I am a 28-year-old female weighing 13 stone [approximately 180 lbs] (overweight, I know, as I am only 5'1"). I've recently bought a mountain bike to ride to and from work (about 2 miles each way), but I'm struggling to actually do the whole journey on the bike, as I have to get off and walk. I also want to be able to do this journey in 15 minutes. I am asthmatic, but since I started riding a week ago, I'm finding I'm not as out of breath already (good start).

I'm just wondering how to build up strength, stamina and speed, as I am currently struggling on the smallest of inclines.

Thank you for all your answers/comments. They have all made me feel a bit better. I am going to go to Halfords on Tuesday to check everything is right height etc. The gears I'm struggling with currently but sure I'll find the right ones soon... hoping eventually I can get to work in around 15 mins. I have started making sure I drink water about 500mL (1 pint) about 30 mins before I ride and start stretching my legs. I am determined to conquer the hills going to and from work setting myself goals as I go up them.

  • 2
    If your mountain bike has knobby tires (i.e., bits of rubber stick out) switching to slick tires can make the task much easier.
    – Rider_X
    Jul 21, 2017 at 21:25
  • 1
    Log your rides on a website like Strava so that you can note the progress you make in time, speed and distance.
    – Carel
    Jul 22, 2017 at 7:55
  • 1
    It might be worth editing your question to mention how much of a hill you have to climb, i.e. altitude difference and/or gradient and that 5'1" is 1.55m. In any case it is really promising that you already feel better.
    – PJTraill
    Jul 25, 2017 at 15:18
  • 2
    Hey Anne, how are you now? Did it get easier eventually?
    – Robert
    Feb 11, 2020 at 9:07

8 Answers 8


You're doing it already. Time on the bike is what counts the most.

In the early days you will find yourself pushing up a lot of hills but in a few weeks you'll be surprised at how much better you're doing. When you feel like a ride is going OK, try to get a little further than before on the uphill bits - maybe an extra lamp post. That might be on a Monday after a weekend rest (or it might not). If you're feeling tired, don't stress,walk when you have to .

You'll build cycling muscles, which will make you more efficient as well as stronger. And your lung capacity will improve - it sounds like this is considerably more exercise than you used to do. Then, all else being equal, the weight will start to come down a little. I suggest you measure your progress - plenty of decent bike computer apps are free (assuming you've got a smartphone).

  • 3
    thank you, its proving difficult as i cant even ride up my own road with out getting out of breath even the slightest of hills i cant do currently, working in the care industry getting 2 days off together doesnt really happen, its more annoying as some one who rides from other end of town to work is doing it quicker than me according to google maps i should do it in 15 max but currently taking 25 mins if not longer
    – user33866
    Jul 21, 2017 at 18:02
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    Take your time and stick with it, it will get better but it doesn't happen over night. Good for you for making a positive life choice though! Stick with it!
    – Nate W
    Jul 21, 2017 at 18:46
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    From the little I know of your industry, the working days are pretty tough too, so good on you. When I started bike commuting I didn't do every day for the first few weeks - if shift patterns work, maybe you've got options for an easier commute sometimes for a recovery day.
    – Chris H
    Jul 21, 2017 at 21:20
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    When I first started cycling I could barely walk for two days every time I rode. Eventually I built up the muscles for cycling and now it is a lot easier, even when I haven't ridden in a while. Stick with it and take your time.
    – stannius
    Jul 21, 2017 at 23:41
  • @anne2806 It's absolutely okay to be slower than Google Maps says at the beginning! When I started commuting by bike, I took 3,5 times longer than Google Maps says. After 5 years of doing it daily, I was down to 0.8 times the Google Maps time. It takes time, progress might not be noticeable on a day to day basis, but once you are a couple of months in, there will be considerable improvement.
    – Nobody
    Jul 22, 2017 at 19:21

At this level, just simply riding the bike regularly will increase your fitness, stamina and speed. You may want to took for advice on going from no exercise to regular moderate exercise to avoid injury.

There may be a few things you can do to make things a little easier for you.

1) Make sure your seat height is set correctly. This has a big impact on efficiency. If you bought your bike at a store they should have set this up for you. Here's an article that you can check out.

2) Make sure your tires are pressurized correctly. You will probably want to inflate your tires to the maximum specified (it's written on the side of each tire) for lowest rolling resistance when riding on paved surfaces.

3) Use your gears. Proper use of gears can make things substantially easier. You may find yourself going slower, but at a level of effort you can sustain for longer. There are numerous 'gears for beginners' articles and videos available such as this.

  • 3
    +1 for the gears point. A 2 miles trip should be easy and doable for anybody on a short gear, even if it's uphill. However, leaving the longer gears is a common beginner mistake that can make the trip impossible - and a nightmare.
    – Pere
    Jul 22, 2017 at 19:03

First of all, GREAT JOB so far!

