As part of my continual process of settling into this new place (the Bay), I have begun riding my bike again. I have more and more things to get to, and the bike always seems to be better option than driving, or even public transit (although sometimes bikes and transit join forces for a super-hero of transportation efficiency-joy). Now, I’d like to get out of the way right off the bat that I am no longer interested, personally, in riding my bike as a way of working hard. I’d much rather throw a bar or a kettlebell around, or explore movements beyond my comfort zone (gymnastics, martial arts, sport, dance, etc.), if I want a training effect. I know some people who do enjoy this way of challenging their fitness, and I applaud them for it! It’s just not for me.
However, this should in no way imply that I have something against bikes in general--quite the opposite. I get on my bike for one reason or another almost every day, and have for a few years now. This post is about why.
1. Mega cost- and time-efficient: Like most things, a commute shows it’s true colors only after consistent observation over long spans of time. And biking wins out for almost all of us.
First, while I know there are folks out there who measure their commute in hours, not minutes (poor souls), I think it should be a major goal for all of us to try to live closer to where we work. Mr. Money Mustache has written extensively and hilariously about this, but mostly it’s better for our bank accounts, our happiness, and our communities when we live and work in the same vicinity.
So living nearby takes care of the main time-suck of sitting in your car or some train/bus. But even having to start your car for at all, even for a 2 mile zip up the road, ends up being a totally shitty way to spend money. I’ll let you check Mr. MM for the numbers, but I just feel like any amount is money I don’t get back.
This becomes especially apparent when you realize it doesn’t need to be this way. Getting on a bike to ride 2 - 5 miles to work one-way will take you between 10 and 45 minutes (a totally reasonable commute time in car-speak; any longer and public transit fits in nicely with your biking), cost you almost nothing (purchase and repair costs end up being in the cents/ride), and have major upsides (discussed below) even beyond, you know, getting you where you're going.
Oh, and one other note for all you cold-weather debbie-downers: any regular bike commuter will tell you that other than making sure you arrive dry and that your ears and hands are warm, biking in inclement/cold weather is actually pretty enjoyable. Of course, this means a little steeper investment for cold-weather folks, but you would be committing to higher car-care costs living in the snow, etc. anyway.
2. Cheap cardio: One of the real joys of working at a commercial gym (and one particularly good at getting newbies without much confidence to come in) was getting to positively impact peoples’ notions about cardio work. Now for a long time, people took the “cardio base” concept to mean “cardio fundamental,” and therefore “most important,” or “when I only have a few minutes I’ll get some cardio in.” Since that is pretty far from the truth (especially the last part), I made many new connections with clients just by talking to them about the greater benefits that came from strength training and intense conditioning.
But even after writing them programs that got them huffing and puffing and getting strong, inevitably they would ask--between gasps--about cardio, as in, “But when do I do cardio?” The-not-so-obvious answer is “ALL THE TIME!”
And I meant that both literally and facetiously. First, any time you are alive (which I really advocate for with all my clients :) your heart is pumping the product of your lungs' work (air) all around your body and back out. You are doing aerobic (cardio) work. Then, when you layer challenging tasks on top of that, like deadlifts, squats, sprints, sled work, kettlebells, etc. your cardiac system has to work extra hard just to get you back to the normal state (when you’re doing cardio). Martin Rooney speaks very passionately about why this type of training is so effective.
And for many untrained folks, that extra work layered on top will be enough “cardio” to get them moving in the right direction. At some point though, especially for athletes or exercise junkies, having a stronger cardio base can be pretty helpful (mostly for recovery reasons--Molly Galbraith explains beautifully here). At that point, I do start to program in sporadic (~1x/wk) sessions on the treadmill or elliptical that aim for easy, long-distance effort. This allows the client's cardio system to adapt toward more efficient cardio output without the CNS/joint strain of intense conditioning work alone.
From a purely time-efficiency standpoint, I always prefer that people spend that time not in the gym.
If that means taking a run/walk outside, or going on a hike, beautiful. But that still takes some time. If you can get in by riding or walking to and from work, you are completing your commute and your cardio at the same time. Does this replace lifting heavy shit? Absolutely not. Does it replace watching Lifetime movies on an elliptical machine at 9:15p on a school night? Let’s hope so.
Now, I would often run into one objection that took me a while to work through: “But I just like the me-time that comes from parking on a treadmill and drooling!” While this would usually comes from people who are not lifting heavy but are thinking that their long slow cardio alone will get them where they want to be, I could help just by making the weights-are-more-effective argument.
But really, I get the other bit too. Sometimes it’s just nice to zone out and feel the monotony of movement. Hell, I have run two marathons and totally got down with the meditative part of that practice.
But biking takes care of that too. You get on and ride, not worrying about how fast you go but just cruising. And I would even argue that the little bit of consciousness required to, you know, stay upright and out of the way of oncoming traffic actually stimulates that non-thinking-but-thinking state that is so beneficial. This is especially true the more you do that commute. Zen bike.
3. The GOOD part!: ...Which brings me to my last bit. I have been most surprised getting back on my bike in the last few weeks how fun biking is. Obviously, I get on the bike in the first place for time and money reasons, and I can groove on the cardio bit when I’m thinking about my weekly programming. But when it gets to it, the thing that brings me back is how good cruising around is for my soul.
Whether I get to fly silently through an early morning, or slice-and-dice rush-hour city-center traffic, I love how smoothly my efforts push me over the road. I read somewhere once that the bicycle is the most efficient mode of transportation when all input (gas) and output (speed) is calculated, and I totally feel that. Add to that the gradual increase in efficiency that chronic biking does to your body and you have the makings for a seriously effective human-machine combo.
The final part that I have fallen in love with, though, is the change of pace that biking everywhere demands. Sure, a light bike and some fitness get you there pretty damn fast, but there is a groove that you find that is most definitely not a sprint. It’s like a mega-efficient stroll everywhere you go. During each trip, there’s time to look at the clouds, and the new cafe on the corner, yet not enough to check your phone or to try to speed-walk (yuck).
Over the long-term, I feel more in touch with the weather, and the passing of the seasons in general. And it has made me rush everywhere less--if only because I don’t want to show up a sweaty mess--while giving me an appreciation for space and distance that I’m totally divorced from when I play the car video-game.
In general, biking just ties you in more. It gives you access to more of the juicy, fleshy parts of our every day. It might cost less, but it also makes everything else around you feel more valuable. See you out there.