Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Electric bikes, a.k.a. e-bikes, have grown in popularity in recent years, thanks to their ability to get you from point A to point B more quickly, efficiently, and with less effort than a regular road bike.
But while e-bikes have been collectively celebrated as a more environmentally-friendly commuting option than driving a car, when it comes to using them as a workout tool, they’ve garnered a reputation for “cheating” from a large segment of the cycling community. That shouldn’t be the case, though, says Pam Moore, a certified personal trainer and spin instructor, and an avid cyclist and e-bike owner.
“Riding an e-bike is really not about replacing a workout; for most people, it’s replacing a car trip,” she says. “So it’s more like a bonus, where you’re getting a little bit of aerobic activity, and it’s also getting you outside and putting you in a better mood.”
E-Bikes vs. Traditional Bikes: What’s the Difference?
Of course an e-bike has all the key components that make a bike a bike, i.e. handlebars, brakes, wheels and pedals, Moore says. Some have a throttle or a button you push to get you moving, but most are pedal assist, meaning you have to actually pedal to keep moving. You’ll just feel a kick in power from an e-bike, especially when starting from a stop sign or red light, going up a hill, or carrying groceries, Moore adds.
The beauty of an e-bike is that you can decide how much work it’s doing, Moore says. Most e-bikes have a couple levels of assistance (and you can switch between them), with the lower levels allowing you to preserve more battery (and crank up your fitness more) and the higher turbo or boost levels allowing you to speed up with added power and without having to work as hard.
“The pedal assist component is an important distinction in that the bike gives you a certain amount of watts as long as you’re pedaling,” explains Jacob Fetty, a coach with Cycle-Smart based in Spencer, West Virginia.
So sure, if you’re riding on a flat road and in turbo mode, an e-bike ride is going to be pretty easy compared to a road bike with no motor. But by taking steps to make it slightly more challenging, you can still improve your fitness on an e-bike, Moore says.
Why Choose an E-Bike When It Comes to Fitness
According to Moore, the main reason one might opt for an electric bike is the added level of convenience. Because e-bikes can be pretty expensive, this is where they’ll often prove worth the investment.
People who are newer to cycling and perhaps are a bit older who may not otherwise feel very comfortable riding a traditional bike, especially if they live somewhere with gnarly terrain or steep hills, might benefit from the added assist of an e-bike, Fetty adds.
“With an e-bike, you’ll have a greater range of what that bike can do for you and you’re probably going to enjoy riding a lot because you’re able to do some things you perhaps couldn’t do otherwise,” he says. “If you’re wanting to just commute to work and crank out a couple rides a week where you’re getting your heart rate up and getting some cardiovascular activity in, an e-bike can be a great option for you.”
If you’re wanting to combine a workout and a commute, an e-bike is ideal because it can help you get an aerobic workout in while getting you to your destination faster, which is definitely a bonus if your mornings don’t allow enough time to get to work on on a regular bike, or to even work out at all. Even better, you can get a light workout with an e-bike and potentially avoid showing up to work all sweaty.
If you’re training for a race, you want to ride on the bike you’ll bring to the starting line, but an e-bike can still have a place on your training plan. “An e-bike can still be a worthwhile supplemental tool on commutes and errands, allowing you to get a recovery workout in with some assistance while still also keeping your heart rate in an aerobic training zone,” Moore says.
How to Get a Workout on Your E-Bike
Whether you focus on getting in a solid sweat on your e-bike or just ride it casually, research says that it’s still beneficial to your health and fitness level. For example, one study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, involving 30 men and women ages 19 to 61, compared three-mile rides on a traditional bike to three-mile rides on an e-bike. (The rides were meant to mimic commutes.)
While the percent of heart rate max, VO2 max, and calories burned were lower for e-bike rides versus traditional bike rides, researchers say the faster ride times and lower perceived exertion could incentivize people to ride more, particularly for their commute. The percent of max heart rate for e-bike rides were also still in the moderate-intensity exercise level, reaching 62% of max heart rate for a level-one assist and 56% for level-two assist.
What’s more, other research shows that e-bike riders get more exercise minutes per week than those who ride non-motorized bikes. So even if you’re doing less intense workouts on your e-bike, you could be sneaking in more active minutes throughout the day and/or week, which has benefits for your fitness and your overall health.
When it comes to getting a workout on an e-bike, though, the key question to ask yourself is “what do you hope to accomplish?” Fetty says. You can go as hard or as easy as you want, so determine your goals before hopping in the saddle.
“Even with pedal assist, you’re still having to do the work and because you’re still doing the work, you’re still having a heart rate response,” Fetty explains. “Just like if you didn’t have pedal assist, it’s on you to put in the effort.”
If you’re ready for more effort, here are ways to turn up the challenge on your e-bike workout:
Turn it off
According to Moore, one effective way to focus on building strength is to simply keep the turbo mode turned off on your e-bike. Doing so could have a positive training effect, as you’ll be riding a pretty heavy bike (many e-bikes weigh at least 40 pounds), which ups the resistance and therefore, elevates your heart rate, improves your stamina, and helps build strength and power, she says.
While you’re still having to do some work no matter the level of pedal assist you’re using, less is more when it comes to tapping into your own strength. So even if you want a little boost, riding in those lower turbo modes means you have to work harder to keep up a fast pace, turning your workout up a notch.
Follow your heart rate
Training by heart rate (using a heart rate monitor) can be a useful tool for e-bike workouts, Moore says. That’s because it can help you hit your goals, whether you’re looking to build endurance for longer rides or improve your lactate threshold so you can ride faster with less effort. Training by heart rate is also beneficial in ensuring you don’t overtrain.
For example, an endurance ride at a conversational pace (in zone 2, or about 60% to 70% of your max heart rate) will help you increase mitochondria, and will be at an effort that’s relatively easy to recover from and can be done frequently.
