I've heard this question many times by women that are on the fence about cycling or that are just starting..."will my legs become big?"
Sorry to break it to you... the answer is yes and no.
Partly it has to do with your body type and partly it's a matter of how you ride and the cadence you keep.
(Glossary: cadence or RPM measures how many full revolutions per minute your feet do).
On body type there isn't much we can do about, some of us have longer limbs while others have a more compact muscle structure, this is why each rider has her body-specificity, i.e., a sprinter will rarely be asparagus-figure like and a climber beefy (we'll go over this later).
However, cadence, which means how fast your feet spin, can be trained and can lay amazing results on how your legs get shaped.
Being able to master gearing is key to finding the perfect cadence, avoiding muscle fatigue and excessive load on your legs.
Useful note: mounting a cadence meter on your bike is a must.
Together with a heart rate monitor, this is another piece of equipment that we would adamantly suggest you invest on (look into Garmin or Polar offerings).
As a rule of thumb, optimal cadence is around 90-95 rpm (rounds per minute) on flats and rolling hills, so the trick is to adjust gearing so that the legs spin pretty consistently within this range.
Easier said than done... at first, it'll feel like you're just insanely & aimlessly spinning your legs, but with time it'll become second nature.
And ladies (drum roll) ... this is called AGILITY and is the sacred grail to shaping your legs without building muscle. If anything you'll build lean muscle fibers.
Play around with shifting up and down your cassette to get a feel of which cog is the "perfect" gear for you.
The longer you train at 90+rpm's, the better you'll become, and with time it'll be possible to use harder gears while keeping the same cadence.
Plus, you'll also pick up some great speed and that grin on your face for reading your km/h going up.
The under the "hood" explanation of how the process works is as follows:
Agility helps develop slow-twitch muscle fibers which are less likely to increase your legs' volume.
It's the same rationale behind going to the gym and working out doing faster/lighter reps vs. slower/heavier ones.
While the former develop lean muscles, the latter build mass.
Being agile on your pedals also means that you're able to ride longer without excessively getting tired and allow your aerobic capacity to improve over time.
Having that said, road cycling is not only about pedaling lightly because we also need to train strength for picking up speed, ride in a group or climbing.
This segues nicely into the issue of physiology because depending on your physical build you may have a natural predisposition to agility or strength, or both.
In Pro Cycling riders are clustered in roughly 3 groups:
- sprinter (Endomorph type)- pure strength to sustain bursts of power (Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel)
- puncheur / rouleur (Mesomorph type) - strength and enough agility to breeze through flats & rolling hills equally (Fabian Cancellara)
- all rounder (Ectomorph type) - pure agility and strength to support multi-stage races & massive climbing (Vincenzo Nibali / Chris Froome).
If you are tall, medium skinny limbs like me (in between Ectomorph and Mesomorph), you'll have to work with agility to compensate for the lack of strength in your legs. I'm definitely a better climber than a rouleur, I absolutely suffer through frequent changes of pace and rolling hills. Conversely, if you are more of an Endomorph build you'll have a natural predisposition to push harder gears, have a more powerful pedal stroke, perfect as a sprinter or rouleur.
TONED VS. BIG
It's inevitable that with cycling your legs will get toned which is very different from being big, as with any sport our bodies get shaped and sculpted, for some women more than others but this depends also on each one's eating regimes, which we'll cover in another post...
That said, the bottom line is that if you're able to balance between agility and strength training you'll burn fat, tone down and never have to worry about sizing up your jeans anymore!
Try it and report back! :-)