Cycling performance: resistance isn’t futile!

 

Many cyclists spend endless hours on the road to try and squeeze out a little bit of extra performance from their cardiovascular system. However, a large and steadily growing body of evidence suggests that a better approach is to add strength! Andrew Hamilton explains and provides practical advice

Let’s start by discussing what we already know about strength training for cyclists. A correctly balanced training program can improve muscular power and strength to weight ratio without producing significant increases in body weight, even when very heavy weights are used(1). This in turn can lead to improved cycling performance (eg better sprinting ability and more power to overcome headwinds) and also help to prevent injury – the ultimate performance killer!

Despite these obvious benefits, far too many cyclists still believe that strength training will lead to performance-sapping gains in bulk and loss of flexibility. Indeed a very recent study found that 77% of the cyclists studied had recently tried or were currently trying to reduce bodyweight – most commonly by reducing food intake(2). [Interestingly however, the most successful riders in this study – those competing at international level – were much more likely to be strength training as national and club riders!] This fear of weight gain can in turn produce a mindset where maximizing the volume of miles clocked up in training becomes the main goal rather than reaching a PB in a race, time-trial or sportive. The end result can be disastrous because there is a mass of research showing that high volumes of endurance training are actually a major cause of overtraining and injury(3,4).

However, emerging scientific evidence suggests that adding strength training into your cycling program can increase aspects of performance normally associated with endurance training. Specifically, it seems that combining strength and cycling training can increase your ‘cycling economy’ (how efficiently you use oxygen – see panel 1) and consequently significantly your improve endurance performance.


Panel 1: The economic truth

Cycling economy refers to how efficient your cycling muscles are at producing force during sub-maximal exercise (ie not flat out). The better the economy of your muscles, the less oxygen you need to use to propel yourself along at a given speed. Note however that cycling economy is not the same as technical efficiency. For example, you can cycle faster for the same effort by adopting a more aero position on the bike even though your actual muscles aren’t contracting more efficiently. Muscle economy on the other hand is related to the chemical and biomechanical efficiency within contracting muscle fibers.

The good news is that your cycling economy is not fixed. By improving certain aspects of your fitness, muscle economy also rises. So for example, suppose you improve your cycling economy by 3%. This means that for the same level of oxygen consumption, perceived effort and cycling speed, you now require 3% less oxygen, which also means less fatigue, particularly over longer events – akin to switching from standard to fancy aero carbon wheels, but far cheaper!


In the beginning

The story began back in 2005 when scientists in New Zealand studied the effects of explosive training and very high intensity cycling sprints on endurance and sprint performance(5). In the study, 18 road cyclists were assigned to an experimental or control group for five weeks of training. The experimental group replaced part of their usual cycling training with twelve 30-minute sessions consisting of three sets of explosive single-leg jumps, alternating with three sets of high-resistance cycling sprints; the control group meanwhile simply maintained their normal cycling training. The results showed that compared to the control group, the riders in the strength/sprinting group showed dramatic increases in power and endurance capacity (see table 1).


Table 1: Performance changes produced by 5 weeks of strength/sprint training(4)

1km power

Increased by 8.7%

4km power

Increased by 8.1%

Peak power

Increased by 6.8%

Power at lactate threshold

Increased by 3.7%

Cycling economy

Increased by 3.0% (ie oxygen cost at given workload was 3.0% less)

The results in table 1 speak for themselves, but what particularly surprised the researchers was that the strength/sprint training improved cycling economy – an aspect of performance that most scientists had previously thought would only respond to endurance training. To confuse things however, a study on 23 club cyclists two years later found no cycling performance benefits when strength training was incorporated into a cycling program(6). Importantly though, in this study, those who performed resistance training did so in addition to their usual cycling training rather than by reducing cycling training a little in order not to become overtrained (we’ll return to this aspect later).

Sometime later, further evidence emerged suggesting that strength training can boost cycling endurance by enhancing cycling economy. Norwegian researchers took sixteen competitive road cyclists and randomly assigned them into two groups(7):

  • An intervention group who performed half-squats, four sets of 4 repetitions maximum, 3 times per week for eight weeks, as a supplement to their normal endurance training.
  • A control group who continued their normal endurance training during the same period with no strength training.

