Ask a cycling coach: “I’ve not cycled in years, how do I get from the couch to 30 miles?”

Want to experience life on two wheels, but don't know where to start? Here's our top tips for getting you rolling

Image shows a cyclist riding outside.
(Image credit: Future)

There is no time like the present to get back into cycling, enjoy the wind in your hair and that well-earnt coffee and cake at the café stop.

The hardest step is getting started, once you do, you will soon find yourself back into the swing of things, cycling faster and increasing your average speed, and even racing your mates up your local climbs.

We have all heard about ‘couch to 10km’ but how about a ‘couch to 30 miles’ for those of us that prefer to turn the pedals rather than pound the pavement? Here are James Spragg’s top tips to get back into cycling…

Image shows James Spragg.
James Spragg

Sports scientist and coach James Spragg is one of the experts who will be answering your questions in Cycling Weekly's ASK A CYCLING COACH series which comes out every Wednesday. Working both in research and applied settings, he currently runs Intercept Performance Consultancy.  

1) Start by starting

The first ride is going to be hard; you are going to feel the saddle pressing into your sit bones, your legs are going to hurt, and you are going to be working hard. My advice is to accept this and just get on with it. Your cycling fitness will only improve from this point onwards. The first ride is the hardest….it gets easier from there onwards. 

2) Start out easy

You don’t want to completely tire yourself in week one and then be so fatigued that you don’t feel like getting back on your bike in week two. A good guide is to always get home with a few more miles in your legs. If you think you can ride for 10 miles, then a good guide would be to head out on an 8-mile loop. It’s much better to leave a little bit in the tank and not feel like you need to eat the entire contents of the fridge when you get home. 

3) Speaking of fuelling...remember to eat

Image shows a rider grabbing a snack to eat.

(Image credit: Future)

You might think that sports nutrition for cycling is only for elite riders who are racking up hundreds of miles a week but it’s just as, if not more important, for those of us just getting into cycling. 

When you first get back into cycling you won’t be particularly efficient, you will be burning lots of calories and using up your carbohydrate stores very quickly.

If you don’t eat while out on the bike you might be hit by the dreaded bonk. Nothing will put you off cycling as much as creeping home after you have hit the wall. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to be knocking back energy gels like you’re in the third week of the Tour de France, but eating something sweet and sugary every 20 to 30 minutes will make all the difference - a personal favourite of mine is good old Jelly Babies!

4) Get your bike checked

Nothing spoils a ride like standing at the side of the road with a mechanical in the pouring rain waiting for a lift home. Before you get started, I thoroughly recommend dropping your bike into your local bike shop for a check-over! This is particularly important if said bike has been sitting in the garden shed for the last 10 years. Also, remember to stock up on spare inner tubes and a mini pump, and then don't forget to pack the essentials you need to take on every ride into your jersey pocket or saddle bag. It might even be worth practising fixing a bike puncture by changing an inner tube at home first so you don’t find yourself stranded. 

5) Check your riding position

While you’re at your local bike shop ask them to check your bike position to make sure you are sitting correctly on the bike.

Even better yet, book an appointment with a local bike fitter - you can find Cycling Weekly's recommended fitters in the UK here. Not only will this ensure that you aren’t going to cause any damage to yourself and end up injured, but it will also improve how comfortable you feel on the bike and how well the bike handles. This will keep you safer and happier out on the road.

If you’re looking to sort your own set-up for free, here’s CW’s how-to on DIY bike fitting and, if you do find you’re suffering in an aggressive position, here you can find the best ways to make your bike more comfortable

Ride little and often

Image shows a rider warming up.

(Image credit: Future)

One mistake people make when getting back into cycling, is not cycling often enough. If you are only heading out once a week, it’s likely that you won’t feel those week-on-week gains in fitness. So, how often should you cycle to get fit? Ideally, I would suggest you try and ride at least three times a week. Even if one of those rides is only 10 minutes, it’s far better than not riding at all.  

7) Build it up slowly but consistently

How quickly you get from the couch to 30 miles will depend on several factors, how active you have been, how much riding you have done previously, how well you respond to training, etc. There is no ‘one size fits all’ plan or indeed a right or wrong timeline. 

The key is to progressively increase the amount of time or distance you are riding each week. How much you increase by each week depends on how well you responded to the previous week. However, I wouldn’t recommend increasing the total riding time by more than 30% each week. 

8) Enjoy it!

Remember this is supposed to be fun! Getting back into any sport can be challenging, but it should also be fun and rewarding. You should feel your fitness and energy levels improving rather than it feeling like a chore. Soon enough you will be effortlessly racking up the miles wondering why you ever stopped cycling in the first place!

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