After many years of programming, I have found that I can no longer avoid the fact that I spend most of my day sitting, which is absolutely horrible for my health. I started swimming a few months ago and am enjoying getting back into better shape, so I'd like to start adding in some workouts on a stationary bike. I have one long bike tour under my belt, but that was many years ago at this point, so though I'm not new to cycling I haven't ever really focused on cycling for physical fitness.

I have ready access to a boring bike at the gym. It just has flat pedals, but it does have a computer and controllable difficulty levels, along with a built-in pulse monitor. My question is, what sorts of workouts would be good to try for starters ? Should I just get on and pedal for half an hour ? What cadence should I aim for (in my mind I'm shooting for somewhere near 100) ?

I have two goals in adding a stationary bike workout: I'd like to increase my cardiovascular fitness (currently I can barely swim 100m in one go, because my lungs feel like they're going to explode), and I'd like to make my quads stronger. Hopefully these aren't at odds with each other.

  • check out thesufferfest.com
    – robthewolf
    Aug 25 '13 at 13:41
  • definitely for someone who is unfit and a beginner, concentrate on heart rate over cadence. Cadence is great for improving yourself but if you struggle swimming 100m it sounds like you need to gain a basic level of fitness first. If you measure your heart rate during exercise, it won't take long before you have a good idea what your maximum is. You then train in "zones" leading up to this maximum value. But the good news is that becoming fit is achievable and you're taking some great steps toward it. Good luck!
    – PeteH
    Aug 25 '13 at 19:37
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    For me, with a gym full of toys, 15 minutes was my limit on a stationary bike before boredom did my head in. I suggest use the gym for Strength and Core, use the stationary bike for warmup/cool down and sprints. Distance training is best done outside.
    – mattnz
    Aug 25 '13 at 21:38

How long do you have? How strong is your motivation? How good are the bikes?

Unfortunately, most exercise bikes have a very poor "simulated feel", and a real cyclist tires of them pretty quickly. This is especially true of the old friction bikes and many of the wind and magnetic trainers. A few (Expresso bikes, and some of the newer Le Monde bikes that I've tried) do have a halfway passable "feel", though, since they have a modicum of momentum (which is the main thing missing in the others).

You can use the bike for several things -- short bursts, to raise your HR and short-term aerobic capacity, long sessions (at LEAST 30 minutes, preferably longer) to tax your glucagon storage just a hair and build endurance, and brief "climbs" to strengthen your muscles.

But, given access to a reasonably well-equipped gym, you probably should throw in some strength training as well, with leg presses, extensions, and curls. And, believe it or not, simply being conscious to doing more squats through the day (eg, when reaching down to open a file drawer) can produce significant improvement.

And you really need longer sessions -- at least two hours at a crack -- to build your long-term endurance. These are probably best done on a real bike, though, if at all possible.

I'm not convinced cadence is that important, but as a rough guide I'd say about 110 minus 65% of your age should be the upper limit, and 75% of that number would be the lower limit. (Unfortunately, many exercise bikes only work smoothly at high cadence.) My general rule for cadence lower limit is to never pedal slower than you're breathing, and that covers virtually all situations other than a brief climb.

Heart rate is also a guide, but there is much individual variation in rate, so it's hard to give numbers.

  • Thanks ! Totally agree with you on strength training, probably should have mentioned that in the question. Could you elaborate on why longer endurance sessions should be done on a real bike ? Is it just for boredom, or because stationary bikes somehow yield worse training outcomes ?
    – lmjohns3
    Aug 25 '13 at 14:06
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    Mainly I think that it's hard to motivate yourself to do 2-3 hours on an exercise bike, if only because you can stop at any time. On a "real bike" if you're an hour from home you can't just decide to quit. Besides, a good route (with ups and downs) trains the CV system better and challenges the muscles more. Aug 25 '13 at 18:09
  • @lmjohns3 there are also trainers that will hook into your computer, your monitor will show you rolling through countryside at the speed you are riding. Sounds brilliant, very hi-tec, but as Daniel says is not a patch on the real thing. There is nothing like feeling the wind on your face.
    – PeteH
    Aug 25 '13 at 19:32
  • The Expresso I mention has a graphics display that lets you take any of about 30 different routes, with hills and scenery. It does significantly alleviate the tedium, but more important in my mind is the "feedback" you get between "seeing" a hill and increased pedal effort. And the changes are gradual, vs being abrupt as with most "digital" bikes. Aug 25 '13 at 22:18
  • How did you come up with the cadence equations? Although 110 - 65% of age produces reasonable numbers for young people, it produces pathetically low numbers for older people. I typically ride almost 20 RPMs faster than the number it produces for me. Aug 26 '13 at 22:31

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