For a ride in the tempo zone (that’s zone 3), Moore suggests staying around 75% to 84% of your max heart rate, as going over will make it hard to recover from what’s supposed to be an easier effort. “Doing too many of your workouts in this ‘gray zone,’ where it’s too hard to be easy, but not hard enough to provide an adaptive challenge will slow your progress and potentially lead to burnout,” Moore says.
If you’re doing a threshold workout as your quality session of the week, on the other hand, you’d want your hard efforts to be between 85% and 94% of your max heart rate—a workout you’d perform less frequently but one that can boost your performance.
Split your commute into two purposes
If you’re riding an e-bike in an effort to combine your commute with a workout but are still concerned about showing up to work sweaty, Moore recommends splitting up your ride into two segments.
“If you have a 45-minute ride, you could dedicate the first 30 minutes to a workout and then use more assistance for the last 15 minutes by adjusting to a higher level and pedaling less hard and enjoying the breeze while you have a cooldown period,” she says.
According to Moore, you can ensure you’re getting a workout out of your e-bike ride if it elevates your heart rate and/or gets you out of your comfort zone. “How much your heart rate spikes, for how long, and how uncomfortable you are during that workout all really depend on what your training goals are and how much energy you have on that particular day,” she explains.
If the goal for your commuting workout is active recovery, you could warm up for 5 minutes, then spend the next 25 minutes at an endurance pace at an RPE of 3 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, where you could carry on a conversation fairly comfortably.
For a bigger challenge, use that “workout” portion of your commute to take on intervals. First, warm up for five minutes, then do two and a half minutes “on” and two and half minutes “off” and repeat this five-minute cycle four more times (for a total of five rounds) before cooling down. Do the push periods at an RPE of anywhere from 7 to 10, and the recovery periods anywhere from 2 to 4. Turn the turbo mode up on those recovery periods or just pedal slower—whatever works best for you to recover before hitting another work interval.
“‘The effort should be very challenging and very quickly make it impossible to talk in full sentences and have you looking at your watch to see how much time is left until you can recover,” Moore explains.
Throw in some hills
For a solid hill workout you can tailor to your own fitness level and needs, Moore recommends finding a hill that takes you about four minutes to climb (or just turn around when you get to the four-minute mark).
“Ascend it in a seated position,” she says. “It should feel uncomfortably hard—we’re talking open-mouth breathing, quads should be burning by the time you reach the four-minute mark.” Then recover on the downhill for about two minutes. Repeat this three to nine times, depending on your goals and your fitness level.
“To make it spicier, you could also get into a harder gear and get out of the saddle and go all out for the last 20 to 30 seconds of each climb,” Moore says.
Try a Tabata
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about incorporating an organized workout into your e-bike routine, the good news is that you can keep it fairly simple. Just make sure to be aware of your surroundings and avoid doing this in an area with lots of people or traffic. “Anything you’d do on your road bike (or mountain bike or gravel bike) or your trainer or Peloton, you can do on your e-bike,” Moore says.
If you’re short on time, Moore recommends doing a Tabata-style workout where you’d spend 20 seconds pedaling as hard as you possibly can, followed by 10 seconds of easy recovery, and repeating this cycle eight times for a total of four minutes.
“During the part where you’re going all out, adjust the level of assistance as needed, depending on your fitness, the incline, and how heavy your bike is,” she says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all level of assistance because each body is different, not to mention the terrain you’re on and the bike you’re riding.” Go at an effort that feels challenging, though, with the level of assist that lets you go all out for 20 seconds.
Take to the trails
If you simply want to switch up your workout and add a new strength and skills challenge, opt to get an electric mountain bike. A mountain e-bike can be useful if you’ve otherwise found mountain or trail riding to be too difficult, whether that’s due to a medical condition, or just rough terrain that’s difficult to navigate, Fetty says.
“If you were going at a high speed on a gnarly uphill on a mountain bike, you may have to get off your bike and walk up or go really hard to get up a hill,” Fetty says. “But if you have pedal assist, you can tone the intensity down to help you level out your heart rate a little bit and not go as hard.”
But just because you’re using pedal assist doesn’t mean a mountain e-bike ride will be easy. You still have to navigate trails, potentially at faster speeds, and clear obstacles. So an e-bike can help you gain that skill set.
Resources for Tracking E-Bike Fitness
If you’re using an e-bike for fitness purposes, chances are you’re going to want to keep track of your stats and data. The following three apps are Moore and Fetty’s go-tos for tracking rides. For those using Garmin, e-bike and mountain e-bike are both activity options for those recording from their watch. And for those with an Apple Watch, the Outdoor Cycle workout mode aims to recognize an e-bike ride, so you get more accurate calorie counts.
TrainingPeaks is a great option if you’re working with a coach who is assigning your workouts. They can input a workout assignment, which you can complete within the app either by syncing your smartwatch’s data or manually entering your data and comments. According to Moore, TrainingPeaks is also a good resource when it comes to getting a reading on what your personal maximum heart rate is, though she recommends doing a personalized test first to get your numbers dialed in. This can then help you fine tune your training on an e-bike, helping you zero in on your target heart rate.
Strava is one of the most popular workout tracking tools these days, thanks to the social networking aspect of the app. You can save your bike as a piece of gear and if you use a heart-rate monitor while using your e-bike, you can upload that data to Strava, making your stats as detailed as you want to be, Moore says. Strava also has an e-bike and mountain e-bike ride as sport options.
Wahoo Fitness is a favorite of Fetty’s, because its devices (such as the Elemnt Bolt) are compatible with certain e-bikes and can also be successfully synced to TrainingPeaks to keep track of your ride numbers.
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