Taken literally, paleo cycling sounds like an oxymoron. It’s hard to argue with the fact that the human body evolved to walk. Graceful as circles might be, there is something almost industrial about turning the pedals for miles and miles, legs transformed into a set of steam engine pistons.
(Then again, I’m not sure cavemen were playing ultimate frisbee, trail running, or doing cross-fit workouts either, but these are often considered staples of fitness in the paleo community).
But if you can get the caveman metaphor out of your head, I think cycling, especially utility cycling, is one of the most Paleo things we can do in the modern world. Even outside of utility cycling, the principles espoused by the paleo community can be applied in sensible ways that will enhance performance.
One of the principles of Paleo fitness and keys to health is that we should try to “move around a lot at a slow pace.” Yet most of us have at least 9-5 jobs, errands to run, etc. In modern society, something as natural as walking has become a form of “exercise” to be performed at a destination arrived at by car. And that’s perverse. The same is true for a lot of other “authentic” paleo pursuits. What could be more natural than driving to the gym to do your cross-fit work out?
Yet for most of us, even if you wanted to move around a lot more on foot, unless you live in a small medieval village (or Manhattan), it’s unlikely you will be able to run most of your errands and get to and from work by walking. We simply don’t have time to “move around a lot at a slow pace” given modern schedules and abysmal urban planning.
That’s where utility cycling and bike commuting come in. Cycling keeps you connected to natural surroundings and allows you to get to and from places at the slow-to-moderate fat burning pace our bodies were designed for. It gets you out in the sun, generating the Vitamin D that is essential to health. Perhaps most importantly, cycling makes frequent movement part of your daily routine and tasks–food gathering, work, transport–not because it’s exercise, but because it’s what you do and how you get there.
In that sense, cycling brings the modern American city and Paleo principles together in ways that few forms of exercise can match.
First and foremost, I cycle because it is fun and brings me out into nature. But I also think taking a paleo approach to overall health and fitness will make you a better, higher performing cyclist. This generally means doing a little less endurance cycling fueled by a glocose drip of sports products, and a little more cross training. Rides on the bike are harder and shorter, with more time off the bike in between rides to rest and recover. You can go out hard and long from time to time, but overall you just don’t need to train nearly as much as some people think if the majority of your rides favor quality over quantity.
To sum up:
Paleo Cycling Principles:
(1) Quality is more important than quantity. Even for endurance cyclists. Go out shorter, and harder. Do hill work and intervals. Do some occasional long distance work. In the end, you’ll likely be as fit and as good at the distance stuff as the guys grinding out slow, long-miles all the time.
(2) Less really is more. Even for endurance cyclists. If you are doing the intense workouts above, you need to take time off between workouts to let your body recover. Working out doesn’t make your body stronger. Resting between hard workouts makes your body stronger.
(3) Cross-training will make you a stronger cyclist. In particular try hill sprinting (on foot), hiking, jumping and other explosive movements, and core work. I’m not talking about waiting for the off season, but doing regular work throughout the year
(4) The Rivendell Principle: Not every ride has to be a freaking “training ride”! Cycling at a leisurely pace (below 75% of max heart rate) over hill and dale is one of the most pleasant ways to explore there is. When you cycle at this pace, you maximize utilization of fat stores rather than muscle glycogen and don’t need to rely as much on high-octane, sugary sports products to keep going.