Cyclists are frequently viewed as a breed apart ? some bike riders seem to actively cultivate that perception ? but it?s not just the penchant for leg shaving and Lycra that makes you different to the man in the street or the potato on the couch.

Endurance training such as cycling affects more than just the outward appearance of your body. Changes occur in the size of your muscles, in your blood vessels, in the size of the pump that pushes the blood round, in the chemical processing that takes place within the muscles ? and none of that is visible just by looking.

Everyone?s motivation for riding is slightly different, for some it?s performance, others it?s relaxation and enjoyment, competition or weight loss. Whatever your personal motivation, you are also clocking up plenty of other benefits ? some of which you may find surprising. Over the next six pages, you?ll find a rundown of the many great things about cycling that make you stand out from the crowd.

Some of your friends and colleagues, envious of the benefits that cycling has brought you, might even be tempted to start pedalling themselves…

BETTER SEX

DESPITE what the saddle scaremongers would have you believe, cycling can improve your sex life, not detract from it. For a few people cycling can cause problems ? but in most cases it is down to a poor position on the bike and a badly designed saddle. Provided you use a saddle that doesn?t compress the soft tissues of your seat and restrict blood flow, you shouldn?t develop problems.

Sitting on a saddle for a long time or, worse, perching on the nose of your saddle can restrict blood flow. Getting up out the saddle for a few pedal strokes every now and again is enough to relieve it. Make sure your position is right too: a reach that is too long, or too great a drop between saddle and bars can roll your weight forward so you are sitting on soft tissue, not your sit bones.

For both men and women, arousal depends on blood flow. As a cyclist your heart beats strongly, pumping more blood to wherever the action is taking place (that?s your legs when cycling, but the same principle applies). All of the training effects that make you a better rider can also make you a better lover. Think greater endurance. Strong thighs and buttocks have an obvious thrusting advantage and strong stable core muscles can help you hold positions instead of flopping about like a big walrus.

LARGER HEARTS

YOUR heart is a muscle and it responds to exercise in the same way that other muscles do. Athletes have bigger and stronger hearts than sedentary people. The stronger your heart, the fewer times it needs to beat per minute. The distinction between the athlete?s heart and the sedentary heart is the larger stroke volume of the trained heart. Stroke volume is the volume of oxygenated blood ejected on each beat.

This has led to a new piece of research on performance prediction. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine this year suggests that an echocardiogram to measure the size of your left ventricular heart chamber ? which determines how much blood your heart can pump with each beat ? is a good predictor of performance.

This method accurately predicted the performance for 291 Japanese runners taking part in a 100km ultramarathon, when used in conjunction with age and training.

LOWER RESTING HEART BPM

THE amount of oxygen an athlete needs at rest and the amount required by a sedentary person doesn?t vary much, but the untrained heart will need to beat much more frequently to supply that oxygen. The change is down to stroke volume; a trained heart can push out more blood per contraction because it is a stronger muscle.

With more blood being pushed per beat it doesn?t need to beat as often to supply the demand of the body at rest. The resting heart of a trained cyclist is more efficient. It performs the same work with fewer beats and less energy demand. Taking your resting heart rate first thing in the morning before you sit up or get out of bed will give you a good indication of how much fitter you are getting.

The heart of our average Joe Bloggs will probably need to beat 70 times a minute, a regular cyclist 50-60 beats per minute and world-class rider as little as 35-45bpm. If your doctor looks concerned listening to your heart at your next check-up, tell him about your training ? a reduced heart rate is a symptom of some diseases.

GREATER OXYGEN UPTAKE

STRICTLY speaking cycling doesn?t give you a greater lung capacity. Our respiratory capacity is relatively fixed, although a sedentary person roughly has a respiratory capacity of about 3.4-4 litres per minute. That is the amount of air that can be taken in by the lungs in that time.

A good competitive cyclist can exchange six litres per minute. Miguel Indurain was reported to have a respiratory capacity of eight litres per minute. How much air you can get into your lungs isn?t as important as your oxygen uptake. Oxygen uptake is the difference between the oxygen content of the air you breathe in and the air you expel. As exercise intensity increases, the amount of oxygen your body needs to perform the task also increases.

Maximal oxygen uptake ? VO2max ? is reached when the body can take up no more oxygen. To a certain extent this is improved by training. In a sedentary male VO2max ranges from 38-46 millilitres per kilogram of body weight a minute. In a good cyclist you?d expect 55-65, in an elite 65 or more. Lance Armstrong, Indurain and Chris Boardman are all reputed to have VO2 max of 80ml/kg/min or above.

