The tendancy is for riders to get strong over the summer, reach a peak in the fall, and then loose much of their conditioning over the winter. For me, as it concerns my recumbent muscles, this is definitely true. To combat this, a strategy is to incorporate exercises into one’s exercise routine that, at minimum, keep those muscles active so the body remembers why it needs to spend precious energy to maintain them.
My own exercise routine won’t work for everyone, but it may help you generate ideas on how to stay in shape over the winter so that, once spring comes, you don’t have to spend the first three months building up strength so you can — dare I say it? — ride a recumbent up a steep hill.
Maintain your summer body weight
First and foremost, over the cold winter months, when you’re craving sweet and high-fat foods to keep your body warm, try not to add a layer of warm, cozy fat. Maintain your summer weight. It’s incredibly difficult to lose fat once you gain it, so don’t.
Another aspect of this is that a large proportion of recumbent riders are middle-aged and as we age, our metabolisms generally slow down, we get cold more easily and it gets harder to lose the weight we gain.
When it’s cold out, and your body feels chilled, your instinct is to eat, both because you need energy to stay warm, but your body also wants a layer of fat to keep comfortable in the chill air. If you’re like me, you’re more than happy to oblige with two or three cups of organic hot chocolate with added organic heavy cream from grass fed cows. Uh oh. But there’s a way to trick the body into thinking it’s already warm and comfortable and needs no extra layer of fat. This may help you (me) keep it to just one cup of hot cocoa a day. A trick I use is to wear what is essentially an artificial, removable layer of fat: long johns. I wear a merino wool base layer, top and bottoms, more or less every day during the cold, wet months, from November through March. I’m wearing a base layer anyway when I ride down to the pool in the morning (see below), so I just leave it on the rest of the day. I also sometimes wear a hat while I work.
Another trick is to eat hot meals as often as possible. The classics are soups and stews. These help you stay warm without relying on sugars. And it goes without saying, eat your vegetables. Root vegetables are at their best during the winter and so are greens like kale. Go heavy on them. You can also go heavy on nuts like walnuts, which have loads of highly nutritious fats. Avoid sugar except when you’re expending huge amounts of energy for example while you’re active and outside.
Keep up a winter exercise routine
I probably spend more time swimming than cycling. Fortunately, it’s a sport I can do all winter long and it keeps me fit for just about any other sport I frequently do, which is mostly cycling, skiing, running, and hiking. The trouble with swimming is that it doesn’t work the same leg muscles as cycling. That’s also a good thing: cross-training saves the body from overuse injuries.
Here’s my exercise routine, on a normal day:
4:45am up and at ’em; fumble around in a haze; eat a light breakfast; put on shoes.
~5:15 bicycle (usually on a recumbent) a half-hour down to the pool or else jog/walk 45 min.* to the pool.
~5:45 stretch, short pilates workout
6:00 swim (typically an individual medley workout)
~7:15/7:30 stretch, pilates, jump rope
8:00 bike a half-hour — or jog/walk 45 min. — back home.
9:00 begin work
(*My jogging/walking route takes a direct, nearly crow-flies route from home to the pool. My cycling route has less car traffic, but is far less direct. I also stop for red lights, which slows me down considerably.)
After that, any errands, any commuting, everything I need to do out in the city I do by bicycle. I consider that element of the day’s exercise icing on the cake (please forgive the sugar and butter metaphor).
If I miss my swimming workout (for example, if I’m up late the previous night), I’ll either run for one to one and a half hours, or do a high-intensity biking workout, or do a rowing workout on my Concept II rowing ergometer. The erg has been with me for over two decades. Highly recommended.
Key elements of the workout as it concerns biking.
Obviously, the swimming is the main workout; it’s great, low-impact cardio. It’s fun. I enjoy seeing my teammates on my U.S. Masters team. I like the challenge of the individual medley, which is my event of choice. And there’s little chance of being hit by a car while I’m exercising.
The benefits of the jog/walk probably don’t have to be explained though it may be useful to specify that I alternate walking and jogging when I go to the pool by foot. I don’t jog the whole way. There are a few reasons for this. First, I’m taking cement sidewalks, which are hard on the body, so the walking segments give my body a necessary break. Secondly, I no longer train as a runner and don’t wish to inflict that on my body, so the jog/walk gives me speed for a quick foot-based commute, without stress — I can make it as hard or easy as I like by increasing/decreasing how much and how fast I jog. Thirdly, I’m still stiff at that hour and I use this foot-based commute as my warm-up so, by the time I’m at the pool, I’m really ready to go. A fourth benefit is that running, more than swimming or cycling, is really unforgiving of excess body weight so it firmly reminds you of why you want to keep down your weight.
The stretching. It’s necessary for helping you avoid or minimize injuries. And it becomes more necessary as you get older because — yes, as you get older, you get stiffer — but mainly it’s preventative: it takes a really long time to recover from injuries as you age.
Jumping rope. This is the primary way I remind my legs to stay strong for biking. This is also how I push my max heart rate to again, remind my heart and lungs why they have to stay strong. My rope workout isn’t particularly fancy, but I do something like a Tabata workout, alternating sprints with slower jumping and alternating one-legged jumping with two-legged jumping to keep it interesting. Maybe that sounds fancy.
And the biking part of it? Not really a key element. It’s too short and easy to count for much, but it does serve a little to remind my cycling muscles why they exist. Sometimes I’ll add a few miles around Prospect Park when I head home, sometimes loaded with groceries from the Park Slope Food Coop. The park includes a hill, but normally the cycling part of my morning routine is purely practical; it’s just commuting and, though better than nothing, I’m going too slowly for it to feel like exercise.