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Strength training for Cycling
Cycling is obviously an endurance sport. Numbers like VO2 Max and lactate threshold as a percentage of VO2 max are more predictive of performance than how much you can leg press. That being said, strength training is still an important part of any training plan. Here are a few key reasons why cyclists should “hit the weights.”
- Injury prevention. Depending on your own personal anatomy and set up on your bike, cycling may cause imbalances in your lower extremity muscles. For example, we’ll see people who over develop their medial quadriceps with cycling alone. If the medial quadriceps start pulling more than the lateral quadriceps, this can lead to patellar tracking problems and anterior knee pain. Strength exercises that focus on the lateral quadriceps will help to eliminate the pain. Also, by doing strength exercises with correct form, you strengthen the musculo-tendon junctions where tears and micro trauma can occur. Finally, for women cyclists who are worried about osteoporosis, weight bearing exercises are great at helping bone density (while cycling won’t really help this all that much).
- Core Strength. We’ve all seen pro riders with a broken wrist or a broken collar bone. While painful, it can be done. Give a rider a back/core injury, however, and they can’t provide any power to the pedals when sprinting or climbing. Functional core strength has been more emphasized with all endurance athletes over the past few years with good reason. By strengthening core muscles, you generally are creating better power transfer and increasing efficiency. While you can do traditional exercises to improve your core strength (crunches, abdominal twists), some gyms are now focusing on more on functional strength training. This involves doing exercises that will improve core strength and the entire neuromuscular system. For example, instead of just doing bicep curls on a machine, the bicep curls might be done while balancing on one leg. Also, we highly recommend yoga and Pilates for improving functional core strength.
- Improved performance. Obviously, lifting weights will make you stronger. There is also some evidence in the scientific literature that strength training can improve aerobic performance. Strength training has been shown to improve time to exhaustion and improve peak power output. While many of these studies have been done in “exercise naïve subjects” (read: College couch potatoes), more recent studies have been done on higher end athletes. One recent weight lifting concept in the cross country ski literature is “Max Strength” training. Historically, endurance athletes have had concerns about bulking up like Governor Arn-old by lifting heavy weights. Max Strength training exercises are done at 85-95% of your maximal weight you can lift. With this increased load, only 4-6 reps are done. The theory behind Max Strength training is that you are encouraging neural adaptations that will eventually allow better recruitment of motor units. More recruitment then improves efficiency.
As with other aspects of your training, weight training should take place in cycles. For example, if you considering adding Max Strength training to your regimen, this should only be started if you have a base of strength training over the past 6-9 months. Also, as your base mileage on the bike increases and you get closer to race season, there are ways of doing more cycling specific strength while on the bike. Again, having a good over-all strength base is necessary before trying these kinds of work outs.
What about using trainers at the gyms? If you are familiar with weight lifting and are 100% sure you have good technique, go for it. If you have never lifted weights and/or are having pain with lifting, working with a trainer at a local gym can be a great idea. A certified trainer can ensure that you are doing the exercises the correct way (the only thing worse for tendons and joints than not lifting is lifting the wrong way). Seek out trainers who have worked with endurance athletes and understand your specific needs.
So will strength training help everyone? Perhaps. At a minimum, we highly encourage cyclists to work on their core strength and do some cross training to help maintain muscle balance. In terms of helping performance, your response to strength training may depend on your underlying strength, percentages of slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers and goals for cycling.
Ride long and healthy!
Silver Sage Sports & Fitness