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Physical Conditioning for Bicycle Touring

. Going on tour without being in reasonable physical condition is like surfing without knowing how to swim. You can do it, but you miss a lot of the pleasure and you are taking a chance with your well-being. Adequate physical preparation before undertaking any strenuous sport means the difference between being comfortable enough to enjoy what you are doing and being so miserable as to discourage keeping up with the activity.

Bicycling is unique in that you begin to participate immediately, no matter what your level of physical condition. Even if you start in poor shape, with patience and determination you can work your way toward excellent physical condition while enjoying bicycling from the very beginning. The key is to approach it slowly and methodically. Never set out on a long tour figuring you will get in condition on the way. It might happen given an unlimited amount of time for a very relaxed tour, but it rarely comes that way. Conditioning happens over several hours a week spread out to give the body time to adjust to new expectations. This is best accomplished before going on a long tour where you will want to spend many hours on your bike with off-hours doing things other than lying around groaning.

Physical fitness for bicycle touring means two things: heart and lungs that work at maximum efficiency (cardiovascular conditioning), and muscles that are strong, efficient and capable of per forming day after day without strain or trauma (muscular conditioning). Both types of fitness, although not mutually exclusive, are requisites of long-distance touring.

Bicycle touring as a relatively simple, noncompetitive activity does not re quire the physical conditioning needed for strenuous, competitive athletic events. But sadly, many Americans are more sports minded than physically active; passive spectators rather than active participants. The facts speak for themselves: “2,850,000 Americans die each year from heart and blood vessel disease and -- 50 percent of all deaths are related to cardiovascular illness. -- 100 million Americans are obese to an extent which seriously raises their risk of ill health.” (From Dietary Goals for the United States, 2d edition, U.S. Government Printing Office.)

Proper, regular exercise won’t make you immune to ill health, but coupled with good dietary habits and sound genetic structure it can go a long way to insure that you will enjoy your full potential for an active life. Whether you see bicycle touring as a means toward physical fitness or whether physical fitness is only an integral part of the joy of bicycle touring, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get into good condition and maintain it as a normal part of your life-style.

Determine Your Present Condition

Taking pulse with Harvard Step Test. This test measures cardiovascular condition.

Knowing where you are now acts both as a base from which you can measure your progress, and as an incentive to begin. Before initiating a pro gram of conditioning, visit your doctor for a complete physical exam, including a stress electrocardiogram (EKG) if possible. This is particularly important if you are over 30 years of age and have not exercised regularly. Your doctor, especially if he or she is knowledgeable in sports medicine, should check for organic conditions that might affect your exercise capacity and, hopefully, en courage you to begin. If your doctor is uninterested or negative about the benefits of exercise, perhaps it’s a good time to find a new doctor for your new life.

If you are unable to obtain or afford a stress EKG, there is a simple test called the Harvard Step Test that you can perform yourself or in conjunction with your doctor. It provides a basic evaluation of your physical condition but does not indicate abnormalities or limitations in your cardiovascular system. Repeat the test throughout your conditioning program to document your progress.

With a clean bill of health from your doctor, you may take this test anywhere with one person to aid you. You will need a bench, stool, sturdy table or something strong of the proper height onto which you can step. The step’s height depends on your own height as follows:

If you are under the platform should be

5’ 0”

5’ 0” to 5’ 3”

5’ 4” to 5’ 9”

5’ 10” to 6’ 0”

6’ 1” or over






You will be stepping from the floor to the platform with both feet, then back to the floor again at the rate of 30 times per minute while someone times with a stopwatch or a watch that has a second hand. Before beginning the test, practice a bit to develop the pace; a step up and back down in two-second intervals is about right. Have your assistant monitor your pace throughout the test.

Once you have a feeling for the pace, rest a bit, then begin the test.

Step onto the platform at the established rate for a total of four minutes, or as close to it as you can get. If you can’t make it for the full four minutes, be sure to have your assistant write down the exact length of time you maintained the pace.

At the end of 4 minutes or when ever you must stop, sit down immediately to rest. Take your pulse at the end of 1 full minute of rest, counting heart beats for a full 30-second period (using the carotid artery in the neck just to the side of the larynx for best results). Have your assistant write down your 30-second count, then repeat at 2 minutes, and again after 3 minutes from completion of the stepping. Take the sum of the three pulse counts, multiply by 2, divide that number into the total number of seconds you were able to perform (240 if you completed 4 minutes) and multi ply by 100. The formula looks like this:

(seconds of performance x 100 / sum of pulse counts x 2) = Recovery Index (RI)

If your RI is 60 or less you are in poor condition; 61-70 is fair; 71-80 is good; 81-90 is very good; and 91 or over is excellent. Please note that this test does not take age into consideration. Your maximum cardiovascular potential is reached by about age 20, declining to about 70 percent by age 65. Muscular strength is usually at a maximum in the mid-20s, declining to about 80 percent by age 65. If you are over 30, take this into consideration.

Don’t be concerned about where you place right now. It’s only a starting point. In fact, the worse your initial condition, the greater the results you can expect. Use your RI as a basis for comparison while you progress through your conditioning program.