MORE CAPILLARIES

CAPILLARIES are the smallest blood vessels. Capillary walls are so thin that oxygen and glucose can pass through them and enter the cells. Waste products then diffuse through the capillaries back into the bloodstream to be carried away and expelled from the body. Parts of the body with a higher metabolic requirement, such as kidneys and the liver, have more capillaries to service them.

When you are at rest only a small amount of the capillary network is used. When the muscles become active the capillary network fills with blood. When you exercise at high intensity, to service the demand for oxygen you need great capillary density near the working muscles. Endurance training leads to capillarisation ? an increase in capillaries of the muscles you exercise.

This is ? as with most training effects ? reversible. Stop training and the number of capillaries reduces with the reduced demand.

YOUTHFUL APPEARANCE

RUNNING was recently cited in a Sunday newspaper supplement as being bad for your appearance. Apparently the constant bouncing up and down can stretch your facial tissues and cause premature wrinkling. But all exercise ? apart from running it seems ? can help reduce the signs of ageing.

A steady weight helps prevent stretch marks and skin wrinkling ? although from an ageing perspective a little bit of fat is good as it helps fill out the skin. Exercise increases blood flow to all areas and blood flow to the skin helps stimulate a healthier complexion. High-intensity exercise releases human growth hormone within the body to aid with muscle repair. Naturally produced and stimulated by exercise, this is a popular supplement for those seeking the fountain of youth in a more artificial manner.

As a keen cyclist you are unlikely to do many of the things that can speed up the appearance of ageing ? you are less likely to smoke for example. Other aspects of your healthy lifestyle will also actively contribute to keep your youthful looks. A study in the Journal of American College of Nutrition found that eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and using olive oil every day could help keep wrinkles away.

It?s not just your face that gives away your age, a lean upright posture and absence of middle age spread will give you the look of someone years younger. However, there is a warning. All your vigorous outdoor exercise does bring with it the risk of sun damage. Squinting into the sun can cause crow?s feet around the eyes and exposure to the sun?s rays is a cause of premature skin wrinkling.

Wind can strip moisture from the skin, making it sensitive and dry, and dry skin always looks older. Glasses should be worn all year round to avoid grit getting into your eyes, but make sure they provide UVA/UVB protection and wear a moisturiser with sunscreen on each ride.

LOWER STRESS LEVELS

EXERCISE is a recognised factor in reducing stress levels. Exercise is itself a stress on the body, but the way you perceive and respond to that stress is very different. Work place and emotional stress is perceived as negative, whereas exercise has many positive benefits. Stress can cause the release of hormones.

In ancient man this prepared him for a fight or flight response ? not always the modern option. The by-products of the stress response continue to circulate in the body but can be dispersed by exercise, which allows the body to simulate a fight-or-flight reaction. Cycling can be applied to management in a variety of ways; it can be an opportunity for a physical release of energy to dissipate feelings of anger in a healthy way, or the consistent repetitive motion of pedalling can induce a relaxed, focused state akin to meditation.

Cycling can provide a solitary escape from the source of your stress, providing an opportunity to either think over the problem calmly, or escape it. Stress can lead to muscle tension which can lead to postural imbalance or headaches, when exercising your muscles need to contract and relax which can help release the tense muscles. The positive mood states associated with frequent exercise are so significant that it is used in treatment for clinical depression.

MORE MUSCLE, LESS FAT

LEAN muscle is good ? it is metabolically active ? burns calories ? and allows you to pedal faster. Fat on the other hand ? except for the small amount of essential fat needed to protect your organs and keep your body functioning ? is, on the whole, rubbish. It just sits there, stored energy waiting to be released.

You might have to expend more calories lugging it around but fat itself is metabolically inactive. Judging by the number of celebrity diets and magazine articles on the subject, most people would like more of the lean muscle and less of the fat. As a cyclist you are already well on your way.

Compared to someone who is completely inactive you will have more muscle for your body weight because of your strong leg muscles. You?ll also probably have less body fat, you are burning more calories daily because of your expenditure through exercise, and you?ll be benefiting from a slightly raised metabolism after exercise ? plus the calories that your additional muscles are burning even at rest.

The full version of this article appeared in Cycling Weekly November 9, 2006