Electric bikes offer a wide range of benefits, allowing you to travel further and faster, offering a green alternative for commuting, and enabling more people to experience the joy of cycling. However, with a motor and battery providing assistance while you pedal, can you get fit on an ebike?
With many aspects of cycling seemingly focused on performance gains, electric bikes are often met with scepticism for providing a helping hand on hills or a sweat-free ride to work. However, riding an electric bike can still improve your fitness.
We previously challenged cycling coach and elite rider Tom Bell to see how hard he could ride on an electric mountain bike, and while he didn’t quite hit his 208bpm maximum heart rate, getting up to 198bpm showed he wasn’t getting a free ride. Far from it, in fact.
“You can still push as hard as you like on an ebike, you just have added assistance,” says Bell. “So, although it can be used to make climbing and riding in general easier if you want to back off, it’s also possible to put in a lot of effort but just go faster for that effort.”
That’s backed up by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah. They tracked the heart rate of experienced mountain bikers on pedal-powered and electric mountain bikes.
When riding an e-MTB, their subjects hit 94 per cent of the average heart rate they achieved on a non-assisted mountain bike when riding a six-mile study loop with 700 feet of climbing, putting them comfortably in heart rate zone four.
In other words, they were working hard, even if the electric bike took the very top-end sting out of the ride. Interestingly, their perceived exertion levels were lower on the e-MTB and, of course, they rode faster and completed the loop quicker.
Ultimately, the study concluded that electric mountain bikes appear to be an “excellent form of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise, even for experienced mountain bikers who regularly engage in this fitness activity”.
Breaking down barriers
The same researchers in Utah have also looked at the health benefits of commuting on an electric hybrid bike, finding that riders’ heart rates reached, on average, 89 per cent of the mean achieved when riding a non-assisted hybrid bike, giving them a moderate-intensity workout. Ebike use “retained the majority of the cycling cardiovascular health benefits”, according to the study
Participants in the study also said they were more likely to use an ebike for everyday transportation, including cycling to work, than a traditional bike.
As well as concluding that ebikes are “capable of providing much of the cardiovascular health benefits obtained during conventional bike use”, they also “may help reduce some of the obstacles to conventional bike use, such as increased transportation time, decreased convenience, and physical fatigue”. If people are cycling more instead of driving or using public transport, they are likely to be getting fitter.
That’s a conclusion borne out by another study, which looked at the riding patterns of 10,000 ebike and non-ebike bike users across seven cities in Europe. It found that ebike users took longer trips, so their gain in physical activity was similar to that for regular cyclists.
Again, Tom Bell concurs: “Ebikes can help you stay out longer on the bike. Even if the average intensity may be lower, there is a big correlation between ride/training duration and fitness improvement, and a lot of aerobic benefits come from increasing ride duration, not just intensity.”
More fun, more riding
Electric bikes can also help riders stay out for longer and, in turn, ride more often, according to Bell.
“On the mountain bike side, because the motor can be used to make pedalling back up a hill much easier than without, it makes doing repeated runs of downhill trails much easier and arguably more fun because more runs can be fitted into a given period of time,” he says.
“If these ebikes make a rider enjoy the bike more and this leads to them riding more consistently, over time this will have a big positive impact on their fitness.”
Bell also points out that ebike riders will often be keeping up a pace above the 25kph at which assistance must cut out (in the UK, EU and Australia). “When that speed is reached, the rider no longer has the assistance of the motor, so that means they will still be needing to exert quite a bit of power to maintain their speed,” he says.
In short, electric bikes can offer fitness benefits for experienced riders and those who may otherwise be daunted by cycling.
Meanwhile, electric bikes can also help people to ride who may otherwise not be able to due to health concerns, particularly given the ability of ebikes to offer varying levels of assistance and thus allow a rider to better manage their effort level, not least when climbing.
Freedom to ride
Repeated heart problems were forcing Sean Yates, a former Tour de France yellow jersey wearer and directeur sportif at Team Sky, to reduce his riding. When he did go out, he sometimes needed to be collected by car and would take several days to recover.
Yates’s answer was an electric road bike. He credits his Ribble Endurance SL e with helping him to get out and enjoy his riding again. “I will always have the passion to ride, and the head and heart still want to experience that feeling of freedom,” says Yates. “Without this bike, I might be stuck indoors watching daytime TV.”
Yates has become something of an evangelist for electric bikes, acting as a brand ambassador for Ribble, and he’s now also riding the brand’s non-assisted Endurance SL R road bike.
Yates isn’t alone among former pros in taking to an ebike. Brian Robinson, who was the first Briton to finish the Tour de France in 1955, as well as the first to win a stage (one stage win in each of the 1958 and 1959 editions), rides the Ribble Hybrid AL e at 90 years old.
Meanwhile, five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault rides Look’s road ebike, the E-765 Optimum. “It is a genuine revolution for any cyclist,” says Hinault. “I would never have believed they could retain all of the sensations of a 100% muscle-driven bike.”
The bottom line is this: an electric bike can be the ideal way to enjoy the fitness benefits of cycling, while still offering assistance when it may be required – whether that’s to ride further, tone down the peak exertion of riding a non-assisted bike, or provide assistance on difficult terrain.
Five tips for getting fit on an ebike
1. Start slowly
An ebike will take the peak exertion out of your ride, so it’s easier to go further. But if you’re new to cycling or not as fit as you want to be, start with shorter rides on easy routes to get the feel for what you’re capable of, rather than being too ambitious.
You’ll gain more fitness benefits from more frequent, shorter rides than from the occasional epic. You’ll also want to understand the range that you can get from your ebike before committing to a ride that might drain the battery.
2. Plan your route
If you’re new to cycling, try to take on routes that aren’t too demanding at first. Even with a motor, you can still push your limits on climbs.
Start on roads or trails that don’t overexert you until you get the feel for your physical capacity and the varying levels of assistance the bike can offer to support your ride.
3. Select a lower assistance level
Once you’re confident in your fitness and the bike itself, you’ll get more of a workout if you lower the assistance level that the motor provides.
On a flat road or moderate hill, you might be quite capable of going well with minimal assistance or with the motor switched off altogether. Save the top level of support for the steepest uphills and you’ll extend your range, too.
4. Plan for recovery
Recovering from your ebike rides is as important as if you were riding a normal pedal-powered bike. A challenging ride may be just as tiring on an ebike, particularly if your electric bike has enabled you to ride for longer than typical.
However, with ebikes usually lowering your overall effort level, you should be able to ride more frequently, and riding more often will help improve your long-term fitness.
5. Enjoy yourself
Above all else, cycling should be fun – and electric bikes are fun! – so enjoy your riding.