As expected, the strength training group showed significant improvements in muscular strength; What was surprising however was that strength training decreased the oxygen cost of cycling at 70% VO2max (maximum oxygen uptake) by 4.8% (indicating improved aerobic efficiency). It also increased the time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power by 17.2% despite there being no changes in VO2max or body weight of the strength-trained riders. And while the control group exhibited an improvement in work efficiency of 1.4%, this improvement was much smaller than that in the strength group.

Norwegian connection

Another Norwegian study published the following year later added further weight to the validity of this theory. In the study, scientists investigated the effects of heavy strength training (consisting of three sets of 4-10 reps to failure of four lower body exercises performed twice a week for twelve weeks) on cycling performance(8).

In particular, they looked at the effects on the average power output in a 5-minute all-out time trial following 185 minutes of sub-maximal cycling at 44% of maximal aerobic power output in well-trained cyclists. The demands of this kind of test are similar to those encountered in some road race situations, where riders sit in the peleton for the majority of the race but try and drop the pack and break for the finish line with an all-out effort.

Compared to a cycling-only group, the cyclists who added strength training experienced greater reductions in oxygen consumption, heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and rate of perceived exertion during the last hour of the prolonged cycling phase. Moreover, the strength-training group also recorded a very significant increase in mean power output during the 5-minute all-out trial (up from 371 watts to 400 watts), while no change was observed in the endurance-only group.

The most recent research

As the years have ticked by, a number of other studies have been published demonstrating the performance and health benefits of strength training for cyclists. These include the following:

  • *Research showing that the maximum and average anaerobic power in cyclists is strongly correlated to the mean thickness of the rectus femoris and vastus lateralis muscles in the thigh, the rectus abdominis muscle in the abdominal region, and the erector spinae in the lower back – important as strength training is a guaranteed way to build increased muscle thickness(9).
  • *Research showing that resistance training is associated with higher lumbar spine and hip bone mineral density in competitive male cyclists (an important finding as we know that high-volume cycling-only training leads to reduced bone mineral density – a BAD thing for any athlete – read more about this topic here)(10).
  • *Research showing that strength training (along with sprint exercises) can increase lean lower-limb muscle mass and sprint performance in endurance-trained masters road cyclists(11,12).
  • *Research showing that 20 weeks of strength training can significantly improve bike-specific explosive strength and absolute power at maximal oxygen uptake in competitive road cyclists(13).
  • *Research showing that just ten weeks of heavy strength training improves maximum sustainable power output at lactate threshold in elite cyclists(14).
  • *Research showing that strength-trained competitive female cyclists tended to have greater lower-body lean mass, and higher maximum mean power outputs per kilo of bodyweight over time periods from 1 second to 10 minutes(15).
  • *Research showing that heavy strength training leads to improved cycling performance in elite cyclists with increases in power output at lactate threshold, peak power output during a 30-second Wingate test, and maximum sustainable power output during a 40-minute all-out time trial(16).

In short, if maximum cycling performance is your goal, strength training should be considered essential – not optional!

How to add strength training into a cycling routine

The key finding from studies seems to suggest that for maximum benefit, strength training should not be added in a way that pushes you into an exhausted or overtrained state. In other words, if your cycling routine is pushing you to the limit already, you need to replace or shorten a couple of your riding sessions before adding strength sessions to ensure that your overall workload isn’t increased.

The evidence for this comes from a meta-study (a study that pools data from a number of other studies in the same subject area) carried out by US researchers at the University of Connecticut(17). It looked at scientific studies where the subjects were highly trained road cyclists (training more than 7 hours or 150kms per week) and who had been training consistently for at least 6 months. It found that in the 2 of the 5 studies where strength training didn’t produce a significant performance improvement, the strength training was added on top of the cyclists’ existing riding training. In the 3 studies where strength training did improve cycling performance, strength training replaced a portion of the cyclists’ existing riding training. The authors concluded that ‘while cyclists may be hesitant to incorporate strength training with their endurance training, it is likely that replacing a portion of a cyclist’s endurance work with strength training will result in improved time trial performance and maximal power’.


