When I started commuting by bike I was surprised to experience how much my hunger level increased and I started eating more. I was worried about putting on weight I became interested in the calorie burn from cycling of during a ride. I did some research and I also put on my heart-rate monitor and used GPS data to do calculations to be more accurate. This is what I’ve found.
An average 170 lbs person cycling at a moderate pace will burn 550-650 calories per hour. The same person going at a vigorous pace can burn upwards 900 calories per hour. For every 25 lbs of extra body weight this will increase by approximately 100-150 calories/hour.
What are the factors that determine calories burnt?
There are three main factors that determine the amount of calories you burn when you cycle: your own body weight, the intensity of riding and the amount of time spent cycling.
Heavier people burn more energy while cycling, because moving heavier body parts requires more energy, and more importantly, they have more weight to move on the bike. This is especially true when you go uphills where even a small amount of weight change can make a big difference. I can also confirm this from personal experience. I usually carry a full pannier to and from work with the exception of Tuesdays, when I leave my laptop and some other heavier stuff in the office. On my way home there is a 10% gradient for about ½ a mile. Even though the weight difference is only about 12 lbs, there is a notable difference between climbing a hill with a fully loaded pannier and an empty one.
The intensity of riding is essentially the speed you’re riding at. Naturally, the faster you go the more calories per hour you need to fuel your body. The speed and calories burnt are not in linear proportion. It is relatively easy to ride at 15 mph on a flat paved road, but to increase the speed to 20mph requires a lot more effort and energy. For most people 15mph seems to be the threshold, beyond which they put in a lot more energy and and get diminishing returns. If you want to lose weight and burn as much energy as you possibly can, you should go as fast as you can. Even if the distance you cover from your home to your workplace is the same, and you will spend less time on your bike, the intensity more than makes up for the difference in time.
How to to burn energy most efficiently?
To put it simply, the faster you spin the more benefits you will see in terms of energy expenditure. It may be tempting to think that pedalling in a higher (harder) gear will result in more calories burnt. In reality the amount of energy burnt doesn’t directly depend on your gear ratio but your heart rate and muscle exertion, which is determined by your cadence and effort. You should aim for 80 revolutions per minute (RPM) or slightly higher if your fitness level allows it.
When you ride your bike in the highest gear your muscles need to work really hard, but your cadence is the lower and therefore your heart rate is relatively low. By switching to a lower gear, you increase your cadence, and you also bump your heart rate, which will boost your body’s energy consumption. Find the hardest gear in which you can still spin at approximately 80 RPM. When you feel the burn in your legs you can switch to a lower gear and keep the cadence high.
How can I calculate my cadence?
If you don’t have a cadence sensor, take seconds as your baseline, and try for a little over 1 revolution per second. If you want to be more precise count your revolutions for 15 seconds and multiply it by 4. If you’re good at music you can sing You Can Count On Me from Bruno Mars, which is 89bpm. If you’re cadence is slightly slower than the song, you’re good.
I want to burn as many calories as possible, but I don’t want to sweat. Is that possible?
No. You either avoid sweating or burn a bunch of calories. What you need to be aware of as a bike commuter that burning more calories comes at the expense of sweating more. If arriving sweaty at work is an issue for you, you may want to take it easy on your way to work in the morning, and go full blast on your way home. Personally, I go flat out both on my way in and on my way home. In the morning I take it a little easier on the last mile, which is sufficient to cool me off, but your body may react differently.
Can I burn calories even if I don’t sweat on the bike?
Of course you can and you will. You burn calories all the time. Your body needs energy even for its basic vital functions such as breathing and digesting. When you get on your bike even if you cycle slowly to prevent sweating you burn more calories than just sitting in your car in the traffic on your way to work. The amount of calories you will burn is less than pedalling vigorously, but even going at a slow pace you can burn around 400 calories per hour. If you ride half an hour each way five times a week, you will burn around 8000 calories a month, which is the equivalent of over 2 lbs of body fat. If life keeps you too busy to do any other training this alone can be an excellent way to keep in good shape.
How many calories do I need to burn to lose 1 lb of fat?
1 lb of fat contains 3500 calories. This means by burning 3500 calories you will lose 1lb of fat. Your body fat is extremely dense in calories. To put it in context, you could do between three to five hours of vigorous cycling and only burn 1 lb of fat, or as we saw earlier you can lose just around 2 lbs of body fat if you bike commute at a moderate pace for 30 minutes (about 10 km) each way.
That’s too much cycling to lose weight.
If you weigh in regularly you probably noticed that your weight can easily fluctuate more than 2 lbs from one day to the next and even within one day, so is it worth it to exchange the car for the bike? It’s important not to confuse weight fluctuation from one day to the next with fat loss or fat gain. If you weigh in before and after your meal you will get entirely different readings. Similarly if you weigh in before and after using the restroom you get different numbers. This doesn’t mean that you’ve lost that amount of body fat.
Burning 2 lbs of body fat due to cycling alone is a huge deal. If you become a year-round bike commuter you can burn 24 lbs of body fat in a year without pushing too hard.
Does burning 7000 calories on my bike commute mean that I will lose 2lbs of weight?
Yes and no. Burning energy is only one side of the equation. Your body doesn’t only count the amount of energy you burn, but also the amount of energy you input into your system.
Burning 2lbs of body fat worth of calories means that you will be 2lbs lighter than you would be if you ate the same amount of food in the same period of time without bike commuting.
“You can’t out-exercise a crappy diet” goes the cliche. If you consider that an average chocolate bar contains around 200-250 calories, and a Big Mac meal with chocolate milkshake contains over 1500 calories, you can truly appreciate the saying. The bottomline is that weight loss only occurs when you burn more calories than you consume.
Your appetite will increase when you start bike commuting you need to approach your nutrition with caution and you need to be aware of what is awaiting you. It is very easy to overeat, and there is a temptation of thinking that you’ve earned the right to this extra snack because you bike commute.
What can I do to burn more calories?
Don’t leave anything on the road.
Go flat out if you can and if you enjoy it. Pedal hard and pedal fast whenever possible as long as it’s safe.
Do sprints in your marathon.
Increase your speed for short bursts of 20-30 seconds. It takes some time to get used to, and it will require a special effort, but since you’re already on your way to becoming a badass hero by bike commuting, this just increases the cool factor.
Far and away.
You can’t change the distance between your home and your office, but for most of us there are so many unexplored paths and roads.Choose a longer, and if possible a more challenging route. The added distance will result in longer travel times and if the terrain is more challenging then the intensity increases too. It also helps to appreciate your neighborhood more.
When you’re coastin’ you ain’t roastin’.
Don’t coast. Pedal all the time as if you were riding a fixie, even when you’re going downhill and you’re almost spinning out. Moving your legs requires energy even if you don’t have to exert force.
What is a calorie anyway?
In case you’re wondering, a calorie is the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1 degree celsius. The calories contained in food means the amount of energy that food stores in its chemical bonds. Watch this video if you want to understand it better.
In conclusion I can say that being a bike commuter is a cool thing and whatever your intention is you should approach it as a sustainable activity on the long run. There is no point in burning a bunch of calories today if you get frustrated and fed up and therefore you won’t get on the bike tomorrow. If you want to maximize your calorie burning then pedal hard, but always making sure that you enjoy the ride.
You may be interested in reading this other article I wrote on whether you can lose belly fat by bike commuting.