It’s biking season here in the Alps and with the Tour De France spending four days in our locality we’re getting ready to sample those epic stages and put down our times on Strava before the pros get there!
There are many ways to improve your cycling performance, some more widely appreciated than others. The much debated prohibited options that include the use of hidden motors, drugs and blood transfusions continue to grab all the attention. In the meantime under the radar, the elite level riders spend a significant part of their off seasons doing off-the-bike strength and conditioning training, reaping the rewards while most lower level riders continue to bash away at their bike based interval sessions completely unaware of this avenue for improvement. Strength and conditioning offers much more than a marginal gain and the good news is that there is nothing dubious about doing it. At the professional / Olympic level of the sport it has been tried and tested for many years and it works. It just takes a well thought out programme and forcing yourself to trust that training off the bike will be time well spent. So here is the sales pitch.
What is strength and conditioning for cyclists
At the highest levels of the sport, strength & conditioning is an integral part of the training programme defined by the cyclist’s performance team which may includes: coach, physiologist, nutritionist, physiotherpist, psychologist, performance analysis, athletic trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, medical doctor etc. The focus of strength & conditioning is based around gym work for strength, prehabilitation, mobility, recovery and conditioning in terms of creating metabolic adaptations that all work together to improve performance.
How does strength and conditioning make the bike go faster
Every cyclist who is looking to improve will be aware of a simple measure that lies at the heart of cycling performance, WATTS PER KG. Basically, the more Watts you can produce on the bike per kilogram of your combined mass the faster you will go. The equation for power which measured in watts is as follows:
Power = force x distance / time
So if we can increase the force developed and/or reduce the time taken to move that force (i.e. to rotate the cranks) we will see our power (Watts) go up.
Let’s start with mass – you have two options: skinny up to reduce body mass or sell your car to buy the next titanium component that will save you 10g on the bike.
Now let’s talk about force or strength, any increase in strength with directly increase the Watts produced and this has been proven to work in the scientific literature over and over again with 12-16 weeks of focussed strength training. One major concern of cyclists has been a misplaced belief that strength training automatically means that you gain weight therefore cancelling out the advantage of being stronger as you simply have to move more mass – this is not necessarily the case. With a correctly structured programme with appropriate weight, sets and reps you will improve the quality of contraction by actually using more of your available muscle fibres. Long rides are then done with greater economy and you increase efficiency of your system. In order to raise thresholds during training or to bridge a gap or to chase down a breakaway you will benefit from a high peak force. By doing appropriate strength work you can actually tap into more of the available muscle fibres to give you more strength and power when you need it. Appropriate training can result in an increase of activation from 70% to 85% of muscle fibres.
Strength improves endurance as your thresholds change with more strength. Muscles become better adapted to convert lactic acid into lactate which is then used in more efficient energy production. Often overlooked in training programs, strength training has been proven empirically to improve the performance of endurance athletes.
Strength training will allow you to get more out of your winter interval sessions, firstly by allowing you to push harder in your intervals creating a greater oxygen demand, greater muscle stimulation and more positive adaptations making you faster. Also it will give you an element of injury protection. When doing high intensity work which takes you to close to your strength limits your recovery times are increased and you are more prone to injury. Following a correct programme of strength conditioning will actually change the structure of muscle and the supporting fascia as well as helping tendons become more robust, reducing recovery times and preventing injury.
What will it take
You will need to commit to between two and three sessions per week, typically a mixed session of mobility and strength can be completed in 45 minutes. As I’ve mentioned a few times it is essential to have a correctly structured programme. It should be phased with a progressive increase in the training demands involved. It should start by working on your technique, form and mobility, opening up poor posture and developing good joint alignment before specialising in the cycling specific patterns of movement such as the well known squats and lunges. The strength training programme should be programmed to fit into and support your overall training programme, allowing adequate rest between sessions and targeting appropriate metabolic development. With poor weather limiting the number hours on the road in winter and with turbo training unlikely to take up many hours, this strength and conditioning work can become a focus in the off season. Once the weather improves and the racing season resumes the strength and conditioning work can switch to a much shorter and less demanding maintenance programme where strength and mobility gains are maintained rather than developed.
Strength and conditioning training is widely practiced by elite level cyclists but it is something we can all benefit from. Done correctly it will improve your performance on the bike making you more powerful while also improving your endurance. The injury prevention, prehabilitation benefits can also make your training more consistent. So don’t get left behind next year and crack on with some quality strength & conditioning this winter. You will see the results in the spring!
If this has you intrigued and you would like to try out a strength and conditioning programme check out our BikeFit programme. The BikeFit exercise programme has been developed specifically for the dedicated cyclist to build specific strength and endurance for improving cycling performance while at the same time reducing the risk of common cycling related injuries by addressing the physical issues that are caused by spending many hours in the saddle.
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