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.

Caveman Cycling

Utility Cycling:

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.

“Performance” Cycling

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.


9 Responses to “Paleo Cycling Principles”

  1. Chris Godsey Says:

    Hey, Dustin.

    Can you give an idea of what you mean when you say, “shorter” rides, and “occasional” long-distance rides?

    Thanks for your time, and for the blog.

    Duluth, MN

  2. Paleo Velo Says:

    Hey Chris,

    I guess it’s all relative, and I probably do way more cardio than the truly hardcore paleo types would sanction, in part because I’m more interested in seeing what paleo diet and fitness principles can add to cycling than I am in truly cycling in a paleo way all the time. For example, there are folks who really try to never get their heart rate above 75%, and who do long distance rides fueled by things like dried fish and pemmican. That’s a bit further than I’ve been willing to experiment with, but I am hoping to have them do a guest post on here at some point.

    But to answer your specific question: I commute to work by bike three days a week and it’s 31 miles roundtrip. That’s an hour of pedaling in the morning and an hour in the evening. I try to do one way really hard, sprinting up hills and the like. And then in the other direction I take it pretty easy. Sometimes those count as “short” rides. Other times, I just go out in my neighborhood and do a lot of hills as a way of doing something short, but intense. Yesterday I did a 21 mile ride in my neighborhood that involved 4000 feet of climbing. Yes, I live in a hilly neighborhood!

    On the weekends, I try to mix it up more than I used to. I’d say approximately once per month I do something, either road or MTB, that requires around 8 hours to do. That’s my “long” ride. Most Saturdays, however, I’m finding that something on the order of 3-4 hours is about where I’m happy. This is all in contrast to the past where I would do something on the order of a century almost every weekend, longer rides in the middle of the week, and was always fussing with knee, IT band, and other issues. I also used to ride Saturday and Sunday. These days, I use Sunday for a long walk or hike with the wife, and other cross training.

    Short or long though, my new rule is that if I don’t have a smile on my face at the end of the ride, then I need to be doing something different! Gone are the days when I would grind out long miles all the time for the sake of goals and charts. I want biking to be a form of play, much like it was when I raced BMX as a kid.



    1. Dustin, I have just found your blog and it is a really good read. Thanks for the effort you have put into your posts.


      1. Paleo Velo Says:

        thanks—the blog has been lagging quite a bit as of late, but glad some of the old posts are still worth reading.

  3. Rubens Says:

    . I want biking to be a form of play, much like it was when I raced BMX as a kid…..amazing expression..and is real…

  4. Moses Goldstein Says:

    I love this! This explains how when I was a bike commuter, I could hang with many pro level riders on long rides. My 17-18 minute bust-ass fast commute combined with lots of leisurely riding was perfect “training”, I guess!

  5. primalheathen Says:

    Just happened across your blog when I did a Google search for paleo for cycling and glad I did.

    I am diabetic cyclist, got on the paleo way originally almost two years ago (loosing 60# in the first six months) and needing to get back on track.

    I like this article because it covers my daily life as a full time cyclist. I do not have a car (last one blew the engine and I could not afford another), so I cycle or take the bus into Cincinnati then ride all over the city.

    For me, I also play bike polo twice a week. That is a perfect way to get the principles you talk of here. There is a lot of short and hard sessions lasting from 10 to 30 mins at a time.

    My biggest challenge that I have found, and not found a paleo way to deal with successfully, is the issue of being away from home the majority of the day. I wake at 4:45 and am out the door by 6:00, not returning until 9P-10:30p. Lunch and snacks during school isn’t an issue, it’s when I am out and about away from refrigeration or on the court burning through glucose almost faster than I can maintain it. Any tips on how you deal with food when in the saddle?

    1. Paleo Velo Says:

      Fist caveat is that I am not diabetic, so I really don’t have any knowledge of where my approach might not be appropriate.

      But for me, food for riding really varies based on the length of the ride. If I’m just going to be out for a couple of hours, I don’t really bother with anything anymore even though I have friends who seem to think they will die if they don’t eat a gel every 45 min! Back when I could do long hard rides back before my hamstring injuries, I used to fuel up using recipes from Alan Lim–his sushi bars and potatoes. I have a few posts about them on the blog. If I’m doing long, slow burn type stuff where I don’t need glucose, I find that nuts, fried fruit, and coconut products work really well. My wife has a recipe for coconut oil, cacao, and just a little sugar that works really well.

      But again, I don’t have diabetes, so YMMV!

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