You are doing a great thing for yourself. I've recently started commuting as well and am doing 4.7mi one way. I wear a 20lb backpack as well. Hills are a tough thing for anyone, especially when starting out.

The best thing for you to do is to continue to get time on the bike. Don't worry about going fast. Try to maintain a steady cadence of 80-100 RPMs at whatever speed you feel comfortable. This will be the most efficient speed to pedal and also transfer power to the wheel. If you must downshift to maintain that cadence while going up a hill then do it. You'll find that over time you'll get much faster and won't run out of breath anymore either.

Also, the best way to improve on hills is to ride more hills. It'll hurt your thighs for sure but you'll get faster and stronger the more you do it.

Use your smartphone. There is a free app called Strava that will measure your stats. Average speed is a great indicator of improvement. You can also "race" yourself and others on segments of road/path and try to beat your best times. That is motivational too.

Keep up the good work.

  • 1
    +1 for measuring your progress. One trick is to change the preferences in strava to show "your results" first, to make it more personal and less competitive.
    – Criggie
    Jul 22, 2017 at 0:51
  • +1 for using a lower gear on hills in order to keep your cadence above 60 RPM.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 22, 2017 at 16:28
  • I do not believe you need to hurt your thighs to build up basic fitness.
    – PJTraill
    Jul 25, 2017 at 15:21
  • @PJTraill, "hurting your thighs" is called lactic acid. That's what happens when you exert yourself, such as on hills. This is a normal part of training. If you read the context I mentioned that you get faster and stronger the more you ride the hills. This is an answer to the poster's question.
    – mhelf17
    Jul 26, 2017 at 18:22
  • Fair enough, my point is that if you stick to basic fitness you can take it more gently and still get good results.
    – PJTraill
    Jul 27, 2017 at 7:40

"I'm not as out of breath already" which means you can already see the progress.

Just remember there is absolutely nothing wrong with stopping for a breather, or walking for a bit.

The main trick for improvement is to keep riding. Set yourself a goal of "at least four days a week out of five" commuting by bike, and if you get to Friday with only 3 days, then make yourself ride especially if you don't really want to.

Speed will come after stamina, so don't focus on speed.

Commuting gets a bit boring after a while - you can also mix up your route for variety and interest. A boring ride is less interesting.

Now and again, consider pushing yourself in terms of distance. You can do 2 miles every day for a week, so do a nice slow 4 mile ride to somewhere else in the weekend... go visiting someone.

Get your bike checked over too - even personally I've not noticed gradual deterioration, and then when its fixed its like a personal tail wind!

  • tyres properly inflated
  • chain lubed and clean
  • wheels spinning freely (no brake rub)
  • saddle at correct height.

I don't know about your weather, but for me leaving home slightly cold works, because I warm up with the exercise. Overheating is no fun.


2 miles each way in 15 minutes is 8 mph which you should be able to achieve.

I would say lower gearing but a mountain bike should have some very low gears. Are you in the lowest gear before you have to walk?

If it has knobby tires then street tires will be more efficient. Get like 35 mm.

General maintenance like tire air pressure and lube the chain.

Check your bike fit. How your body fits to the bike.

On the incline get in a low gear early. Don't let your cadence get to low as you want to spin up the hill. Check your form. You can get out of the saddle when it gets to hard.

Keep riding and it should get easier week by week.

  • 1
    do you mean low gear as in gear 1 ( hardest gear pushing peddles wise) or gear 5 ( peddles go easily) i have 18 gears only really fathomed out the ones that have numbers on them cant fathom other ones yet
    – user33866
    Jul 25, 2017 at 2:11
  • Do you think it would be better to climb in an easy gear or a hard gear?
    – paparazzo
    Jul 25, 2017 at 13:54
  • @anne2806: Working out the gears is the first thing to do; it will make all the difference in the world if you have not got into the really low gears yet. Just go back to the shop and get them to show you, or have a really good look at at the manual. P.S. I am surprised first gear is hardest to pedal; it is usually the other way round!
    – PJTraill
    Jul 25, 2017 at 15:24
  • Yeah, the gears are usually numbered like a car: smaller numbers mean you go slower but the engine (you) doens't have to work as hard. Feb 25, 2018 at 19:22

Recently I made two lifestyle changes. About five months ago I stopped eating anything that has added sugar, and I started cycling three months ago (my workplace sponsors a team for the MS150 ride, and I decided to get trained for next year).

This week, at my regular check-up at the doctor's office, my blood work showed that all of the numbers that should be lower had gone down since my last visit, and all the numbers that should be higher were up since the last visit. I had also lost eight pounds (about 3.6 kg) and my blood pressure had dropped to 122/74.

So in addition to keeping on with the cycling, seriously consider cutting back on added sugar. Natural sugars like in fresh fruit (really fresh, not that stuff packed in syrup) are fine, but avoid added sugars.

