How electric bikes work and why they don’t work for you (but they can improve your health)

Electric bicycles are becoming more and more fashionable in our cities, generally as an alternative means of transport to cars, motorbikes or public transport: without going any further, bicycles belonging to the BiciMad service in Madrid have a motor that assists cyclists in pedaling.

But let’s go a little further, is it possible to get in shape with an electric bicycle? Will our physical condition improve even with that assistance when it comes to pedaling? We see what the studies say about it and what benefits or harms we can find in electric bicycles when it comes to improving our physical shape.

How does an electric bicycle work?

First of all, let us clarify how an electric bicycle works: this type of bicycle is identical to traditional bicycles, only that they include an electric motor that helps us in certain moments of pedaling.

Does this mean that an electric bike is like a small motorcycle? No, because it also has a pedaling sensor that makes the electric motor activate only when we are already pedaling, that is, it does not replace human traction, but only works as an aid at certain times.

The engine is powered by a rechargeable battery that is usually housed in the transverse tube of the frame of the bicycle, in other cases it is external, being placed where the classic bottle of water would go. They have different capacities (on which the autonomy of our electric bicycle depends), different weights and materials. The most recommended are those made of lithium ion, which have greater durability, less weight and occupy less space than traditional lead batteries.

These bicycles are subject to the same traffic rules as traditional bicycles, which we must comply with both for our own safety and that of other vehicles and pedestrians.

Models, advantages and disadvantages of the electric bicycle

Maybe in our day to day we only see electric bicycles, the most used to make displacements in city, but the certain thing is that already exist electric bicycles of other types, for example, of mountain type mountain-bike, like the one that you can see more above.

These bikes incorporate the assistance motor and the battery that makes it move to facilitate some of the hardest climbs in the mountain, and can be useful in certain journeys of great harshness.

Of course, the advantage of these electric bicycles is the assistance in pedaling, especially if we think of places with great slopes (mountains, some cities like Madrid that are not very favorable to the use of the bike due to its orography): this assistance facilitates enough the possibility of cycling even if we are not habitual cyclists.

The biggest disadvantage is the weight that the battery adds to the bike, and that we must move with the strength of our legs when we do not use the pedal assistance. We are currently working on making longer-lasting batteries and lighter materials that reduce their weight.

Can we train with an electric bicycle?

Most studies related to electric bicycles refer to how they interact with vehicles and pedestrians and their impact on the environment, but we did find a study on their impact on the health of cyclists.

It is a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2016 and accessible on-line. The study focuses on changes in the body of 20 sedentary people who switch to using an electric bicycle to move around the city for four weeks, at least three days a week and for a period of 40 minutes in each use.

The study concludes that these three 40-minute sessions a week, three times a week in sedentary people did improve some metabolic risk factors of the participants, such as increasing their maximum oxygen consumption. In addition, it made these sedentary people more physically active throughout the day.

The electric bicycles, thanks to their assistance in pedaling, could help to prolong the training, being able to stay more time giving pedals with less effort. But we must remember that “more is not better: better is better”, and that current training trends (HIIT, Tabata) are aimed more at more efficient training (better results in less time) than at longer training at the expense of the intensity of the same. This also fits in with our current lifestyle, where we have little time to train but want to see results.

Does it make sense to train on an electric bike? In principle not much, unless our goal is to hold on as long as possible by giving pedals.

We talked to the guys at El Tío del Mazo, one of the most important cycling blogs, to get their opinion about training with an electric bicycle, and these were their comments:

It is convenient to deny a belief, and that is that riding an electric bicycle does not make sport. That is absolutely false, you burn calories and you also sweat. But logically the expense is much lower than in a conventional bicycle.

It also depends, of course, on your use of the assistance. Try pedaling with an uncharged electric bike… Or simply double the number of hours you dedicate to it or the number of kilometres, in the end you will end up exercising.

However, it doesn’t seem to be the most practical thing to plan a training session, since you will have to dedicate more time to it, something that no one has more than enough time today. Only in the case of people who need to control their heart rate seems to be advisable, because always rolling in an area of “cardiovascular safety” risks are avoided, sports are done and burn calories. For any other type of training, the traditional bicycle will always be more practical and effective.