keep all the way, and commute as often as it feels good.
Once you are used to cycling to work on a certain regular basis (e.g. twice a week), and you feel confident that you can potentially do it indefinitely, you can increase your speed, and add more days a week. But keep in mind that you need to do it step by step!
You also need to have realistic expectations for your speed. The average speed of a beginner bike commuter on a 5 mile ride is somewhere around 10-14 mph, but don’t beat yourself up if you are even slower. With some practice and training you can get your speed up to 13-17 mph, but bike commuters rarely exceed the average speed of 17 mph.
I already started, I am fatigued. What should I do now?
The first few weeks are all about getting familiar with the route, the new habit, your bike, the traffic etc. Patience and consistency will bear their fruit.
Instead of setting a target time, speed or frequency get a feel for what you can do, and recognize that fatigue may mean that you need to take a day off.
Taking a break doesn’t mean that you’ve been defeated, but rather that you’re on the right track to becoming a fitter you.
The rustier your muscles and joints are the more likely that you will feel the need for a break sooner. It could take up to 1 to 3 months before you can ride 5 days a week and still feel great.
The best approach to becoming a full-time commuter is by not putting too much pressure on yourself in the first place when you start out. Instead of being too focused on certain milestones, initially concentrate on what you can do to make bike commuting enjoyable.
If it feels good to get on your bike and pedal to work 2-3 or even 4 days a week, great! Do it! But avoid straining yourself because that will lead you to throwing in the towel.
Achieving your goal gradually means you give yourself some time to get familiar with your new, alternative transport, what it entails for your body, how to plan your route, what upgrades or accessories you might need, what your preferences are, etc. Some minor adjustments to your saddle or handlebar can make a huge difference in how you feel after the ride.
In this phase you may realize that you should (or not) eat a candy bar right before hopping on your bike or eat more protein to help recuperate your muscles (more on nutrition later).
In this phase you will discover if you find it easier to use a pannier instead of a backpack, or you may realize that there is a much shorter route to your workplace.
There are many things you will find out about your body, your bike, the traffic, etc. that will help you build a firmly-rooted habit.
This way you get a feel for bike commuting and instead of causing yourself demotivating frustration you find motivating joy in this new experience.
By the end of this phase you will know exactly what you’re getting yourself into and what to expect when building the habit of bike commuting.
This phase is key to success!
There are a number of ways of going easier on yourself and making your ride more enjoyable. You can find some practical tips below to help you begin with.
Go slower on the shortest and easiest routes
Make sure that you take the shortest route to your workplace and that you go at a reasonable pace. At least initially.
Adding extra miles is going to make the ride more tiring.
If there are several routes with different elevations (ups and downs), choose the flattest one among them. (Even if the descents feel great, riding uphill is always more demanding on your muscles than riding on flat ground.)
Your pace is another important aspect to be mindful of. Going at 70% or 90% of effort barely makes any difference at all in terms of your average speed, but it makes a huge difference in the fatigue you will experience.
Stretch your muscles
Most people underestimate the importance of stretching, but depending on your body construction, this can make a huge difference. Some never feel the need to stretch, but some of us feel really stiff just as we get off the bike. If you feel that your muscles are stiff after a ride, stretching your quads can relief you of this feeling.
When you use your muscles, you damage your muscle tissues, and cause them to tear. If you’ve ever done a leg day in the gym, you know what it means to have really sore legs. Riding the bike is the same, but on a smaller scale.
There is a good reason we used to stretch at the beginning and end of PE classes. If it was beneficial when we were younger, then it can serve us now when we are older and rustier.
Your body needs time to recover
Going from no exercise to training twice a day 5x a week leaves anyone exhausted. If you’re at this stage, the best thing you can do is to give your body a few days to recover.
During the recovery you don’t just refrain from using your muscles, but your muscles get a chance to rebuild and become stronger. Rest days and recovery time are very important even among elite athletes. It is a time to get stronger even without lifting a finger. It’s a time of physical and mental preparation for getting on the bike again.
Once you’re fully trained up to riding 5x a week, weekends will prove to be sufficient for recovery.
Food is to your body what fuel is to your car. Even though your body is much more forgiving than your car’s engine, the way you fuel your body can make a difference in how it reacts to your rides and how you build your muscles.
If you weigh around 200 lbs then you burn approximately 550-650 calories per hour. You can get an accurate reading if you have a heart-rate monitor and an application, like Strava on your smartphone. You can also read this article about how much energy you can burn commuting.
The extra energy required is on top of what you normally consume. You feel this in the form of hunger. Although not too many people talk about this aspect of bike commuting, it is very common to experience hunger as soon as you start using your bike as a means of transportation.
Carbohydrates, such as sugars, pasta, potato, chips, give you quick-release energy, but they don’t contain what your body needs for proper nourishment.
Proteins, such as fish, poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts and seeds don’t just give you extra energy, they also contain everything your body needs to build and restore your muscles. Vegetables contain fiber and vitamins your body needs to stay healthy. They all must be part of a well-balanced diet.
Just like your body needs time to rest, so do the muscles need the proper nutrition to recuperate. Proper nutrition is key to regular bike commuting.
Timing is also important when it comes to nutrition. It is not recommended to cycle on a completely full stomach. Many people experience nausea and bloatedness when they do. Spend some time coming up with an eating strategy so your body has sufficient energy for the ride without feeling completely full.
Being out of shape often goes hand-in-hand with being overweight. The extra pounds affect both how fast you can go, how you feel at the end of the ride, and how fatigued you feel after a few days of riding.
Getting rid of unwanted weight makes cycling easier, but it takes time and effort.
You didn’t gain weight overnight, so don’t expect to lose it overnight either. Here’s an article I wrote about bike commuting and weight-loss, and if you are looking for a powerful weapon, you may want to try intermittent fasting (not for the faint of heart!).
If you have a long commute, then multimodal commuting can make it less stringent on your body and muscles. You can combine cycling with public transport or you can ride with your bike in the trunk up to a certain point and cycle from there.
There are a number of creative ways for multimodal commuting.
For example, a friend of mine rides a road bike 8 miles to the train station, locks up his bike and when he gets off the train, he rides another 2 miles on another cheap bike he keeps in the city. Folding bikes are also great for multimodal commuting because they take up so little space so you can take them with you on crowded trains, buses, etc.
Using an electric bike can also help reduce fatigue, especially if your commute is long and/or hilly. The electric motor can give you some extra boost to get you to the top of the hill or to assist you on flat parts when you’re feeling tired.
Sometimes, when I need to haul a trailer to run errands in the city, I use my wife’s electric bike to ride to work. Even though the weight is much heavier, the electric assist makes a big difference.
Cycling to work does get easier over time as you get stronger and fitter. Focus on making each step more demanding without pushing yourself beyond your limits, and you will thrive.