Start Cycling: Biking for Beginners

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Get Ready, Get Set
Get Ready, Get Set

By Jessica Smith

Looking for a fun, low-impact way to get fit? From buying the right bicycle to completing a four-week cycling program, follow this step-by-step plan for beginners.

1. Why Get (Back) in the Saddle?

As a kid you rode a bike because it was fun. And it still is! Riding a bike is a great way to improve your health, lose weight and get in shape -- without breaking the bank. It's also a great, joint-friendly cardio alternative -- and comparable calorie burner -- to running. "The average 150-pound person will burn at least 200 calories riding in 30 minutes," says Lee Uehara, owner and League Certified Instructor at City Bike Coach in New York City. "Cycling is good for anyone. It's low impact and works the muscles of your core, hips, glutes and even your upper body."

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2. Finding, Fitting and Sitting On Your Bike
How do you choose a bike that will fit you properly? "Most novice cyclists buy bikes that are too big for them and that have a seat which is too low," says Andrew Johnston, a former professional cyclist, author of Holistic Strength Training for Triathlon and owner of Triumph Training in Atlanta, Georgia. "You want to look for a traditional road frame or something geared more towards comfort, such as a 'hybrid' bike, and test ride several options before deciding on your purchase," he explains. Visit a local, reputable bike shop to get expert assistance in picking out your bike. They can also adjust the seat height. Besides comfort, the seat position can prevent injury and pain.

3. Practice Before Hitting the Road
Before you head out on the streets for the first time, it's a good idea to practice turning, stopping and signaling. Find a quiet street or a neighborhood block with little traffic, says Johnston. "Get used to leaning with the bike [when you turn], and don't be afraid of speed -- a fast bike is a stable bike due to the gyroscopic effect of the wheels." Practice using your brakes effectively -- Johnston recommends braking before a turn to control your speed rather than during the turn. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your bike's gears and learn to signal, says Joanna Chodorowska, a triathlon and personal sports nutrition coach in Philadelphia, Penn. "Cars (and pedestrians) need to know that you are clearly going to go straight [or turning]." To learn how to signal right, left or stop, check out this video demonstration.

4. Get Ready, Get Set...
When you head out on the road, assume you're invisible. "Don't assume a car will move out of your way or won't turn in front of you, even if a driver sees you," says Chodorowska. "You have to be more defensive than when you are driving a car." Be sure to ride with traffic, obey all traffic laws and stay alert at all times.

Safety checklist:

1) Wear a helmet

2) Put on bright, reflective clothing (even during the day)

3) Have a blinking light and/or bell installed on your bike for increased visibility and signaling

4) Wear strong, stiff soled shoes that won't slip off your pedals during your ride.

5) Use the restroom before leaving the house

6) Tell someone where you're going (give them details of your route), and what time to expect you back

7) Carry a cell phone for emergencies (but don't talk and ride)

8) Bring water

9) Carry along a patch kit and spare tube in case of a flat tire and a portable pump for air in the tires

5. Your First Time Out
The best thing you can do is just get out and start riding, says Alex Algarin, a triathlete and certified personal trainer at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, Fla. "The more time you spend on your bike, the more comfortable (and fit) you will become." Download this four-week biking plan developed by Johnston to get you started. The plan includes a warm up, cycling workouts and how to cool down to help you go from zero to cyclist in no time.

6. Making Adjustments
Once you start riding, you may need to adjust your seat. Start by placing the arch of your foot on the bottom pedal. If your seat is at the proper height, your extended leg should be only slightly bent (about 10-15 degrees). If your leg is bent further than that, you raise the seat; if your leg is completely straight or you're reaching to straighten it, you need to lower the seat. Once you've got the height set, you may need to adjust the position of the seat as well: "If you feel too much pressure on your pelvic bone, you can move the seat forward and slant it down," says Uehara. Seats can be slanted up, down, back or forward to make them more comfortable. You can also buy a gel seat cover to give you more cushion, especially during longer trips. A seat cover usually runs between $15-30.

7. Heading to the Hills
"Learning to coordinate upper and lower body movements will make any hill easier," says Johnston. "And proper use of gearing will make the hills less daunting, too. Most novices make the mistake of pedaling too high a gear at the beginning of a climb -- as they tire, they go to easier and easier gears which makes them go slower and slower. You want to increase your gearing and effort as you near the top with maximal output coming as you crest the top, allowing you to get back to speed as soon as possible." And the position of your body is important, too, says Johnston. "Longer hills will typically be performed seated, while shorter hills can often be tackled out of the saddle, putting the cyclist's weight behind each pedal stroke." Don't have any hills in your hood? Johnston recommends substituting an overpass or bridge instead for uphill riding.

(For more instruction on gear use, ask your bike shop professional to show you how your bike's specific gears work).

8. Stretches After Your Ride
These three key stretches will help you stretch out the prime movers used during your ride:

Hamstrings: Lie on your back with your legs straight, holding both ends of a beach towel or rope wrapped around the arch of your left foot. Keeping your right leg on the floor, slowly use the towel to lift your left foot up towards the ceiling, stopping when you feel a stretch down the back of your left leg. Hold for up to 60 seconds, lower the leg to the start position, and then repeat on the other side.

Quadriceps: Stand with your back to a wall. Place your right foot on the wall as you descend into a lunge position with your right knee on the ground and the sole of your left foot in front of you. Bend over your left thigh with a hand on either side of your left foot (so that you are in something similar to a sprinter's start position). Lift your body up so that your shoulders come back above your hips, stopping when you feel a good stretch in the right thigh, front of your right hip. Hold for up to 60 seconds, return to start position, and then repeat on the other side.

External hip rotators: Lie on your back, with both arms relaxed by your sides, and bend both knees so the soles of the feet are on the floor. Cross your right leg on top of your left, resting your right ankle just above the left knee. Lift your left foot off the floor and bring the left knee/right ankle toward your chest as close as you can, stopping when you feel a stretch in the outside of your right hip. Hold for up to 60 seconds; repeat on the opposite side.

9. Tools for the Ride
Cadence Computer (around $25): Most bike shops carry cadence computers, which allow you to see how many revolutions per minute you're making. Depending on your terrain, you want to aim to stay within 75-95 rpms during your rides, which can be hard to determine on your own.

Bike Maps: If you are heading out on a new route, first find out if there is a bike map produced by a municipality or bike association, and follow it, recommends Uehara. For example, the New York City Department of Transportation puts out a biking guide and map, and offers it for free to cyclists. Find out what your municipality offers in terms of rider education, recommends Uehara.

Map My Ride: MapMyRide.com is full of mapped routes (just type in your zip code to find one in your area), cycling workout plans and local riding club information to help you along your biking journey. Map my Ride is also available as an application that uses GPS technology on your smart phone to help you track, route and store your ride routes and information.

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