Q&A: When to swap the gym for road miles?

I’ve been given a 12-week programme with a personal trainer as a birthday present and, about half way through it, I have to say I feel stronger and am enjoying it.

But I was recently read that strength training is only good for sprint disciplines and could compromise my endurance training in the long term. As my events are long distance sportives and mutli-day randonees, this is worrying, so should I stop after the initial 12-week programme when I start to increase my ride distance? What would you advise?

Heather Allen

Heather, strength is an important component of fitness for cycling and while sprinters have long realized the benefits of strength work as a key ingredient in their training, a number of more recent studies have shown that even when it comes to ‘cruising’ speed in longer, endurance events, strength training can deliver remarkable results.

A Norwegian study by researchers at the school of sports science in Oslo recently tried to put some data on this by studying 14 riders on a 4-day per week strength programme.

Exercises were split between core stability and more specific leg-strength exercises such as squats and leg curls.

As you’d expect there was a significant increase in the one-repetition squat weight that the riders were able to perform following the programme, underlining the value of strength training for those wanting to increase peak power.

But what was slightly more surprising was that when asked to pedal at their moderate, sustainable ‘endurance-ride’ pace, measured before the strength programme, the riders showed considerably reduced heart-rates and reduced levels of oxygen intake.

Average power at the previously tested heart rates was up by about 3% which might not sound like a lot but over several hours of riding this would equate to a sizeable performance increase.

So clearly there are benefits in a properly targeted strength programme as far as endurance events are concerned. Regarding your question on what to do following the programme, there’s a principle of conditioning called ‘reversibility’ that dictates that if you stop doing any given training you quickly lose the benefit of it.

It’s a simple case of ‘use it or lose it.’ I’d suggest that when you approach the end of your 12-week programme, you ask your instructor to set out a maintenance programme that you can do to attenuate this reversibility.

Possibly something as simple as a twice weekly, home based routine. Another recent study, this time from the Canadian journal of applied Physiology showed that not only could a reduced strength session completed just twice per week maintain the benefits of the initial programme, neither did it compromise improvements in aerobic endurance being developed concurrently in other parts of the athletes programme.

So a maintanence strength programme needn’t compromise your endurance performance as you build volume towards your summer events.

Huw Williams is a BC Level 3 coach

This article was first published in the December 20 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.