Your resting pulse rate is another indicator of physical condition, one which you can easily monitor. The pulse rate drops with conditioning, reflecting increased capacity of the heart to per form more efficiently. You will notice this just a few weeks into a training pro gram, but you will also see a gain in pulse rate if you stop exercising for as little as two or three weeks. For this reason, pulse rate is an accurate and quickly determined indicator of your progress. The best time to take your resting pulse is just before getting out of bed in the morning. Have a clock with a second hand visible on awakening so you can take your pulse before moving much more than to put your hand on your carotid artery. Jot it down. This gives you a reliable basis for comparison in future weeks.

Decide on a Method of Exercise

Bicycle riding is the best conditioning exercise for bicycle touring. It’s not the only one, but consider some of the advantages of beginning a riding pro gram. Bicycling, since it’s a means of transportation, serves a dual purpose when used in an exercise program.

Commuting to work or regular use of the bicycle for daily errand running not only fits easily into your goal of regular exertion, but also contributes to a life style independent of nonrenewable fuel use. Instead of having to set aside a special hour in your day for exercise, make use of normal travel time to and from your job or other daily business. Your bicycle becomes a way of life rather than purely a pleasure machine. Join the thousands who regularly commute by bicycle; you will be doing your self and your country a service.

If you cannot use your bicycle regularly for transportation, you will have to set aside time to ride purely for exercise. To be fair, we must point out that there are other, quicker ways to obtain physical fitness, but bicycling itself is the best overall preparation for bicycle touring.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has rated popular sports on a scale with a higher number indicating the better aerobic exercise. You must refer elsewhere for a complete discussion of the meaning of aerobic exercise (read Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s guide on aerobics); suffice it to say here that aerobic exercise is that done at a rate and in such a way as to provide maximum benefit to the cardio vascular system. The council’s list looks like this:

Jogging — 148

Bicycling — 142

Swimming — 140

Handball — 140

Tennis — 128

Walking — 102

Golf — 66

Bowling — 51

Cross-country skiing was omitted from the list yet many believe it to be the best single conditioning sport. It certainly is an ideal winter activity for those living in areas not conducive to other outdoor activities in winter.

Another indicator of the comparative values of sports is the number of calories required for performance. The council reports the following calorie cost per hour of performance for a 150- pound subject:

Running — 900 (at 10 mph)

Bicycling — 660 (at 13 mph)

Swimming — 300 (at ¼ mph)

Handball — 600

Tennis — 420

Walking — 210 (at 2½ mph)

Walking — 300 (at 3 ¼-mph)

Golf — 250

Bowling — 270

Any of the above sports, pursued strongly and regularly, will improve your cardiovascular condition, thus aiding your touring potential. Bicycling at 13 mph on an unloaded bicycle is not an excessive pace. A general training ride is in the neighborhood of 15-20 mph. Even so, it’s obvious that conditioning on a bicycle is going to take longer than running. A running program, unless you are a dedicated competition runner, won’t harm your cycling ability. Neither will other forms of vigorous exercise. Please realize that exercise must be combined with limitation of calorie in take if weight loss is expected to accompany conditioning. Exercise alone won’t do the job.

But what about muscular conditioning? Obviously, nothing develops your cycling muscles better than cycling. Even if you use another exercise for cardiovascular conditioning, you must spend time on your bicycle to assure development of the muscles you will need on tour. Only miles put in on your bike will do that task.

Begin a Conditioning Program

No matter what method you choose to get into shape, the basic goal is the same — to achieve physical fitness (the capacity of the heart, blood vessels, lungs and muscles to function at optimum efficiency). How do you arrive at that happy state and how do you know when you get there? Will a walk around the block twice a week do it? Or perhaps three half-hour sessions of fast handball a week? Will a bike ride a day lead to a conditioned body? No method will work unless your pulse rate consistently gets high enough to matter.

You must exercise hard enough to reach the “training effect.” That is the level at which the heart and lungs are stressed enough to improve in performance. With regular exercise a healthy heart pumps more blood per beat and recovers faster to a normal rate after exercise. It’s also the prime factor in determining the point at which glucose is broken down into carbon dioxide and water for release to the body as energy. To exercise adequately you must deter mine the point at which the training effect takes place for your own heart, then you must stress it at that point long enough to cause improvement over a period of time. Without reaching the training effect, you could “exercise” daily for hours, yet never improve your physical condition beyond your initial level.

There is a simple means of deter mining the approximate point where the training effect takes place for you. First, find your “maximum heart rate” by subtracting your age from 220. This is the pulse rate you should take care not to exceed during exercise. Now, subtract your resting pulse rate from the maximum heart rate and multiply the difference by .75. Add this result to your resting pulse rate to obtain your optimum training-effect rate.

Example: (for a 38-year-old with a resting pulse of 58)

220 — 38 = 182 — 58 = 124 x .75 =

93 + 58 = 151

Recent studies suggest a similar formula but without using the resting pulse rate. This gives a somewhat lower training-effect rate; we suggest using this if you have not exercised at all in the last year and need to begin gradually. There is wide controversy over the training-effect rate in general but most studies support the generalization that the heart rate must be at least 140 to produce a training effect.

Once you know your training rate, regulate your exercise to reach that point and hold it for the required amount of time (see below). Don’t at tempt to exercise at the training rate immediately if you are just beginning. Your heart rate may elevate dangerously fast. A slow, methodical approach is ultimately faster than an all-out at tempt that might only get you into bed or, worse yet, into a hospital room.