Why all-year round strength training could be best

Conventional wisdom says winter is the perfect time for strength training because it doesn’t interfere with in-season training or competition. However more Norwegian research indicates that all year-round strength training could be a better option for cyclists seeking maximum performance(18). In the study, twelve well-trained cyclists were split into one of two groups:

  • Strength and endurance – this group performed cycling endurance training supplemented with heavy strength training twice a week during a 12-week preparatory period followed by strength maintenance training once a week during the first 13 weeks of a competition period in their cycling season;
  • Endurance only – this group performed cycling endurance training only for the whole of the 25-week period.

Compared to the endurance-only group, at 13 weeks into the competition period, the endurance plus strength training group not only preserved their strength gains but also significantly increased their maximal power, sustainable aerobic power and their average power output in the 40-minute time-trial. The message seems to be that if you train in the gym to build strength over the winter, you could do worse than to put aside a little time the following season to maintain your hard-earned gains!


Applying the knowledge

In terms of how to execute a strength-training plan, replacing some of your current road mileage with strength work is probably a better strategy for those who are clocking up big mileage; in simple terms, any gains in cycling economy and power produced by additional strength training are likely to be more than wiped out if that additional training load tips you into exhaustion or a chronically overtrained state. If on the other hand, your current cycling training load is fairly modest, you can probably afford to simply add some strength training and still be sure of reaping the benefits.

In terms of the kind of strength program, the general principles that should be used to put together any strength program are outlined below. If you’re an experienced strength trainer, you may already have a good knowledge of how to combine a variety of exercises to achieve the desired effect. For others however, it’s probably worth seeking some professional advice from a qualified and experienced strength and conditioning coach (preferably someone with a strong interest in cycling) or a cycling coach. He or she can get you started on the right kind of program that will produce the results you want safely and efficiently. You can also read more about how to structure a strength program for endurance performance in this article.


The key principles of strength training for cyclists

  • *Strength train once or (at most) twice a week – no more.
  • *Keep strength sessions short but fairly intense (quality rules over quantity). Don’t waste energy by performing endless sets of exercises – save as much energy as you can for the bike!
  • *Choose four to five lower-body strength exercises that involve cycling muscles (eg squats, leg press, lunges, glute machine, calf raises, leg curls etc).
  • *Add balance to your workout by incorporating some core muscle work ( eg multifidus of lower back and transversus abdominis of tummy) and one exercise for each for upper back, shoulders and chest and biceps/triceps of arms.
  • *Sets should consist of fairly high intensity, low volume (4-8 reps) reps with the resistance/weight adjusted to induce high levels of fatigue – but not failure – at the end of the set. Perform no more than 2-3 sets per muscle group with a rest of 2-3 minutes between each set.
  • *Maintain good form at all times.
  • *If you’re new or returning to strength training, build into any program gently to avoid post exercise muscle soreness;
  • *Eliminate strength training during the week immediately preceding an important race or sportive as part of your taper.
  • *If in doubt, consult a qualified strength and conditioning coach before commencing a strength program.

References

  1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Mar;108(5):965-75
  2. Phys Sportsmed. 2019 Nov;47(4):421-426
  3. Int J Sprts Med; 1996 17(3): 187-192
  4. Med Sci Sports Ex; 1999 31(8): 1176-1182
  5. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Nov;19(4):826-30
  6. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):289-95
  7. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Aug;24(8):2157-65
  8. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011 Apr;21(2):250-9
  9. Clin Anat. 2018 Sep;31(6):899-906
  10. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Jan;32(1):274-279
  11. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jan;33(1):66-79
  12. J Exerc Rehabil. 2016 Oct 31;12(5):442-450
  13. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2017 Apr;12(4):470-480
  14. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jul;35(14):1435-1441
  15. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2016 Apr;11(3):283-9
  16. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Feb;25(1):e89-98
  17. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Feb;24(2):560-6.
  18. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Dec;110(6):1269-82

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