A Beginner's Guide to Cycling: Bikes, Trails, Safety Tips, and More

Cycling can be healthy and fun when you ride your bike safely.

It's possible to turn casual bicycle rides into a full-on fitness regimen. Any way you spin it, biking stands out for its fitness perks, like enhancing your cardio, building strength, and offering a fun way to explore the outdoors.

Science supports cycling's positive effects on your heart health and mental well-being. Plus, it can introduce you to new people and offer a feeling of freedom, Tara Parsons, New York-based cycling coach, Rapha ambassador, and a board vice president for Century Road Club Association, the largest racing club in the U.S., told Health.

Whether you just got back on the bike or you've been a leisurely rider for years, it's time to transform your occasional spin into a consistent fitness routine. This expert guide will prepare you to hit the road or trail safely and efficiently.

Basic Biking Gear You Will Need

Before you start biking, you'll want to ensure you're prepared with the right gear. At a minimum, you'll want to ride with a helmet. The helmet should fit properly, and you should wear one every time you ride.

You also want to have the right kind of bicycle. To find the style of bike that's best for you, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are my goals for riding?
  • Where will I be riding most often?
  • Is there an environment I would be excited to explore—like the woods—if I could branch out?

If you plan to do any early morning or evening rides, invest in fluorescent clothing, retro-reflective clothing, or active lights—like front white and rear red lights. These are helpful for riding safely when there's not a lot of daylight.

How To Turn Up the Burn

Steadily build up to heart-pumping, mile-crushing sweat sessions with tips from Parsons and Frank Overton, Strava cycling coach and founder of FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. Consistency matters more than the order in which you add distance, days, or speed. You'll increase your endurance and strength if you keep at it.

Build Your Distance Gradually

Like going from the couch to a 5K, you should steadily increase your distance on a bike. Your first goal might be 5 miles, two to three times a week. Then aim to add about 50% more miles each week. Your next goal might be a 7- or 7.5-mile ride twice a week.

If you're already doing 20-mile rides, don't add more than 10 miles each week, said Parsons. Do these longer rides at a conversational pace, meaning you could chat with a friend as you go? A less intense pace will allow you to last longer, so you can enhance your endurance.

Add More Training Days

If you're riding just one or two days a week right now, see if you can carve out time for another day—then another, said Overton. This will help you achieve results faster. Once you start training four days a week, Overton suggested a schedule of one hard day, one easy day, a rest day, and repeat.

Challenge Yourself With More Difficult Routes Over Time

If you're unsure where to start, a local bike shop can lead you in the right direction. You could also download cycling apps like Strava and Ride With GPS.

Both allow you to explore existing routes or map your own before you head out. On Strava, you can also view "segments" or sections of popular paths. You can use the paths to compete with other users for the fastest times and by the number of visits.

Do Intervals

One day a week, incorporate speed, said Parsons. Do fartleks—a Swedish term that means "speed play"—and ride as hard as you can from one light post, tree, or block to the next.

You'll need free range, so do this on a bike trail, open road, or in the park early in the morning. Then take as much time as you need to recover before you repeat that all-out effort. You want to go as hard on the fifth or tenth interval as you did on the first, so give yourself plenty of time to cool down between pushes.

For your first session, Parsons suggested doing five work/rest intervals. This means you'll go hard and then go slow, letting your heart rate come back down, comprising one complete interval. Do those five intervals, then ride easy for 5 to 10 minutes, and repeat the five intervals.

You'll know you're going hard enough on the intervals if you can only get a word or two out. During recovery, you should get back to speaking in full sentences during your cool-down phase.

Start Monitoring Your Heart Rate

Once you've gotten comfortable with mileage and speed, grab a heart rate monitor like the Wahoo Tickr X. This will give you more insight into how hard you're working.

For those longer endurance rides, you want your heart rate to stay below about 70% of your max, said Overton. During interval sessions, you can push it above 70% of your max heart rate for the work periods. Then make sure it comes back below that mark during rest breaks.

How To Ride Safely

Protect yourself on the roads or trails with this prep list.

  • Always wear your helmet.
  • Tell someone when you're heading out for a long ride, and check the weather before you go.
  • Carry personal identification on you during your rides.
  • Bring water, more water, and a few snacks.
  • Pack a first aid kit, plus a waterproof and windproof layer.
  • Carry a flat-fixing kit, including a spare tube, tire lever, CO2 cartridge or pump, and patches.
  • Always have lights on, even during the day.
  • Wear reflective gear at your feet and legs at night to promote biomotion, which helps drivers distinguish you from the background.
  • Wear clothing that contrasts with your environment. Grays and blacks tend to blend in. Bright colors are more visible.
  • Be aware of the traffic surrounding you and share the road.

Also, always do a bike scan. Check the air pressure in your tires; test the brakes; and ensure the chain and crank (which rotates the chain) aren't rusty or out of place. Finally, pick up your bike and lightly drop it, listening for any rattling or loose-fitting components. It's also smart to have a pro do a safety check once a year.

A Quick Review

If you plan to go biking, you'll always want to wear a helmet and pick a bike that works for the type of ride you plan to do. Especially if you're just starting, you'll want to work up to more challenging and intense rides.

It's also important to ride safely. That includes things like wearing other gear that keeps you safe on the road and having items like first aid and flat-fixing kits on your person.

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Götschi T, Garrard J, Giles-Corti B. Cycling as a part of daily life: a review of health perspectivesTransport Reviews. 2016;36(1):45-71. doi:10.1080/01441647.2015.1057877

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transportation safety - bicycle safety.

Related Articles