Don’t expect miracles, even if you pride yourself on the shape you are in. Cardiovascular conditioning has nothing to do with appearance. Susan slipped from an RI of 92 to one of 68 (excellent to fair) over a period of 10 months when she stopped exercising regularly. She never gained or lost a pound, in fact never knew how badly her conditioning had slipped except for tiring more rapidly in general.

Begin exercising gradually and work up to the point where you can continue to exercise until your heart rate reaches the training rate, then continue at that point long enough for conditioning to take place. How long is that? Research is contradictory, but it’s generally believed that the period of training-rate stress must continue for at least 12 minutes. Other studies show that in order to obtain the full benefit, which includes the reduction of serum cholesterol level in the blood, the training-stress period must continue for 30 to 45 minutes. These time periods don’t include warm-up and cool-down, nor do they include the time it takes for your heart to reach the training rate. It’s time spent at or beyond the training rate only.

You must, of course, monitor your heart rate in order to know when it reaches the training rate and to insure that you don’t push it beyond your maxi mum heart rate (your age subtracted from 220). Stop for 15-second intervals to take your carotid pulse, then multiply by four as you resume exercise to determine your heart rate. This is not to tally accurate but until we can all afford the digital watches that read out pulse rate as we exercise it’s about the best we can do.

If you are at or beyond your maxi mum rate, slack off just enough to drop below it yet stay above the training rate. As you exercise regularly and become familiar with your pulse rate during exercise you will be able to monitor your heart through familiarity with your whole system rather than having to take your pulse all the time.

The period of exercise at the training rate must be continuous; if you take a break you must begin again and sub tract the time it took to reach the training rate once more. As you develop and your body becomes accustomed to vigorous exercise, you won’t feel the need for a break, in fact your inclination will be to go beyond whatever time you have set for yourself. Physical exercise is addictive but it’s positive.

Frequency is as important as length. Studies vary but it’s generally believed that you must exercise for a minimum of 12 minutes at the training rate five days a week to improve your physical condition and only three times a week to maintain it. Don’t make the mistake of lengthening your period of exercise, while limiting it to the week end, thinking that it’s the total amount of time that counts. Not so. To obtain the proper effect, exercise must be a consistent activity with no more than two or three days between sessions. If you miss a few sessions you will feel the difference and it will take several additional sessions to regain top condition.

If you are conditioning on your bi cycle, you might find it easier to have short, fast workouts of up to 45 minutes ( you really have to move along to gain your training rate while pedaling) during the week and then take a long, more lei surely all- or half-day ride on Saturday or Sunday to insure that your muscles hold up for extended touring. Remember, cardiovascular conditioning during short periods is not doing all that is necessary for muscular conditioning. That takes time and miles. Don’t try to do it all on the weekends. The weekend athlete leads a dangerous life.

Each period of exercise should include an ample warm-up and cool- down period. This cannot be rushed. Slow bending, twisting and stretching of the major muscle groups go a long way toward prevention of injury and trauma from the stress of all-out exercise. Once you have loosened up you might want to do some basic calisthenics to keep your upper body muscles in shape; they don’t benefit much from bicycling or running. The warm-up session should bring you to the point of mild perspiration, then you can begin your primary activity. Rather than pushing off in a high gear on your bike, however, start out with some spinning to accustom your legs to what is ahead.

At the end of your exercise period slow down gradually rather than come to an abrupt halt. Allow your muscles to ease into disuse; let your breathing re turn to normal as you slow down. Then after you have dismounted, do a few more stretching, twisting and bending motions.

To review the key points in physical conditioning: get a physical exam; choose your means to fitness; deter mine your present condition with the Harvard Step Test and your resting pulse; determine your particular training heart rate; begin your exercise program slowly and build gradually in both length and intensity; maintain the training heart rate for an unbroken, adequate period each time; be consistent and frequent; and warm-up and cool- down with each exercise period.

Exercising is habit forming and relatively easy. The hard part is beginning each time. Try to think of your exercise period as an integral part of each day, not as something extra to be done if you find time. Develop and maintain a set time, get people around you to think of that time as distinctly yours, not to be interrupted except for an emergency. This is especially important for spouses and parents who have many demands on what little time they have. Think of your exercise period as a gift to one you love, the gift of a healthier, happier and perhaps longer-lived you. The only really valid excuse for skipping a session is illness. But many who maintain a regular exercise program find that periods of illness are few.

After the first several weeks of seeming agony and occasional defeat, you will find that your period of physical strain becomes very important to you and your body. You might even feel general malaise and unease if you miss a session once you really get into it. Much has been written on this addictive aspect of aerobic exertion, much is yet to be discovered about it. But for now, let yourself find the real you, the physically fit, sleek, efficiently running ma chine that makes up your body and encases your spirit. Do it on a bicycle.

All-Year Cycling

The nicest thing about using a bicycle as your exercise medium is that it’s enjoyable. The worst thing is that it takes time. But it would not hurt a lot of us to take more time to do enjoyable things that are also of benefit to our physical fitness and well-being. Even when you are riding hard enough to reach the training effect, you can still appreciate your surroundings, the freedom of self-propelled motion, and the harmony of human and machine working together. This physical relationship is smooth and satisfying without the harsh pounding of joints and bones that occurs in ground-contact sports. Many people who try jogging switch to cy cling because of the smaller amount of downtime caused by injury. But most of all, in our unbiased opinion, bicycling is just plain more fun.

