How to use strength training to boost your cycling (video)

Working on strength isn’t just for sprinters and gym junkies - it can benefit endurance cyclists too. Here’s how… | Words: Rafik Tahraoui

The benefits of strength training for power sports are well known, whereas there is widespread misunderstanding regarding its usefulness for endurance sports – including cycling.

Some endurance athletes associate strength training with sprinters and muscular physiques, and wrongly assume the corresponding physiological characteristics are antithetical to endurance sport. In reality, the benefits of strength training starkly defy these assumptions.

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As the word strength implies, this form of training is about getting stronger — which is necessary in all sport to improve performance.

Cycling requires a critical element of strength in order to turn the pedals, even more so when pedalling uphill or at speed; the stronger the cyclist, the easier it is for him or her to turn the pedals at a given speed or force. Gaining strength is a cornerstone of performance.

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Strength training as a means of improving cycling performance has been researched extensively, with many positive outcomes observed.

The related improvements in performance appear to be associated predominantly with increases in lactate threshold and leg strength. Lactate threshold is the exercise intensity beyond which the concentration of lactate in the blood increases exponentially.

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Above lactate threshold, the muscles’ ability to contract is hampered, forcing cyclists to slow down or stop. The higher a cyclist’s lactate threshold, the longer he or she can sustain a high level of effort without fatiguing.

The essentials

  • Strength training benefits endurance performance
  • Eight- to 12-week programme is enough to increase lactate threshold
  • Adaptations to the nervous system boost efficiency
  • Promotes type-I fibre recruitment while cycling for improved economy

Cold shoulder

Increases in lactate threshold of up to 12 per cent have been shown after strength training periods of eight to 12 weeks, consisting of two to three training sessions per week.

The various studies used exercises such as back squat, hack squat machine, leg press and leg extension, typically performing three to four sets of four to 10 repetitions of each.

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Strength training has also been shown to improve cycling economy by promoting adaptations in the nervous system, resulting in more efficient muscle-fibre recruitment patterns.

This increased efficiency stems from the recruitment of fewer type-II (fast-twitch) muscle fibres while cycling, meaning economy is improved.

Key points

Do: Train muscles of the posterior chain

Strength isn’t only about the quadriceps. Although the quads finish the power phase of pedalling (3 to 6 o’clock), the initiation of that phase is performed by the hip extensors (glutes) from 12 to 3 o’clock in the pedal stroke. The posterior chain must be worked on to improve cycling performance.

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Do: Focus predominantly on compound exercise

Compound exercises are more relevant to cyclists as they recruit multiple muscle groups and in doing so allow for greater strength adaptations. The recruitment of muscle groups also increases nervous system activation, improving cycling economy. Include squat and deadlift variations, lunges, step-ups, leg press, hack squat, rowing and pressing variations.

Do: Seek advice before starting a strength training programme

Strength work should be structured, so seek help from a specialist strength and conditioning coach, who will be able to prescribe your resistance training to complement your cycling programme so as to maximise training adaptations.

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Don’t: Only train lower body

Cyclists should implement upper body strength work into training programmes, otherwise postural/back/shoulder problems can result from holding the same riding position for prolonged periods. Incorporating upper body exercises that strengthen postural muscles can prevent such issues.

Don’t: Stop training after the initial eight-12 weeks

Although performance adaptations may be gained within two to three months, in order to further improve, training must be performed throughout the year.

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Don’t: Use isolated exercise machines

Machines that isolate single muscle groups aren’t hugely applicable to cycling, and time spent using these machines could be better spent performing compound exercises that provide greater potential for adaptations.