How Cycling Changes Your Body: Our Experience

When we headed off on our first cycle tour, we didn’t give much thought to how cycling changes your body. Actually, I’m not sure we gave it any thought at all. Which in hindsight was a bit of a mistake, and perhaps if we had considered these possible changes before we set off, we could have prevented a few injuries and quite a few scary discoveries.

Obviously, how cycling changes your body, will depend on a number of factors and will vary from person to person. Just the differences Michael and I experienced proves how these differences can vary so much.

There’s quite a lot to cover, so I thought I’d first share with you, what changes Michael and I experienced during our cycle tours. Then next week, I’ll share with you some of the common changes you may experience and provide some resources to help you manage these changes and prevent injuries, pain and soreness.

How Cycling Changed Our Bodies

Michael: Weight Loss

When we left the ski resort in Sty Foy and started our first cycle trip, Michael weighed around 83kg. Just 6 weeks into the trip he weighed only 66kg.

Michael had started to burn muscle and couldn’t seem to consume enough calories to keep the weight on. He managed to gain a bit more weight once we discovered how much he had lost, but during this trip his weight loss was a constant issue and worry. At one point in Michael’s life he weighed over a 100kg, so extreme weight loss was not an issue he previously had.

Michael in the Stans – this was after he managed to put a bit of weight back on. As you can see, our diet consisted of a lot of instant noodles.

Kelly: Pains… Lots of them.

Weight

Completely the opposite to Michael, I actually gained weight. I started the trip around 50kg and by the end of the trip was closer to 60kg. Why? I suspect from muscle growth. Unlike Michael I wasn’t burning muscle, I was growing muscle. Mostly in my legs. Strange considering we rode the same distance and ate a very similar diet. The only real difference was that Michael had a bit more weight on the bike than I did and I’m about a foot shorter than Michael. And obviously, I’m a female.

Before the cycle trip I was in a ski accident, so I had spent the previous few months not doing a whole lot of exercise. I went from next to no exercise to cycling up hills with weight on the bike. I likely started the trip with a lot less muscle than Michael. There are a number of other possible reasons why we had completely different experiences with our body weight – metabolism, muscle size, limb size, pannier weight. I guess we can never be 100% sure, but it is something we learnt for future planning, and during our cross Canada trip, we both managed to maintain our weight in a healthy range.

Saddle Sore

Weight gain and muscle growth wasn’t the only thing I experienced in that first trip.

A couple of days into our France to China trip I started to experience extremely bad saddle sore. Specifically my tail bone. I couldn’t sit down for 6 weeks. Padded shorts didn’t help and eventually the pain did go away. I never really worked out why I experienced so much pain and I’ve never experienced it since. Maybe it was literally my body adjusting to so much time spent in the saddle.

Sore Wrists (and lots of blisters on the hands)

My wrists also we’re extremely painful, and throughout the entire 8 month period I was constantly adjusting the handle bar, changing gloves, and trying different grips.

It was also something I experienced at the start of the cross Canada trip, however a couple of weeks into this trip, the pain went away this time and I suspect that was due to a combination of wrist stretches and new fancy handlebar grips.

You’ll also notice (whether you wear gloves or not) your hands will develop a lot of hard skin. This didn’t really bother me or Michael, however it’s definitely a change that we both noticed.

Upper Back, Shoulder & Neck Pain

At the time I couldn’t figure out why I was experiencing so much pain in my upper back, shoulders and neck. I tried different grips, different handle bars, different saddle positions. I also tried a mix of stretches, which to some extent did relief some of the pain temporarily. However, whatever I did the pain seemed to return. I struggled with this for a long time before I discovered the cause.

I’ve now learnt that all this pain and discomfort was to do with my posture on the bike. I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders, and while on the bike had a tendency to pull my shoulders towards my ears. Instead I should have been engaging the muscles in between the shoulder blades (the rhomboids) to help pull my shoulders down the back. Creating space between the shoulders and the ears.

These upper back muscles tend to get quite weak during cycling. Actually, the whole back body can become quite weak due to the constant rounding/ leaning forward position. If I considered this at the time, I should really have been starting my day with a few exercises to help engage the upper back muscles, and bring some awareness to drawing the shoulder blades down the back. This would also help prevent any rounding of the shoulders (not something we personalised experienced or had issues with, but I’ll cover this a bit more in next week’s article).

I wish I knew about the upper back muscles years ago – it would have saved me from a lot of discomfort and headaches.

Overactive Quads & Inactive Glutes

Something I didn’t discover until many months after the cross Canada cycle trip, when I took up running again. My quad muscles had started to overcompensate for my glutes. I had gotten so used to using my quads, and didn’t do any exercises to maintain my glute muscles, that those muscles literally stopped working. I only discovered this when running down hill and experiencing knee pain. My physio put it down to all the cycling. Though I love cycling, this really woke me up to the need of cross training, stretching and working muscles that are inactive for prolonged periods of time.

Ottawa
Cycling in Canada – where we managed to mostly learn from our previous mistakes and look after ourselves a little better.

What we both experienced

Exhaustion! I don’t think I’ve ever napped so much in my life. I’m not sure this every really changed, no matter the time we spent on the road. I’m sure it was a mixture of physically being tired and just enjoying a good nap on a sunny day, in the shade of a tree.

We were both also in a constant state of hunger. Our stomachs were literally bottomless pits. During the cross Canada trip we did a much better job of eating the right foods, which sustained us a lot longer. That said, we could still eat a lot. I plan to write a whole separate article about diet – particularly for vegetarians – as both Michael and I are vegetarian cyclists. So keep an eye out for this.

Something else to also keep in mind is when you finish the trip – it takes a bit of time to readjust to a more sensible amount of food. So you may experience a sudden weight gain.

yoga-for-cyclists-free-course

To help prevent common aches and pains on tour, I’ve created a specific Yoga for Cycle Tourist class. This class is based on a few of the common issues I experienced, and a few stretches you can do to help ease them. I’ve also created a FREE Yoga for Cyclist course, which explains a bit more about the benefits of yoga for cyclists and includes a few free yoga classes/ sequences/ stretches you can incorporate into your training plan.

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