What if you live part of your year in severe winter conditions? Cycling is not out because it’s so simple to move in doors. Rollers are an answer for winter- bound enthusiasts, those who can’t always find daylight enough for a ride, and those who wish to stay indoors on cold or rainy days.

Rollers are a series of three parallel revolving tubes, 14 to 18 inches long, held in place on a frame. Two of the rollers are close together to hold the rear wheel of the bike at a right angle, the third tube acts as a base for the front wheel that rolls on top of it. There are many brands available, starting at around $75. Our State Aluminum American Rollers ($96) have seen miles of use, especially during harsh winter months.

With practice and not a little apprehension, you learn to mount your bicycle, balance and pedal as normal, all while staying in one spot. There is definitely a trick to riding rollers, but most experienced riders pick it up quickly. Support racks are available if you feel you need them for balance; they hold the bike upright and centered on the rollers, or you can place the rollers near a wall or piece of furniture so you can lean while starting and stopping. When riding rollers you must pay full attention to what you are doing until you get the hang of it. Tim has had more accidents riding in the house than out on the road.

---199 Roller riding indoors is an effective winter exercise alternative.

Getting your heart rate up rapidly is easy on rollers, and it can be controlled at a steadier pace than out in the real world of hills, wind and stop signs. Since there is no windchill factor on rollers, you may need to ride in front of an open door or window or point a large fan at yourself, depending on the indoor temperature and the rate of your ride. Some people get so good on rollers that they can read (from a guide propped on a music stand), watch television or listen to music.

Riding rollers is a good way to get your cardiovascular conditioning and to some extent your muscular conditioning. But it’s only a substitute for road work, not its equal. Early one spring following a winter of bad weather and lots of roller riding, Tim set out on a rugged, all-day 75-mile ride. He just about died on that ride; wind, steep hills and rough roads took far more out of him than a winter on rollers had put in. Learn from that if you plan to ride rollers. Use them as an adjunct, not as a replacement.

Total Conditioning

Bicycle riding builds the lower body satisfactorily if enough miles are put in on the road. At first there are usually some sore muscles and stiff joints, especially in the knees and calves. If these problems don’t disappear after two weeks of consistent exercise, re read section three and check for mal adjustments on your bicycle. Look especially at the toe clips and the lateral position of your foot on the pedal. Experimental adjustments in this area will usually solve your problems.

The upper body receives little benefit from cycling. There is some conditioning when pulling up a steep grade with the hands down in the drop position, but this is rarely long enough to be of great benefit. Even then the chest and abdomen are left out.

All that is really needed to keep the upper body in good muscular tone is about 20-30 pushups and sit-ups a day. Work up to this number slowly if you are not already in good condition. We do a series of pushups and sit-ups following warm-up exercises just before a ride. These two exercises stress major muscle groups adequately for conditioning yet require very little time. Susan uses her regular 12-minute Air Force exercise series as a warm-up period since it incorporates a slow start with buildup to pushups, sit-ups, back and hip conditioners. If you want to carry out a more extensive program, so much the better. The ride then becomes a real reward as well as an exercise in its own right.

Tim has a problem shared by a number of other cyclists; he develops severe pain in the upper back just to the side of one shoulder blade while riding. This might be the result of prior injury or simply the strain of long-distance riding on a particular body structure. Although medical aid can sometimes alleviate the problem (see Dr. Robert E. Bond’s articles in the League of American Wheel- men Bulletin, March, April and May 1978), some people — Tim included — get relief by strengthening the upper back muscles. Simple calisthenics such as pushups or pull-ups might do the trick; Tim finds relief through pressing a barbell with 40 to 60 pounds of weight behind his neck as part of his normal workout.

Again the fit of the bicycle is important. Tim uses a short-reach, extra-long handlebar stem (SR Custom 60-millimeter reach, 180-millimeter length) that al lows placement of the bars farther back and at the same height as the saddle. Some riding efficiency is lost, but he thinks it worth it for comfort considering his back problem. Fit your bicycle properly to your own specified needs; give your body sufficient time to adjust to a new exercise program (at least two weeks); do your supplemental exercises for the upper body; if problems persist, experiment with modifications of your machine.

Conditioning for Touring

If you maintain a consistent fitness program as discussed in this section, you will have very little to do to get ready for a long tour. Your normal work outs keep you in cardiovascular condition; muscular conditioning occurs if you supplement your program or do all of your conditioning by bicycle. How ever, when touring 50-100 miles a day on a loaded touring bike day after day, you are putting your body under a new kind of stress for which there is no preparation other than mile after mile of conditioning, preferably with your touring load.

After you have been out touring several weeks, you will be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it takes some doing to reach that point no matter how good your condition was to begin with. The knees and butt get the brunt of long touring days: many tours are aborted in the first few days be cause of problems with these two areas. There is no preparation for it other than adequate conditioning through enough miles and time spent on the bike before hand and a properly equipped and adjusted bicycle. You might be able to run a marathon in under three hours but that won’t prepare you to sit on a bicycle seat for eight hours at a time.

