Once you decide which model of recumbent exercise bike suits your needs, do you know how to best use it to achieve your fitness goals?
There are various ways to work out, even if you’re not a trained athlete. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, you’ll unknowingly fall into what one exercise guru, Ben Greenfield, calls the “black hole.”
In the black hole, you get the worst of all workout worlds.
I’ve addressed the types of workouts before, in a prior post on recumbent exercise bike workouts, but decided to return to the subject.
Because I’ve discovered — and relearned — a lot more, that’s why.
In working out, there are two main variables.
Duration — that’s how long you exercise for.
Intensity — that’s how hard you exercise for.
And even those two are connected, because the more intensely you work out, the shorter the time you can keep going.
How fast you cycle and how far depend on those two above factors and, of course, on how strong and fit you are.
Also, the resistance level you set the bike for will influence the speed. At the highest resistance levels you may not even be able to spin the wheel even though you’re straining as hard as you can.
Avoid the Middle for Best Results When Doing Workouts for Recumbent Exercise Bicycles
As Ben Greenfield, one of the health gurus I have come to respect a lot, says in this post on workouts, most athletes work out too hard when they should go easy. And they work out too easily when they should go hard.
He’s mainly writing about serious athletes, but it applies to the rest of us too.
If you are extremely frail due to age, medical condition or recently surgery/injury, you may find that almost cycling at all is quite stressful.
If so, you will just have to be careful. Let your doctor know what you’re doing and follow their advice.
If you’re a serious athlete with a coach or a personal trainer, this post isn’t really for you. Though, if Greenfield is to be believed (and I believe that as a serious triathlon athlete himself with a high online profile he does know what he’s talking about), you could be falling into the trap he’s talking about in that post.
If you’ve been on a plateau for over a month, be sure to read his post.
This post is for everybody else. That includes people who are elderly and disabled who need to strengthen their leg and heart muscles. People who need to recover from knee-replacement or other surgery. People who need to lose weight.
And people such as myself, who want to exercise enough to live forever without caring whether we ever win a race. I won and lost plenty of races as a swimmer. I don’t care about competing. I care about surviving and feeling great.
For myself, I prefer to go outside and walk, but the weather sometimes keeps me indoors.
Myself, I prefer to run and would probably be automatically doing my old High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) routine, except I had surgery over 5 months ago for an inguinal hernia. Now I’ve got a small mesh holding in my lower intestines. The outside wound healed a long time ago, but the surgeon told me to allow three to six months for recovery. And I do sometimes feel some pull or tension at the site of the wound.
Therefore, I have not run since I went into the hospital. I’ve been walking. I’ve also been obsessed with food and fasting. But I want to be prepared to run again, but I’m worried about the wound. I don’t want to re-injure myself internally and let me intestines fall out again. The first time wasn’t much fun.
It All Starts With Energy
Life is basically sustainable biomechanisms for harnessing chemical energy. Oxygen is a highly reactive element we burn. The rest we get from stored sunlight – plant and animal foods.
Almost all our cells have tiny organelles called mitochondria which combine oxygen with either glucose or fat to produce the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that power our cells.
Biology tells us we have two different energy pathways:
The aerobic, meaning using oxygen.
The anaerobic, meaning without oxygen.
When Usain Bolt covers 100 meters faster than anybody else in the world ever has, he is entirely using his anaerobic system. The race is over before any oxygen he breathes in during it can help to power his muscles.
He puts out a lot of power in that short time, accumulating an oxygen debt even he must pay back by gasping for air when the race is over. He’s the fastest person in the world because he has trained his metabolism to make the most efficient use of stored energy while he’s sprinting.
However, Dennis Kimetto, holder of the world record for running a marathon, relies almost 100% on his aerobic energy pathway. Nobody can run 26.2 miles in just over two hours while holding their breath.
He needs oxygen for energy, and he’s trained his metabolism to make good use of it.
Which Energy Pathway Do You Need?
You need to develop your aerobic pathway because it’s for endurance.
