When training for a specific sport, we tend to focus solely on improving the muscles and techniques needed for that particular sport, often neglecting areas outside of these focus points — otherwise referred to as the ‘assisting muscles’. Want to run faster? You go for more training runs. Want to be a better cyclist? You cycle more. However, training for a sport isn’t that clear cut. All cyclists can benefit from strength training, to increase their power output; think hill training, sprinting exercises, and endurance.
There are so many benefits of strength training: increasing bone density, improving speed, power, and agility, developing better balance, lowering your risk of injury, strengthening connective tissue to tendons, and preserving and enhancing metabolic rate, to name just a few.
So what does this mean for cyclists? Strength training develops fast twitch muscle fibres, which contract quickly, and provide power and speed — ideal for cycle sprints. Fast twitch fibres can shorten twice as quickly as slow twitch fibres, whilst generating the same tensions. Cyclists with a high percentage of fast twitch fibres in their legs and glutes will therefore be able to generate more power, at a higher speed.
Whilst the amount of fast twitch and slow twitch fibres is determined, to a degree, by genetics, strength training will target the development of fast twitch fibres. The primary focus when it comes to strength exercises for cyclists, is to select movements that mimic cycling motions in the lower and upper body, while increasing overall core strength, and muscular endurance. The main goal with strength training is to create a stronger support system for your primary working muscles.
With proper strength training, each time you press on the pedal, your primary group of muscles (those that take on the majority of the load) will be complemented with stronger assisting muscles to help produce power. Since you are only as strong as your weakest link, the stronger the system as a whole, the more potential there is for cycling-specific gains.
A cyclist’s off-season training should include heavy, low rep movements, to help build strength. It is during this period that cyclists should consider using training exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. These exercises focus on compound movements (using more than one muscle group), working on slow and controlled movements. By concentrating on building overall strength during the off-season, cyclists need not worry about DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) affecting a race the next day.
During the cycling season, when cyclists will be racing regularly, they should look to use power movements as a priority. Exercises, such as the ‘clean and jerk’ weightlifting technique, as well as the ‘snatch lift’ movement, may be of use here. In these more technical weightlifting exercises, care should be taken to prevent possible injury through incorrect technique. Always seek advice when trying out a new exercise style.
Training the upper and lower body is necessary, as is strengthening the core musculature. Spending time on the bike, especially with increased effort in sprints and intervals, can help to maintain lower body strength. In addition, plyometrics and explosive lifts assist in improving muscular power.
Using strength training to increase endurance
Strength endurance is the ability to produce force over a longer period of time. The more strength you can generate, and the longer you can do it for, the faster you will ultimately travel over a distance.
Muscular endurance and strength often go hand in hand. Whilst strength training will help to increase a cyclist’s ability to work with heavy loads, for a low number of repetitions, muscular endurance refers to the muscles’ ability to exert a submaximal force repeatedly over time. During a race, for example, an aerobically strong cyclist will experience less fatigue later in the race, and has more potential for increasing power for a sprint finish.
Aerobically trained muscles clear lactic acid more efficiently, which reduces overall body fatigue. A weaker core, and an upper body that tires quickly, will result in poor form, and cause a cyclist to slow, no matter how strong and aerobically trained their legs.
Muscle endurance training is the most important part of strength training for all cyclists, and performing exercises to improve this are beneficial both in season, as well as out of season. This focuses on aerobic metabolism, so for a cyclist that needs to pedal at 90-100 revolutions per minute, over many hours in competition, muscle endurance training should concentrate on high reps per set, with shorter recovery times between those sets.
Race season is also a great time to make use of body weight exercises, such as pull ups, dips, press-ups, and abdominal exercises. A strong core reduces the load on the lower body, while maintaining good upper body strength.
Fuel your endurance
Combining strength training with a regular diet, containing whole foods, can assist in building muscle, supplying energy, and decreasing inflammation, as well as boosting recovery. Cyclists should ensure they’re consuming a mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats, with sufficient amounts of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, to encourage their bodies to be at a constant peak of health.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s unnecessary to rely on refined carbohydrates and sugars to ‘spike’ insulin, and theoretically restore muscle and liver glycogen as rapidly as possible after training. A blend of minimally processed whole food carbohydrates, along with some fruit (to better restore or maintain liver glycogen), is actually a better choice. As it is tolerated better by the body, it restores glycogen equally over a 24-hour period of time, resulting in a better next-day performance when it’s time to get back on the bike.
By strengthening the body, mixing long-distance and duration cycling with sprint training, and providing the body with the right nutrients for recovery, you can also improve your overall body composition. In addition to these benefits you may also see improvements in your aerobic capacity, experience decreased bad cholesterol, improved glucose and insulin resistance: standing you in better stead for your next cycling competition.