When you start out on tour, limit your first few days to minimum mileage-. If you plan to average 70 miles a day, do no more than 40-50 miles on your first days out. If you plan 50 miles a day, limit your first two days to about 30 miles each. Your body has enough to do in adjusting to long hours on the bike, different eating patterns and unfamiliar sleeping arrangements.

Do your warm-up routine prior to starting out each morning on tour. Your muscles need that stretching, loosening and warming-up especially when under the strain of long hours on the road. If possible, try not to overexert yourself during the first several miles of the day even if it means walking to the top of a steep grade you would normally ride up. Your body will signal its readiness for full exertion by beginning to perspire a little.

Keep your knees warm, especially in the early morning, on cool days or when making rapid descents. It may seem troublesome to put on long pants or leg warmers for only the first half hour on the road, or to stop to do it during the day. But the knees are very sensitive to cold and tend to be the most injury-prone part of the cyclist’s body. A little extra care and forethought can prevent injury that might end your tour.

When touring for more than a week at a time, plan to take a day off your bike every five to seven days. Your body will benefit from the break and you can use the time to catch up on sightseeing, visiting, housekeeping or bike maintenance. On really extensive trips of a month or more, plan a period of up to a week in the middle of the tour during which you do no cycling at all. Long- distance bicycle touring is physically and mentally demanding; even with occasional days off the strain will show. Keep your body healthy and your attitude positive. Take a break now and then and change your activity as much as possible.

Almost two-thirds of the way across the country, our family met the Reichenbachs, an Indiana farm family who invited us to spend some time seeing what farming was all about and enjoying their hospitality in the form of real beds, home-cooked, homegrown foods and interesting talk of things other ihan cycling. We spent three days with them and are pretty sure we would have ended our trip sooner had we not enjoyed both the company and the break. We left feeling refreshed and mentally renewed for the last leg of our journey, and our stay with them remains one of the highlights of the trip. Take advantage of such fortune by allowing time in your plans for non-cycling breaks.

High-Elevation Touring Hazards

Too many cyclists plan tours through high mountain regions with little thought about the special requirements of physical exertion at high elevations. Even though you are in documented, excellent physical condition, that conditioning does not transfer into adjustment to high elevations. There is no way to condition for high elevations other than spending time at high elevations. If you live at or near sea level, then fly or drive to a point 5,000- 6,000 feet above to tour, your body must have time to adjust. Allow a minimum of three days to do little or no cycling. Adjustment is a physiological matter. Once you begin touring, take it slow and don’t attempt any rapid elevation gains right off.

Charles S. Houston, in an excellent article called “High Altitude Sickness” (BACKPACKER magazine, no. 27), stresses that no amount of conditioning, training or medication will prevent high-altitude sickness. Your only choice is to in crease your elevation at a moderate rate. Dr. Houston recommends no more than a 1,000-foot gain per day for the hiker; so what about the cyclist who might be climbing 3,000 or more feet in a single day? Obviously, there is risk involved. Aside from a gradual approach to higher elevations, your only defense is a knowledge of the warning signs of illness and the first aid necessary should they appear.

Fully loaded cycle tourists with adequate clothing protection, riding in high mountain environment.

The most common and least dangerous form of high-altitude sickness is acute mountain sickness. Many people are troubled with this no matter how slowly they arrive at higher elevation. It occurs at lower elevations but is more common above 7,000 feet. The most frequent symptom is headache possibly accompanied by nausea, shortness of breath and vomiting. The only real remedy is to go no higher until the symptoms disappear, take aspirin with plenty of liquids and rest.

High-altitude pulmonary edema is more serious than acute mountain sickness as it involves the accumulation of fluid in the lungs with a resulting limitation of the amount of oxygen a victim can absorb. This illness rarely occurs below 10,000 feet, so would more likely be a problem for cyclists aspiring to al pine touring. Basic symptoms are general weakness, shortness of breath and a cough beginning 12-48 hours after a rapid ascent above 10,000 feet. Cyclists arriving at high elevations abruptly, then ascending passes above 10,000 feet should be aware of the danger presented by this illness. It’s quite serious and can be fatal; the best treatment is to descend to a lower elevation as quickly as possible and get medical aid.

Cerebral edema is the most serious and most rare of high-altitude illnesses. Instead of fluid collecting in the lungs, this occurs in the brain. Symptoms are severe throbbing headache, weakness, uncoordination, double vision and possibly hallucinations. All or most of these occur 24-60 hours after a too-rapid ascent, usually above the 12,000-foot level. As in high-altitude pulmonary edema, cerebral edema victims must be taken to a lower elevation immediately and given expert medical treatment.

Let us stress again that good physical conditioning does not provide protection against these illnesses. Your only protection is gradual acclimation to altitude and an awareness that these things can occur in elevations traversed by touring cyclists. Keep symptoms in mind. The illnesses can progress from any one to any other, but there are over riding symptoms peculiar to each as mentioned above. Dr. Houston believes that no fewer than 100 thousand people develop some form of high-altitude sickness each year and as many as 20 thousand have to descend to lower elevations for recovery. The problem is not rare; with the increasing number of cyclists touring in mountainous regions it’s something to be aware of and pre pared for. As in any other activity there are risks, but you can do a lot to circum vent them through preparedness and knowledge.