You’re not running any marathons, but you want to live for as long as possible. For that, you need to put the oxygen you inhale to good use.
That’s the aerobic pathway.
But sometimes you need to draw on your reserve. You go dancing on a cruise ship. You run through the airport to catch a flight. You step outside from a chilly air conditioned house into 107 degree Fahrenheit heat.
You then need to have some cardiac reserve to draw from.
This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint as well.
Did Paleolithic People Run Marathons?
We can’t know for sure, but it doesn’t make sense.
They were hunter-gatherers.
Most likely the hunters walked long distances to where they expected to find game. Then they waited in ambush or for a chance to strike. It’s difficult to closely observe animal tracks and spoor while you’re running along. Running as most amateur athletes do today would have been a waste of energy to hunters after steak, not medals.
But when they found some game, they probably had to often sprint to get close enough to kill the animal with a rock or spear before the animal ran away.
The gatherers probably had to walk to find and select the edible leaves, roots, fruits, ants and other food. It’s hard to pick a salad while you’re running.
Plus, no doubt everyone had to sometimes run hard to escape from dangerous animals.
Walking was productive.
Sometimes all-out sprinting was necessary.
They likely ran at mid-speed for long distances when required, but not often. Maybe sometimes hunters tracked wounded animals until they died, but only when game was scarce. If they could more easily kill a nearby animal, they probably went for the easy target.
But mostly they either walked or ran hard.
Training the Aerobic Pathway
For decades it’s been the common wisdom that runners need to build their aerobic “base.” That is, to run long, slow distances.
As a coach, Dr. Phil Maffetone has had great success with this. He advises distance runners to wear a heart rate monitor and keep their heart rate below the Maximum Aerobic Factor.
He defines MAF as 180 minus your age.
If you’re over 65, though, just stick with 65. That’s 180 minus 65, so you aim for a MAF of 115.
He also adds that if you’re an experienced athlete who’s gone over two years without injury and you’re still progressing, you can add 5.
If you’ve been exercising but your performance is going downhill, subtract 5.
If you’re recovering from major illness or surgery or you’re just starting out, substract 10.
If you’re 66 years and just had knee replacement surgery and/or you haven’t exercised since college, your MAF is 180 – 65 = 115 – 10 = 105.
Keep your heart rate below 105.
Remember, that figure is your maximum heart beat. If you’re cycling and your monitor’s beep goes off, that means you must slow down until you recover, so your heart beats less often. If you’re running, stop and walk until you’ve recovered below your MAF.
Apparently, this is difficult for many experienced athletes. They can go faster. They’re used to going faster. Therefore, they want to go faster.
Refer to Greenfield’s article. Running or cycling with your heart rate below the MAF is the easy part he’s referring to.
However, many people who ride recumbent exercise bikes are not experienced, competitive athletes.
They just want greater strength, to lose weight, to recover from surgery or to improve their heart and lungs so they live longer.
Therefore, they’re fine with sitting in the bike and grinding away while watching a movie or talking on the telephone.
Especially when they first start out. They’re not in shape, and so may find even just 30 minutes of slow cycling at low resistance stressful.
If that’s you, that’s fine. Do what you can. All low-level physical activity is good for you.
Work it into your daily routine. Recumbent exercise bicycles are good at letting you do that.
If you read Greenfield’s article, you’ll notice he said the best, most elite athletes work out at that level around 80% of the time.
But after a few months, you may find yourself edging up your demands on yourself.
The low resistance levels are too easy.
Going so slow is bor-ri-ing.
Let your MAF be your guide, is my advice.
If you’re exercising with your heart beat just below your MAF, you will improve. That’s the whole point.
So turn up the resistance level to one that’s comfortable but somewhat challenging.
Pick up the speed.
Go for longer periods. Cycle through an entire movie instead of just one TV show episode.
But stay below your MAF.
