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Strength training for cyclists - Not to be overlooked

As I alluded to in a previous post, I am a big proponent of lifting weights and specifically strength training. In an ideal world I would like to make it a regular year-round activity however I do find it a difficult balance come the summer, trying to combine lifting whist racing. More often than not the gym sessions end up slipping away.

This time of year, I don’t have those excuses and I like to make sure I get a good couple of sessions in each week, where I focus on building strength skills. Primarily targeting all of the major leg muscles as well as the posterior chain and a small amount of upper body, although no bicep curling.

I did touch on some of the benefits previously, mainly that it helps with aspects like bone density and delaying the rate of muscle loss in the aging athlete. There are a whole host of other benefits which might not be as commonly known.

The first one to mention is that it can help boost testosterone and increase growth hormone IGF-1. Endurance training alone will also have some benefit in this regard, although as you will see below there is a point when it can actually become detrimental. There is some evidence that too much endurance training can actually have an undesirable impact on the endocrine system where exposure to chronic endurance training can actually lower testosterone. (See link

Consequently, In the female athlete this is known as the Female Athlete Triad and is a whole other topic in its own right and probably worthy of a separate post.

Obviously for the ageing athlete and particularly for males where testosterone is already starting to decline this isn’t something we want. In fact, we want to do everything that has the opposite effect, this is where lifting can help.

Cycling is typically one dimensional and doesn’t incorporate the whole body other than the major leg muscles. It’s also very light in terms of actual resistance and the force required to turn the pedals is minimal compared to lifting weights, this cannot be replicated on the bike no matter how steep the hill or big the gear.

The other issue is that cycling is largely concentric, and the muscles never have to work eccentrically. Eccentric movements, for example when lowering yourself into a squat your quads are working eccentrically to control the movement. It’s those eccentric movements that are actually the main cause of DOMS (muscle soreness) and can be a more potent stimulus than contracting movements. If you’ve not done strength training for a while it’s best to go light initially and focus on the correct technique to promote the right movements in the first instance.

If I’ve been out of the gym for any length of time I really struggle and for the first few sessions my quads sometimes go into a spasm, presumably as a protection mechanism and the fact they are not used to working eccentrically.

This is why it’s best to start this sort of training when not racing or before you get back to any serious bike training as it will take several weeks to adapt.

Shocking the system like this will ultimately lead to benefits and once you have got over this initial period, you’ll find that the muscle soreness and stiffness subsides, allowing you to manage both the demands of training on the bike and also the strength work.

Apart from making you a more robust and durable athlete the other potential benefits you’ll typically see are.

Increase in absolute power, generally at all durations but especially at the anerobic end, who doesn’t want more power!!!!

Greater economy, which is the ability to generate power as a proportion of your maximal aerobic capacity. For example, if you can currently generate 250 watts at 75% of Vo2 Max and after strength training your still putting out the same power but now at 70% of Vo2 Max you are more economical.

Similarly, an Increase in lactate threshold, due the increase in strength reserve of muscle fibers. Overall muscles get stronger and therefore the strength required to generate a certain force is proportionally less so the level at which lactate production occurs increases.

Increase in fatigue resistance, the muscles basically take longer to become tired. So not only can power increase but you can do more work for longer.

Speaking from personal experience I definitely feel more punchiness to my riding once I’ve got a good block of strength training under my belt, I also feel more robust, and there is a delay in my fatigue.

The other thing that often doesn’t get mentioned is that you recover more quickly, I guess this aligns with the fatigue resistance in that because the muscle is stronger it takes much more to tear them down and the rebuild time is much shorter.

So, what does a typical strength session look like. Well, it doesn’t have to be hours long and also the number of sets can be as little as one. As ever it depends on how much you’ve done in the past.

For me two 1-hour sessions a week seem to be a good balance, if I was in my late 20’s or early 30’s you could probably stretch this to 3 sessions at this time of year. For me It takes a good couple of days to recover.

In terms of exercises, I focus on functional movements like the squat, deadlift and lunge. I also quite like the leg press, performed single leg where I look to improve my weaker side. I do like single leg exercises as it helps address imbalances and also if you don’t have access to a gym, you can still get some benefit as you are able to apply sufficient load to the muscles.

Two of my favorites are the pistol squat and the single leg deadlift, both require a strong core and flexibility. As you are working only one leg at a time you don’t need tons of weight - see my attempt at both in the attached video’s.

The single leg deadlift, like a standard barbell deadlift is probably the most basic but fundamental strength skill. Every day we are picking stuff up and this brings together various major muscle groups to work in a functional way. This requires a strong core and also balance. Unlike a squat the strength primarily comes from the loading the hamstring with secondary focus being glutes and also your internal and external obliques and lower back muscles. The movement is known as hip hinge, essentially your torso and trailing leg (the one in the air) are moving in one single plane with hip as the hinge point.

The pistol squat (single leg squat) requires a lot of flexibility, especially around the ankle. It works all the major leg muscles and even without any additional weight but your own it is quite difficult to do multiple reps.

Before attempting this make sure you can get all the way down so your backside almost touches the back of your heels, if you can’t do this with both legs you won’t be able to do this exercise, so work on flexibility first as part of the progression.

Strength training doesn’t need to be overly complicated either, any cyclists primary goal is aerobic endurance so adding resistance training is purely to complement and enhance our overall performance on the bike. What is important is that it is actually strength work that is being performed which calls for heavy weight and minimal reps. Another consideration is timing of the sessions. It’s widely acknowledged that we are at our strongest in the late afternoon or early evening and if you are doing on the bike training you want to allow time between sessions to limit interference.

If you haven’t thought about doing strength work then it’s not too late to start introducing this into your schedule, but remember go lighter initially and get the proper form and technique dialed in early.



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