Hypothermia, sometimes known as exposure, is the reduction in tempera ture of the central core of the body to a point (below 95°F.) where the body is unable to recover warmth by itself and death can occur. It’s brought on by fatigue, lack of sufficient food, wetness, exposure to wind and lack of proper clothing. Although usually associated with higher elevations, it can occur any where and at temperatures as high as 40°F. Wetness and windchill seem to be the primary factors; touring cyclists particularly need to be aware that this combination can lead to unbelievably rapid death.

The most startling aspect of hypothermia is that victims can do little to save themselves once the illness has progressed to the danger point. Victims have been found lying near food, shelter and warm sleeping bags; hypothermia overtook their senses before they could help themselves. The best protection besides adequate food, clothing and shelter is sound judgment in the use of those items, and an awareness of the symptoms and hazards of hypothermia so evasive action can be taken in time.

Danger signs are chill with uncontrolled shivering, loss of coordination, inability to think rati8 and hallucinations, difficulty in s (slurring or hesitation), and dilated pupils. Hypothermia is an individual thing and each person responds differently.

The only effective treatment is to immediately bring the victim’s body temperature up to normal. In touring conditions, this means you should (1) immediately place the victim in a sheltered area out of the wind (preferably a tent); (2) remove all damp and wet clothing, replacing with dry if available (especially on the head); or put the naked victim inside a dry sleeping bag with a healthy member of the party, also naked, who will use body heat to warm the victim. (The sleeping bag alone is of no value since the victim is producing no warmth. There must be an external source of warmth to the victim.) (3) give the victim hot, sweet drinks (non-alcoholic) and food (warm if possible) to aid in internal warmth generation. Time is critical. Don’t wait for all danger signs before beginning treatment. Be aware of symptoms so preventive measures can be taken before curative measures are needed. For additional information, consult Dr. Theodore G. Lathrop’s excellent booklet, “Hypothermia: Killer of the Unprepared,” available at most backpacking and outdoor stores for $1.

Hypothermia kills more “weekend sport” participants than members of high-altitude mountaineering expeditions. It occurs at relatively low elevations in summer months when rapid changes take place in the weather and people are caught unprepared. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable due to windchill generated by the very nature of the sport, fatigue on long rides and light clothing inappropriate to changes in the weather. Never assume you can outride bad weather or that good weather will be constant. Your body only produces so much warmth at a fixed rate; if the warmth is lost faster than it’s produced, you are heading for hypothermia.

Heat Illness

Illness brought on by exposure to heat coupled with lack of fluid replacement is more common among cyclists than hypothermia, perhaps because a majority of cycling activity occurs during summer months at low elevations. Heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the three main illnesses threatening the hot-weather cyclist. Dehydration with salt imbalance is the primary cause of them all, but first let’s look at each one so you will be familiar with symptoms and treatment.

Most common and least dangerous is heat cramping brought on by exercising vigorously without proper attention to salt intake. Salt deficiency is the primary cause. Symptoms are severe cramping of the large muscles, especially in the legs but not limited to them. The treatment is to replace salt, usually with salt tablets but a 3 percent salt water solution is preferable. Rest until the cramping subsides. Some people are more prone to this problem than others; if you find yourself susceptible, increase your table salt consumption a day or two before and during a long, hot ride. Don’t bolt down salt tablets; it’s unnecessary and dangerous as too much salt in your system draws water from your tissues to your stomach in an effort to neutralize the salt intake, causing dehydration complications you don’t need. Simply increase your fluid in take and salt your food more than nor mal. A little salt goes a long way.

Heat exhaustion is more serious than heat cramping, but seldom fatal and easily treated. It’s caused by vigorous exercise in hot — especially humid — weather without sufficient fluid re placement and salt intake, It’s a progressive illness and may take several days to manifest itself. It can occur more rapidly during overexertion with people in poor physical condition or with people not acclimatized to the heat. Symptoms include mild headache, drowsiness, fatigue, loss of appetite — possibly with vomiting, muscle cramps, confusion and light-headedness. In the final stage the victim is pale and sweats profusely.

Prompt, adequate treatment is necessary due to the seriousness of heat exhaustion and the danger of progression to heat stroke. Make the victim lie down immediately (if conscious) in a cool, shady place and administer salted fluids (about 3 percent solution). Don’t give plain water. Plain water will compound the illness by removing even more salt from the body. In mild cases, salt tablets can be given but with generous amounts of water. Severe cases (unconscious) require intravenous salt solution and medical aid. Although al most miraculous recovery results from administration of salt solution, it’s important that the victim rest for several days to insure adequate rehydration and restoration of electrolytes. Until the deficit is made up, recurrence is likely.

Heat stroke is fatal unless treated, then it’s still fatal in one out of three cases. Correct treatment must be immediate. Symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion except in the terminal stage when the skin is red and dry (there is no sweating). This lack of sweat is the danger sign indicating the need for immediate action. The victim is literally burning up and the body is no longer able to help itself cool down. Body temperature must be brought down quickly; this is done with the application of cold water or by packing the victim in ice before transportation to a medical facility. Time is critical. If the victim is conscious, administer cool, salty water. Don’t give plain water or allow medical personnel to give glucose intravenously. Athletes have been killed by the administration of plain water and sugar solutions before their electrolyte level had been raised. Don’t assume that medical personnel know this.

