Strength training for cycling

We have recently launched a short course entitled, “Cycling Science: the essentials of cycling physiology and coaching”. For further information about the course, please click HERE. In this article we are covering content from the fourth module of this short course, which includes the rationale for including strength training in a cyclist’s training programme, which exercises to perform and some examples of strength training programmes.

Endurance athletes and coaches are typically cautious when it comes to including strength training into their programmes. Their apprehension is largely based on concerns of increased lean body mass or the reduced quality of subsequent on the bike training sessions. Earlier, poorly designed studies on concurrent (endurance and strength) training showed no improvements in endurance performance following the addition of strength training to already high training loads. However, recent research shows that including strength training may be of benefit for endurance athletes. Studies conducted on runners, cyclists and triathletes have all shown positive additive effects of strength training on endurance performance.

 

Success in endurance sport requires athletes to sustain the highest possible speed or power output at the lowest energy cost. In certain situations, athletes will be required to accelerate to break away from the pack or sprint to the line to take the win. In these situations, glycolytic capacity and maximal speed become important determinants of success. In a previous article, we mentioned the four main physiological determinants of endurance performance;

  • VO2max
  • Cycling economy
  • Threshold intensity
  • Muscular power
If you missed that article, it is available here. Let us take a closer look at how strength training will affect these four main physiological determinants.

 

VO2max


A recent review on optimising strength training for running and cycling performance, concluded that, despite resulting in improvements in exercise economy and time trial performance, strength training was not an appropriate method for increasing VO2max in trained endurance athletes. While it is not disputed that high VO2max values are associated with endurance capacity, the highest VO2max value does not always result in the best endurance performance and there can be large differences in performance between athletes with similar VO2max values. Therefore, improvements in endurance performance following strength training, are most likely the result of changes in other variables.

 

Cycling economy


We define cycling economy as the metabolic or energetic cost of maintaining a certain speed or power output. A good exercise economy is crucial for success in endurance sport and there can be large differences between individuals’ economy, despite similar VO2max values. The addition of strength training to an endurance athlete’s training programme, may result in greater improvements in exercise economy when compared to endurance training alone. Cyclists and triathletes are reported to show improvements in economy following maximal strength training. Maximal strength training refers to high load, low velocity movements (1 – 15 RM), where the goal is to increase the maximal force generating capacity of the muscles. Typical exercises in a maximal strength programme would be squats and deadlifts. The current literature supports the use of maximal strength training for improving economy.

 

Threshold intensity


A cyclist’s threshold refers to the highest intensity that can be sustained for a prolonged period of time (40 – 60 minutes). One of the main goals of endurance training is to increase the intensity at threshold, allowing the athlete to sustain a higher power output for a longer period of time. A recent study on young male cyclists showed the addition of strength training resulted in an 8% improvement in 45 minute time trial performance compared to endurance training alone.

 

Peak power output


Peak power output (PPO) is able to differentiate endurance performance between cyclists. VO2max and economy will both influence PPO, but glycolytic capacity and neuromuscular factors will also play a role. Maximal strength training, prescribed in combination with endurance training has been shown to improve PPO.

 

Endurance athletes may also be required to produce a high power output at the start of mass-start events (XCO), to close a gap, break away or sprint to the line. Maximal strength training in cyclists has both been shown to increase the force producing capacity of the muscles.

 

How does strength training improve endurance performance?


One of the proposed mechanisms for improved endurance performance following strength training is increases in the maximum strength of the type I fibres. Type I muscle fibres are more fatigue resistant than type II fibres and increasing the strength of type I fibres may increase their time to fatigue and thus delay the recruitment of the less economical type II fibres. In addition, type II muscles fibres may change their characteristics from type IIX to the more fatigue resistant and powerful type IIA fibres.

 

Endurance athletes can improve their performance by the correct application of strength training. Strength training has been shown to improve a variety of factors associated with endurance performance in novice to well-trained endurance athletes. Strength training sessions should be tailored to the athlete’s needs based on their experience and current strength level. Strength training should be viewed by endurance athletes as an additional tool in their goal to improve performance.






6 Comments

milky4130, Jun 07 2018 06:05

Ok this was good initially but now I'm really beginning to dislike this series of articles :-( , all my "marginal gains" / secrets are being revealed here or did I just do that with this post, LOL!!

SciencetoSport, Jun 07 2018 09:55

Ok this was good initially but now I'm really beginning to dislike this series of articles :-( , all my "marginal gains" / secrets are being revealed here or did I just do that with this post, LOL!!

Are your 'marginal gains' basically well-structured training and commitment to your training programme ;) Your secret is safe with us.

Congratulations on the win this past weekend Champ. 

Capricorn, Jun 08 2018 06:15

another great article, but really just teasing the tip of the training iceberg ;)

What's S2S's view on the classic response that strength training can be done on the bike: big gear work/hill work, so gym work unnecessary?

SciencetoSport, Jun 08 2018 08:19

another great article, but really just teasing the tip of the training iceberg ;)

What's S2S's view on the classic response that strength training can be done on the bike: big gear work/hill work, so gym work unnecessary?

Thank you for the compliment and question Capricorn.

 

You have set next week's article up nicely. Next week's article discusses how to perform and analyse strength or torque intervals, so make sure you don't miss that one.

 

We prescribe these sessions and are big believers in their efficacy for improving performance.

 

However, strength or resistance training in the gym provides a different stimulus, one which cannot be replicated on the bike. In order to increase muscular strength, the muscles must be exposed to high loads and low repetitions. Training on the bike is characterised by low load (yes, even in a big gear) and high repetitions, so is not a potent stimulus for increases in muscular strength.

 

That being said, we would probably recommend a cyclist train consistently by following a periodised, structured training programme before adding off the bike strength work. Once the consistency has been achieved, strength work can be added to provide a different stimulus. 

 

A few points to add:

  • As we age (especially past 35 years) we lose muscle mass. Physical activity, especially strength training, can help slow the loss in muscle mass.
  • Cyclists, especially road cyclists, if they are not exposed to any load-bearing exercise, may have reduced bone mineral density, which can increase the risk of fractures. Strength training could help maintain or even increase bone mineral density.
  • Increasing your muscular strength through strength training allows your muscles to produce more force, which should translate into improved performance on the bike.

In summary, there is strong (ridiculous pun intended) evidence to support the inclusion of strength training in a training programme. 

milky4130, Jun 09 2018 07:49

Are your 'marginal gains' basically well-structured training and commitment to your training programme ;) Your secret is safe with us.
Congratulations on the win this past weekend Champ.

Thanks S2S

Simon123, Jun 10 2018 06:33

This sounds like the fun in cycling is not what it's about. 

 

I'll step this one out....