  • 1
    Good points - reducing bread intake helps too.
    – Criggie
    Jul 22, 2017 at 4:05
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    I'd like to add that I'm 51. It's never too late to start. Now if only I could get my wife into cycling.
    – EvilSnack
    Jul 23, 2017 at 17:34

Short answer, like said; by riding the bike. Second part of that is pushing yourself. Your body can adapt to stress, like you said, you're getting out of breath less. Your body knows you need more air, more air is better bloodflow and blood carries more oxygen to your muscles. The more you work your body, the stronger it gets, burning fat for fuel. The key is not to over-exert yourself, as that begins the opposite of what you want.

As far as the bike, learn proper use of the gears, youtube channels like GCN(Global Cycling Network) can help with that. Too big a gear and you'll be what we call spinning; where you're going slower than you should for the effort. The bigger the sproket in the back, the slower you will go, the smaller the chainring up front, the slower you will go. But may climb easier on hills. The smaller the sproket on the back, the faster you can go, but climbing hills may be harder, as well as pulling from a stop. Same for the bigger chainring up front.

You have an 18speed, so you should have three chainrings up front and six in the back. Generally for regular flat riding you want the middle chainring and 4 or 5 in the back, 3&4 are okay to take off from a dead stop. Climbing hills is something you'll get a lot of answers about, but it varies on bikes and how you climb them and what speed you hit it with. I like to be moving as fast as possible to use momentum to get me so far up. Climbing them is a tad harder sitting down, than standing up. I don't think it gets easier to climb them, one just gets better at it.

I read somewhere(and do it myself time to time) that if you are climbing a hill; if you are standing, you want a fast gear and if you sit, shift back to a slow gear. Sometimes it works. All I can say is climbing a hill is a commitment and stopping the bike on a hill should only happen if you want to get off, it can be hard to get going once already on it.

  • 1
    Minor, 18 speed could also be 9x2.
    – Criggie
    Feb 11, 2020 at 10:00

The other answers don't appear to have addressed asthma, so this answer will focus on that.

The OP is in a good position because she has been diagnosed with asthma. Other athletes may have asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction and not know it. I was once in this position, and I frequently didn't do that well in spring rides or races until I addressed the symptoms.

Diagnosing asthma or allergic rhinitis

Asthma's typical symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms often present after exercise. They can also present at rest, including at night or in the morning. More experienced athletes may have atypical symptoms, e.g. mainly cough or feeling out of shape.

Allergic rhinitis, the fancy term for hay fever, is a related condition. This is basically sensitivity to things like pollen. The symptoms are perhaps more obvious, and they include sneezing, snotty nose, and itchy eyes.

In doctors offices, asthma is often diagnosed by FEV testing (forced expiratory volume) both before and after administering a short-acting beta agonist like albuterol.

People in general should consider if they have a family history of asthma, or if they had trouble with skin or respiratory allergies as a child, or if you have trouble exercising in certain seasons (especially spring and fall). If any of these are true, please consider if you might fit some of the symptoms of asthma, and consider asking your primary care provider for more advice.

Managing asthma

Generally, there are two classes of medication. Asthma will cause your airway to constrict. Reliever medication basically just reverses this, and these are typically short-acting beta agonists like albuterol/salbutamol. If you only have intermittent symptoms, a reliever medication alone may suffice. It appears acceptable to take a dose (usually two puffs) from an albuterol inhaler before exercise. The effect typically lasts 3-4 hours.

If this is not sufficient to control your symptoms and you need to use your reliever inhaler 3-4 times a day or more, or if you need to use your reliever inhaler outside of exercise (e.g. to relieve symptoms at night), you should discuss with your physician. They will likely prescribe a controller medication, like inhaled corticosteroids alone or in combination with a long-acting beta agonist.

Allergic rhinitis frequently causes post-nasal drip. This is a fancy term for snot dripping down your nose into the back of your throat, which itself inflames your airways. This can be controlled with antihistamine medication (e.g. Allegra), corticoid nasal spray, and eye drops.

Patients should note that inhaler technique is important. Many people fail to use the proper technique, which means they don't get the intended dose of the medication. Check in with your physician or the re-read instructions on the inhaler. Other asthma controller medications are available beyond these classes of drugs as well, but you will need to monitor your symptoms and discuss if your asthma is not controlled.

One of the cited articles emphasizes that a gradual warm-up routine is helpful to prevent symptoms. On the commute, you could simply taking the first few minutes at an easier pace. Pacing oneself is definitely a skill that many athletes have to learn.

Having your inhaler with you is important. It took me some time to learn to pack my inhaler for my rides. In my case, it was a bit more difficult because my symptoms are rather intermittent. I need to take my inhaler before cyclocross races in the fall, but it is not that important at other times of the year, and I would frequently forget to even pack my inhaler before a cyclocross race. If the OP's symptoms are more consistent, it may be easier for her to just pack her inhaler every time she rides.

Ultimately, I think that asthma and related conditions are controllable and will not interfere with most athletic goals. Learning to control them does take some additional cognitive effort, but it is worth it. I wish the OP the best.

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