Aerobic base building:
* Makes your muscles stronger and more efficient
* Increases the transport of oxygen to your muscles
* Reduces the formation of lactic acid (it’s lactic acid which causes muscles to hurt and get tired during intense exercise)
* Increases the production of energy
* Trains muscles to burn fat for energy, not sugar
* Increases your heart’s stroke volume
* Raises the density of your mitochondria
All those things are good. You will feel better and have better health.
Remember, your energy comes from your mitochondria. When you produce more and better mitochondria, you can’t help but have more energy.
Also, some scientists believe having damaged mitochondria is what makes cells become cancerous. Keeping your mitochondria healthy is probably one reason exercisers are less likely to die of cancer.
Studies have found that exercising just 150 minutes a week gives an overall 7% reduction in mortality.
That means that exercising just over 20 minutes per day makes you 7% less likely to die.
And that’s with just a lousy 20 minutes every day.
If you exercise 300 minutes per week, your risk of dying goes down by 14%. That’s not quite 45 minutes per day.
Make it one hour per day, and your risk goes down by 24%.
Go up to 90 minutes per day, and your risk drops even more so.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t find enough people who exercised more than 90 minutes per day to study.
But there’s no reason to believe the risk doesn’t keep going down, so long as your exercise at a low level of intensity to avoid injury.
That’s what I’m talking about here.
Just watch a 2-hour movie while you cycle every day.
Don’t push yourself, but just keep going until you are tired.
Keep your heart rate below your MAF (which ordinary athletes regard as “too easy”), and you’ll continue to improve.
And remember those recent articles in the news about how sitting is the new smoking?
That’s true. And it makes recumbent bicycles even more valuable.
Sure, when you’re in your bike you’re “sitting,” but you’re NOT sedentary, because you keep your legs moving.
Therefore, cycling indoors is NOT the harmful behavior the news articles are talking about.
But sitting in an easy chair or on your couch IS.
What About Your Anaerobic Pathway
Cycling for long distances at an easy pace that keeps your heart beat below your MAF is the 80% of workouts athletes (and you are an athlete because you’re using exercise to improve your physical condition) need.
What about the 20% that goes toward using your anaerobic pathway?
That does call for high-intensity, short-term exercise.
When I had the space for it, and before I had the hernia surgery, I would do a HIIT session before breakfast three times a week.
I was in a quiet residential street, not on a track, so I can only estimate how far I ran. My best guess is I ran about 300 yards when I’d sprint for just over a minute. And about 150 yards when I’d go for just over 30 seconds.
Sometimes I’d run the entire distance (maybe 300 yards) four times total, once every five minutes. Since it took me over a minute (depending on my speed of course), I’d have not quite four minutes to rest in between each repeat.
To mix things up, on some days I sprinted eight repeats. I covered maybe about 150 yards at just over 30 seconds. I’d then walk to the opposite site of my layout. I’d run a new repeat every 2 1/2 minutes.
Oh, and I warmed up by walking around for about ten to fifteen minutes before I did that work out. And after I finished, I warmed down by walking around. By then, I was plenty tired.
I ran for a total of only four minutes, but those were a hard four minutes.
I’m familiar with interval training from swimming on a swim team. Also, I remember wind sprints from junior high track and crosscountry workouts.
I also know that, even as a teenager, I could not swim all those repeats at top speed. We started out with twenty 50s on the minute.
That is, we’d swim for 50 yards. One a minute. For twenty minutes. Even then we couldn’t put one hundred percent into every repeat.
However, based on what I’ve heard and read about many modern athletes and programs (especially Crossfit), the trend is to work out very hard for a long time.
Nobody wants to build their aerobic base by running or swimming slowly for long distances.
And nobody can go all-out for long periods.
Notice that even when I was in much better shape, I did those HIIT workouts only three times a week. I’m no longer a teenager, so I allowed myself at least one day to recover.
Therefore, if you’re hesitant to take your cycling to an extremely high level of intensity, I understand.
If you’re not confident you’re in shape, check with your doctor first.