The best treatment for heat stroke is prevention. It should never happen. Don’t allow yourself or those cycling with you to become dehydrated. Eat proper foods to insure correct chemical balance (salt, potassium, and so on). Don’t attempt strenuous activity without being in good condition, and allow your body to acclimatize to heat and humidity through mild physical activity in those conditions for about five to ten days. Don’t assume you can perform physically in heat and humidity at the same level you do in cooler conditions. Even if you live in a hot climate, your body may not be acclimatized if you live and work with air conditioning. Approach hot-weather cycling gradually to allow maximum acclimation. In other words, don’t do all of your riding on rollers in an air-conditioned room, then attempt 60 miles a day in the heat and humidity of the real world.

Another step toward prevention is to avoid antihistamines, belladonna products, alcohol or any other drug that inhibits the body’s sweat mechanism. Illness accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea can seriously dehydrate your body; don’t attempt to cycle in hot or humid conditions until fully recovered. At the least, carefully monitor your body’s reactions so you can take preventive steps if necessary.


Dehydration is a primary causal factor in heat illnesses, and is the key to both serious and minor physical irritations experienced by long-distance cycle tourists. First, however, you must understand the function of fluids in vigorous exercise.

Your body cools itself during heavy exercise almost 100 percent through evaporation. It’s totally dependent on its ability to sweat during exercise to keep its heat level within acceptable limits. Given favorable external conditions, available fluid is the prime requisite of your body’s evaporative cooling system. Drinking enough fluids is the key factor in maintaining adequate fluid levels during exercise, especially in hot weather.

Don’t let the temperature dictate your concern about fluid replacement. Many people assume there is nothing to worry about until the thermometer reads above 90°F. Not so. Humidity is a much more positive indicator than temperature. Adequate fluid intake and possible heat illness should be of concern to you at any time the temperature is above 70°F, and the humidity is above 50 percent. Cooling can take place only if the sweat is able to evaporate from your skin, If your body or clothing is so saturated with sweat or the humidity is so high that the evaporation process is blocked, you are over loading your body’s cooling mechanism and risking heat illness.

A positive feature of bicycle touring is that wind created by movement is usually sufficient to evaporate and cool the body. In tropical areas, however, or even in many areas of the United States where high humidity couples with high temperatures, danger exists even for the cyclist. The same conditions are created when you are cycling the same speed as your tail wind, creating a negative windchill factor in which the body is not cooled sufficiently.

You can’t make assumptions about climate conditions because of this humidity factor. While cycling in the Mojave Desert, we experienced days when the temperature exceeded 110°F., yet due to low humidity and the evaporative breezes we generated by cycling, all we had to do was maintain adequate fluid levels for protection and even a degree of comfort. In the very high humidity but lower temperatures of the Midwest and East, however, we developed fatigue and symptoms of heat illness due to the lack of adequate evaporative cooling.

As temperature is not an accurate indicator of heat, thirst is not an accurate indicator of need for fluid. Studies have shown that by the time your body signals to replace fluid, you can already have a significant fluid deficit that can not be made up while continuing exercise. So while exercising vigorously in hot weather you must drink before you become thirsty, at the rate of about 1 cup of fluid every 15 minutes. The body can lose as much as 1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) of sweat in 1 hour, yet the body is capable of absorbing only about half that amount from the stomach in the same amount of time. If you are cycling vigorously in warm conditions over a long period of time, notice how chronic dehydration develops.

When touring you must constantly replace fluid even if you are not thirsty. When touring in the western deserts of the United States during summer months, we find it necessary at times to rest more frequently than our usual one day out of six or seven. A day off every two or three days during extreme heat allows the body to recover enough fluid to insure against dehydration. During the rest periods and at the end of every cycling day, we drink fluids copiously and regularly to offset deficiencies while cycling. Not only does this reduce the potential for heat illness, but it also helps to overcome physical and mental fatigue, making for a much more enjoy able tour.

Some cyclists question desert touring in the first place, treating it as some thing to be avoided or performed at utmost speed. The desert is our favorite touring environment, offering open space, scenery and empty roads enough to last a lifetime. There is nothing like an early-morning ride in the desert to sharpen your senses and soothe your spirit. Fear of the unknown robs many riders of this joy. If you take the necessary safeguards to keep both your physical and mental processes in good condition through diet and fluid replacement, the desert can be yours to enjoy on your bicycle.

What is the best fluid to keep your body’s reservoir filled to an adequate level? One fluid is far superior to all the rest — water. Nothing is as quickly absorbed from the stomach. Other fluids offer advantages such as electrolytes in athletic drinks and natural sugars in fruit juices, but water is best for the simple prevention of dehydration. The higher the amount of sugar in a particular drink (glucose, sucrose or fructose), the slower that liquid passes out of the stomach. Sugar is found in large amounts in carbonated drinks and should be avoided when rapid fluid re placement is necessary. In addition, carbonation can upset your stomach when exercising hard. Commercial electrolyte replacement drinks like Gatorade, ERG and Body Punch serve a purpose in replacing salts and giving energy through sugar, but at the risk of slow absorption and stomach upset.

ABOVE: Touring in a desert environment. The cyclist in long pants and long-sleeved shirt on the right is protected from the sun; the others risk sunburn.

Some people can drink gallons of commercial athletic drinks, others can’t. Some can only tolerate them following heavy exercise, not during, If you use these drinks, use them to supplement your intake of water, not to replace it.

