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Gym Lifecycle vs. The Real Thing January 3, 2014

Posted by Bill in Conditioning.
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lifecycle versus bicycleFive years ago I moved away from easy access to safe riding on the American River Bike Trail. To close the fitness gap, I moved my time onto a Lifecycle at the local gym, and while I did maintain my fitness level, I’ve been wondering about the actual transfer of that fitness to actual riding. Today, my first day back on two wheels in quite a long while, I made a few surprising discoveries. Did it transfer? It depends on which part of me you ask.

Overall, the gym machine indeed kept me from turning to trail mush. I can still sustain a good speed over several miles with a low heart rate. On flat ground, though, it became apparent that the two exercise modes are not created equal. While large muscle groups did more than fine, within each group were discreet areas that were not as well-conditioned as the rest, so I experienced micro-area fatigue particularly in the adductors (groin muscles) and hamstrings.

The adductor issue I attribute to the Lifecyle being a fixed entity, with no demands on me to control the lateral dynamics of a bicycle. This fatigue was relieved by on and off-bike stretching at several mile intervals. It’s likely the hamstring issue is related due to the complexity of motion of muscles that cross two joints (hip & knee), but that’s harder to pin down knowing the Lifecycle geometry does not accurately reproduce the riding position. This is not intended as a criticism of the Lifecyle workout at all, as comfort is an important aspect of getting one’s tired ass into the gym three days a week. Lifecycle recumbents are really comfy, and that feature makes a big difference in getting the needed time in.

Now the really AWESOME part of what the gym experience produced for me was in climbing. CLIMBING. Part of the gym cycle workout is increasing peddle resistance over time to maintain a target heart rate. I set out early on to keep my heart at 75-80% of max BPM over the course of an hour. That gets harder to do as one builds muscular aerobic capacity, so you have to push harder to sustain the target HR. In case you think that sounds awful, rest assured that it is very satisfying, as the beta endorphin kick feels really good and you generally feel better and stronger all the time once you get into the groove with your workouts.

The biking payoff, though, is the development of pushing strength. A slope between Sunset and Hazel Avenues has always left me winded at the top, and today it was a total piece of cake with minimal downshifting. I arrived at the top with significantly more speed and feeling quite studly. Unless you’re able to sustain hour-long climbs several times per week and methodically build capacity (not possible for most recreational riders) the gym machine is the common person’s route to building significant climbing power.

So while I know I have to climb onto the bike to maintain performance biking fitness and strength, my gym time has proven to be a mostly successful (and somewhat grudging) substitute. There will never be anything like a body in motion, at speed, to fully answer the question, “What’s the point of being fit?” But if you need to artificially sustain that fitness to keep two-wheeled magic in your life, the gym can help you stay there and maybe even build your performance capacity.