How to Get Fitter with an E-bike

We are proud to offer an article by the highly regarded Coach John Hughes, who has written extensively about bicycle training including nutrition, conditioning, slowing the aging process and otherwise keeping fit. Among his personal accomplishments in endurance racing, John set the course records for the Furnace Creek 508 in 1989 and Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1992. He has been a USA Cycling certified coach since ’96, and has lectured on endurance at numerous events. John has coached CRW members and has earned high praise for increasing their fitness in preparing for ultra-endurance cycling events and facilitating recovery after major surgery.

How to Get Fitter with an E-bike

By Coach John Hughes


In my stable of bikes I have a custom steel Alex Singer touring bike from the 70s. I’d put on the front and rear panniers, load up my camping gear and spend vacations climbing in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.  I loved the freedom of those trips and exploring new roads. Riding the loaded bike over the 8,000 ft. passes built great endurance and power.  I rode the Singer in my first two Paris-Brest-Paris.

I have an aluminum Trek mountain bike and I love playing on single track, which includes going flat out to go up very short climbs — a great VO2 max workout.

I have a titanium Merlin, my ultra racing bike.  I rode it on fast centuries, doubles and brevets to build long-distance speed.  I rode it to set a course record on Boston-Montreal-Boston. I rode it in the Race Across America.

I have another steel touring bike set up for credit card touring, a great way for a 70-year-old to get away for a weekend or a week.

An e-bike in my future

I live in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the USPS doesn’t deliver to homes here; instead we all get free post office boxes.  It’s about eight miles from home to the post office.  Not a bad ride, except I start with a two-mile fairly steep gravel descent … which I then have to climb to get home. So I drive to the post office.  When I get an e-bike I’ll ride to the post office every few days, which will increase the number of days a week I ride.

If I ride at the same level of effort (or heart rate or power) on my touring bike, my mountain bike, my ultra bike or an e-bike the workout is the same even though the terrain and my pace are different.

An e-bike is an adaptive tool

And also fun!

With an e-bike you dial in the amount of assist you want at any point in the ride and you don’t have to use the motor at all.

Changing from a double chain ring to a triple is a way of adapting as you age. So is putting on a large cassette and long-arm derailleur. And changing the stem because you aren’t as flexible.

An e-bike is similar. You’re changing one part of your equipment to adapt. It’s like putting on lower gears. When I get an e-bike I’ll ride it to town and back the first six miles with no motor assist and then dial in the assist to climb the last two miles to home. If I’m doing a recovery ride that day I’ll use a lot of assist.  If I’m doing a hard ride I’ll add just enough power so that I can climb without toppling over.

Research on e-bikes

Researchers studied 101 healthy adult men and women in Hamburg, Germany, who agreed to alternate riding either a standard bicycle or an e-bike over two separate two-week periods. The results were published in July in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The New York Times reported:

“The volunteers chose his or her preferred e-bike model, with most picking road bikes having top assisted speeds of about 20 miles per hour. The researchers also provided their volunteers with activity monitors, heart rate monitors and a specialized phone app where the riders could record their trips, distance and how physically draining each ride had felt.

“The scientists did not offer their volunteers any suggestions, however, about where, when or how often to ride, says Hedwig Stenner, a research associate at the Institute of Sports Medicine at Hannover Medical School, who led the new study. The researchers wanted to see how people, on their own initiative, would use the different bikes and whether their riding would change with the e-bikes.

“Electric assistance did change their habits, the researchers found. In general, the men and women rode more often during the two weeks with e-bikes, averaging about five rides a week then, versus three a week with the standard cycles. Interestingly, the distances of most people’s rides did not budge, whichever type of bike they rode; their rides were not lengthier on the e-bikes, but they were more frequent.

“Their heart rates also differed. In general, people’s heart rates were about 8 percent lower when they pedaled e-bikes, but still consistently hovered within the range considered moderate exercise. As a result, during the two weeks when the volunteers rode e-bikes, they accumulated sufficient minutes of moderate physical activity to meet the standard exercise recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate activity. When they rode the standard bikes, they did not. [The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.]

“Most also reported liking the pedal assist, Ms. Stenner says. More than two-thirds of the participants told the researchers they enjoyed the e-bikes and could imagine using them ‘for many years’ according to a final study questionnaire.”

Elements of fitness

You can improve your fitness four different ways:

  1. Longer rides
  2. More frequent rides
  3. More weekly volume
  4. More intensity

The participants in the Hamburg study rode at a heart rate about 8% lower on their e-bikes than on their standard road bikes. However, as long as they rode at an aerobic conversational pace they were getting the same workout on each type of bike even though their heart rates were lower on the e-bikes.

With an e-bike you can do longer rides, get more aerobic exercise and increase your endurance more than on a conventional bike. You can also ride more frequently, e.g., running errands, which will increase your total volume and also help the environment. You could do intensity rides adding the motor assist only when you’re recovering from hard efforts.

E-bikes and aging

One of the most significant findings in the Hamburg study is that the riders “could imagine using them ‘for many years’.” As we age consistency is the most important factor. As we age we may ride less because it’s harder. An e-bike removes that obstacle to maintaining fitness.

Rather than thinking that an e-bike is cheating, think of it as another bike in your stable to help you to enjoy rides on your bike and maintain your fitness.

Here’s another column I wrote on Anti-Aging: E-bikes, Fun and Fitness.

Here’s a column I wrote on How to do Endurance Training Correctly.

In addition to aerobic exercise the American College of Sports Medicine recommends four other types of exercise for lifelong health and fitness.  ACSM recommendations.


Coach Hughes has written over 40 eBooks for RoadBikeRider.