Feature: Strength and Conditioning for Cyclists

trainSharp’s Connor Murphy looks at the numerous advantages of Strength and Conditioning for cyclists

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Feature: Strength and Conditioning for Cyclists
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Connor writes … Are you a cyclist who has never done any Strength and Conditioning (S&C)? If so, why?

Chances are, you either feel it will have no benefit to your cycling performance or, you feel that lifting weights will only increase your body mass and would make your performance worse. These two statements are simply untrue as S&C has numerous advantages for cycling and everyone can benefit from it.

So, what is it and how can you start to reap the rewards of some off the bike training? This article will include all!

Strength and Conditioning can be defined as training that is aimed to increase a muscle groups ability to produce maximal or maintain maximal force. To put it simply, this is effectively lifting heavy weights for a number of repetitions. This doesn’t just include lifting a heavy barbell or dumbbells, this term may also encompass training focused on increasing core strength or training focused on returning from injury.

This topic has been subject to debate by athletes, coaches, and scientists as to its effectiveness on improving endurance performance, as the results of research are mixed. However, most of the research studies are painting a picture that suggests the benefits on endurance performance are positive and that there are certainly no negative effects (as long as you follow a sensible and structured routine). With regard to the discussion around increased body mass due to strength training, this simply won’t happen unless you are consuming a calorie surplus.

Effects on determinants of endurance performance

Historically, S&C has often been focused on primarily improving maximal power output, with a lesser focus placed on endurance performance and associated determinants, but this should not be the case.

With regard to determinants of endurance performance, we are referring to VO2 max, Lactate Threshold and Economy. It is likely that any improvements in endurance performance from concurrent strength and endurance training are going to be closely associated with improvements in cycling Economy, which is described as the oxygen consumption required at a given sub-maximal exercise intensity.

Research has reported improved economy in cycling and also reduced heart rate values in exercise after following a strength training program. However, there is also research that suggests no improvements, though this is likely due to the short intervention period. What is clear though, is that there are no negative effects on cycling economy or any of the other key determinants.

Interestingly, strength training seems to have no effects on VO2 max or Lactate Threshold in cycling. It should also be noted that strength training is also likely to enhance muscle recruitment, in turn aiming to enhance performance. Additionally, as we age, strength is known to decline and unfortunately that’s part of life. However, if we start to strength train, these decreases in strength can be significantly reduced. The ‘use it or lose it’ principle is applied here!

A home strength training session. Making the best of the COVID-19 situation!

Injury prevention & Health

One important point to note here, is that cycling is a sport whereby there is little cross over into other sports, there are a few examples, but not many. Generally speaking, cycling makes you good at cycling and that’s about it. As such, there are some negatives effects of cycling that completing S&C can look to counteract.

The two big negatives associated with high volumes of cycling are muscle imbalances and poor bone density. When we cycle, we use the same muscles repeatedly, but the ones we don’t use, are typically underdeveloped. Additionally, cycling is a sport whereby you’re effectively sitting down, as such there is no external load, which in turn means there is no stimulus for bone density to be increased; often world tour professionals have some of the poorest bone density.

When accompanied, these two factors (muscle imbalances and poor bone density) are a recipe for injury, but there is no need for it to be that way. Strength and Conditioning can counteract muscle imbalances and also increase bone density, thus reducing injury potential.

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Core exercise

A quote that sticks in my mind with regards to core exercise and cycling performance, is ‘you can’t shoot a cannon from a rowing boat’. Now whilst this is clearly anecdotal, it makes complete sense. If you want to put out big power output, the base in which that comes from needs to be stable. Having a stronger core will allow more efficient transfer of power to the pedals which is one key reason for completing core training; though having a strong core will also reduce injury potential and improve posture.

One interesting point to note here, is that there is a difference between ‘core’ and ‘abs’ exercise. There is some crossover between the two, but with regards to core, we are looking to activate the Transverse Abdominis (TVA), not the obliques as such. The TVA is the muscle that acts to stabilise the lower back and core. If you experience lower back pain, it is possible it could be a weak TVA!

An example home core workout.

Guidance for S&C

All the above information is great, but what exactly should you be doing? Really what you’re aiming to do is to recruit as much muscle mass as possible with exercises that replicate cycling closely. For lower body exercises, exercises such as squats, deadlifts and lunges are a good choice.

At the advanced level, completing these exercises in the short rep range (4-6) at 70-90% of your one repetition max is optimal. This is something that should be worked towards though, begin your training with body weight exercises and progress to lifting weights with the correct technique, always seeking guidance where required. Completing these exercise sessions 2-3 times per week seems to be optimal when looking for performance improvements, though once per week is certainly better than nothing!

It is important for these sessions to be planned and periodized correctly. They should always be separate from endurance training sessions and planned so that the legs are fresh for the higher intensity cycling workouts (remember, muscle soreness may peak between 24-72 hours later!). It is also a good idea to do the bulk of this work during the winter training phases and to move towards maintenance in the spring and throughout the race season.

In summary then, you are probably thinking, should I strength train or not? The answer is most definitely yes! Though it may not be possible to increase your performance directly via strength training, chances are it will indirectly; via improved economy, muscle recruitment and bone health, whilst reducing overall injury potential.

If you would like strength training as part of your cycling training program, contact paul@trainsharp.co.uk for more information.

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