Avoid milk products entirely while exercising. Milk is very slow to pass out of the stomach and in the meantime blocks absorption of other liquids. Don’t drink it while cycling under strenuous, hot conditions.

Our favorite touring drink besides water, is a weak orange-juice solution. We buy a small (6 oz.) can of frozen, unsweetened concentrate to mix in two water bottles, weaker than directions on the can suggest. If we are consuming more than a gallon of water a day, then we add just a pinch of salt (not enough to taste) to the orange juice. This makes a refreshing adjunct to our predominantly water intake and has the advantage of containing high amounts of potassium, which is necessary for the utilization of salt (sodium chloride) in the body. It also contains fructose, a natural sugar that enters the blood at a slower rate than glucose. Fructose causes a steady, longer-lasting rise in blood sugar that does not trigger production of insulin, which causes a sugar crash as in drinks containing glucose. The weaker solution helps aid absorption by the body, but we don’t use this instead of water, only in addition to it.

Salt is the subject of many myths passed around the athletic community. A lot of people firmly believe that salt tablets should be taken frequently during strenuous exercise in hot and humid weather. Our own reading, research and experience in this matter indicates that such is not the case. In fact, many times salt tablets are not only ineffective, but downright harmful.

Americans have an extremely high intake of salt, somewhere between 6-18 grams of sodium (salt is 40 percent sodium) per day according to Dietary Goals for the United States. This government study places the average normal requirement for sodium at about ¼ gram per day. This amount of sodium is supplied in an adequate diet with no addition of salt to food whatsoever.

What about the touring cyclist who is sweating profusely over a long period of time? Opinions differ widely. Some research indicates that no additional salt is needed if the diet is adequate in potassium (found in bananas, whole grains, nuts, oranges, dried fruit), which allows proper use of sodium by the body. Others say that additional salt is needed in the form of salt tablets by the exercising athlete. Dietary Goals quotes a passage from Recommended Dietary Allowances produced by the National Academy of Sciences:

Whenever more than a 4-liter in take of water is required to replace sweat loss, extra sodium chloride (salt) should be provided. The need will vary with sweating in the proportion of 2 grams sodium chloride (salt) per liter of extra water loss, and on the order of an extra 7 grams/day for persons doing heavy work under hot conditions. . . . In unadapted individuals, the need for additional water and salt may be somewhat higher than in fully acclimated persons.

The study points out the important balance between sodium and potassium and recommends that about 2 1/2 grams of potassium should be provided in the diet each day. The recommended 7 grams of sodium chloride per day for persons doing heavy work under hot conditions is equal to only about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and that is only when about a gallon of water has been consumed.

People vary in their needs and capacities no less so when it comes to salt and potassium. Whether or not you take additional salt and potassium should be decided upon according to your own body’s need for and tolerance of these substances; by the amount of salt normally provided in your diet; by the amount of salt you add to food; by the temperature and humidity during your exercise; by the amount you sweat; and by the amount and kind of fluids you consume.

Personally, we don’t take salt tablets unless we are drinking more than a gallon of liquids per day or when we be gin to feel unusually tired or light headed after a period of hard touring during hot and especially humid conditions.

Dr. Creig Hoyt, medical editor of Bike World magazine and one of the most experienced endurance bike riders in the United States, feels that salt replacement is necessary when engaged in really vigorous exercise ex tending over long periods of time (See “Beyond All Reasonable Limits” in the January 1976 issue of Bike World.) Dr. Hoyt has written a number of excellent articles on various medical and dietary aspects of cycling. If you are interested in these subjects look through issues from the last three or four years of Bike World to see what he has to say. Not only does he thoroughly research his topics, he experiences them as well.

If you decide to take additional salt, you can either add it to your food, drink athletic drinks that contain sodium, add a pinch of salt to your orange juice or take salt tablets. Salt tablets should be the type that have potassium added and a paraffin coating that slows the break-down in the stomach and small intestines, thereby lessening the chance for stomach upset. Whenever you take a salt tablet, drink plenty of water along with it. Otherwise the increased concentration of salt in the digestive tract will draw water from the blood to help dissolve it, cutting into the supply avail able for cooling the body and defeating your purpose. Drink at least one pint of water with each tablet, more if you can.

Adequate fluid and salt intake, proper rest, good diet and attention to protecting the body from exposure to the sun lessen your chances of developing heat illness. If you are traveling with a group, be aware of others’ actions. Know when someone is overheated and acting confused or weak. By being aware of what can happen, you are helping to protect yourself and others from it actually happening.

Our detailed coverage of various health hazards associated with bicycle touring should not be taken as indicating that it’s a dangerous activity. To the contrary, the very nature of touring makes it one of the most healthful things you can do for your body and your mind. There are dangers, of course, as there are dangers in crossing a street or taking a bath. Preparation, common sense and awareness of what is going on greatly disarm potential danger. You don’t have to dwell on the hazards; rather be aware of their causes, circumvent those conditions whenever possible and know what to do if illness strikes so as to minimize its effect on you or those around you.

One of the great joys of bicycle touring is the self-reliance it fosters. Knowledge of and preparation for health hazards are part of the package. Don’t leave your health up to fate more than is absolutely necessary. Take control and become an even more competent bicycle tourist.

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