The Benefits of Anaerobic (High Intensity) Training:
* Increase the size and number of your mitochondria much more effectively than with aerobic training
* Your metabolism tends to burn a lot more fat for 24 hours after you stop exercising
* You build your heart’s reserve capacity
* You increase the ability of your lungs to take in and use oxygen
* You lower insulin resistance
All of the above are good things. They improve your ability to exercise. They rejuvenate your health. You burn more fat. This, plus lowering insulin resistance, helps you lose weight. It also protects you from diabetes.
Therefore, I encourage you to include that 20% of high intensity exercise, assuming your doctor approves.
You don’t have to dedicate a full workout to it.
Do your regular, easy-paced cycling. But add a few periods of hard, fast cycling. Not every time. But, two or three times a week, go all-out for the final 30 seconds.
And do not do that on back to back days. Give yourself a day or two or even three to recover.
Avoid the Black Hole of Middling Effort – Not Slow Enough or Not Fast Enough
Now you see why going medium-hard is not effective.
When you cycle hard enough to make your heart rate go over your MAF but under a 90% sprint, that’s the Twilight Zone.
You’re pushing your heart and body so much that you’re causing a lot of stress and inflammation. That weakens your fitness and your health. You’re going too hard to build your aerobic base and too slow to improve your anaerobic pathway. You’re stressing yourself for nothing.
You build your aerobic base and foundational fitness and strength of heart and lungs by remaining below your MAF. That’s the 80%.
Once you establish a good base of fitness through consistent cycling for some months, you can spend a little time at high intensity.
That will improve your heart health and fat burning even more.
That’s your 20% (or less).
Many athletes believe they are healthier than they are because they push themselves beyond their MAF but below their all-out sprint pace.
Or they spend too much time on heavy sprinting.
That’s why you sometimes hear about runners dying even though they’re young. James Fixx was the first, but far from the last. Not long ago Micah True, star of the book Born to Run by Chris McDougall, died during a training run. Their bodies are inflamed and damaged from too much stress. Often their hearts are abnormally large.
Therefore, I encourage everyone to buy a heart rate monitor or buy a recumbent exercise bike that has a heart rate monitor built in.
Calculate your MAF.
Keep your heart rate below your MAF until you’re healthy enough to fit in some HIIT. And then do so only in small doses.
This is your life, not the Olympics.
Stay in Tune With Your Body
Although it’s good to incorporate your cycling with your regular life, because that way you’ll keep cycling no matter what . . . don’t let the electronics distract you from how you feel.
You should feel the effort, but good overall given your current state of health.
If you start to feel short of breath or nauseated or bad in some other way, stop immediately and get help.
When you complete a workout, you should feel pleasantly tired, not exhausted. You should know you’ve accomplished something, without suffering.
Watch Out for Overtraining
Many athletes damage their careers by overtraining. Hard work is essential, but when you overstress your body you damage your health.
On days you do cycle, you should be pleasantly fatigued at the end. And this will often last the rest of the day.
However, you should not feel so exhausted you want to go right to bed. Or have no energy for activities you normally enjoy.
However, you should sleep well. And if you decide to go to bed earlier than usual or nod off during a movie, that’s probably good.
When you wake up the next morning, you should feel as refreshed — or more — than you normally do.
At first you might experience muscle soreness or pain, but it should go away soon. If not, cut back on the time you spend cycling.
You’re probably overtraining if you experience:
* Problems sleeping
* Digestive problems
* Frequent infections such as colds and flu
* Quick temper
* Aches and pains that don’t go away
Cut back on how much time you spend cycling. Exercise should actually help alleviate all the above symptoms if you suffered from them before you began cycling.
Unless you’re already lean, you should also lose weight.
And just plain feel better about life in general.
Cycling, indoors or out, and other forms of exercise don’t solve the other problems in your life, but they increase your ability to emotionally handle them.
And cycling on a regular, consistent basis on a recumbent exercise bike does make you both fitter and – when done in an intelligent manner – healthier.