Coach Hughes: Cycling Strength Training pt. 1
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Training

Strength Training for Century, Brevet and Endurance Cyclists, Part 1

“To achieve full potential as a century, brevet or other endurance cyclist and to be successful in challenging events, a cyclist should incorporate a strength training program.”

by Dan Kehlenbach & John Hughes
© 2003 John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

John Hughes and Dan Kehlenbach are the authors of Distance Cycling: Your Complete Guide to Endurance Cycling Kehlenbach has been a contributing editor to UltraCycling and is certified as a strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and as an expert level coach with USA Cycling and has a master’s degree in sports medicine. Hughes is also the author of many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. He is the the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach. Both have been coaching for over 15 years.

Part 1  |  Part 2  ]

Strength training is a valuable tool that can contribute to the development of century, brevet and other endurance cylists of all levels and abilities. Traditionally, cyclists and coaches were somewhat reluctant to include strength training as part of the endurance cyclist’s overall training program concerned about developing extra bulk that would reduce cardiovascular performance. Current research has shown that strength training has no adverse effect on aerobic capacity and can enhance muscular strength and power. In addition, other benefits to the endurance cyclist include: maintaining proper muscular strength ratios, increasing bone mineral density, enhancing connective tissue, preventing of overuse injuries, improving lactate threshold and improving exercise economy.

Cycling, swimming, running, or any other endurance activity subjects athletes to continuous, repetitive movements that can sometimes last for many hours. This can result in a strength deficit in selected muscle groups that may compromise optimal performance and efficiency, and may also lead to injuries. With cyclists the pedaling motion can overdevelop the powerful hip and knee extensors resulting in an imbalance between the muscles of the hip and thigh. Strength training can address this by including specific exercises for the hamstring muscle group to maintain proper strength ratios and promote optimal joint stability.

In addition to muscular adaptations, strength training also promotes development of bone and connective tissue. Bone is a very dynamic tissue that provides a rigid lever to support movement. Bone is very sensitive to the changes in forces it experiences and has the capacity for growth and regeneration if damaged. Activities must be weight bearing to provide the most effective stimulus for bone formation. Cyclists and swimmers are particularly vulnerable since their activities are non-weight bearing. They should incorporate strength training to promote bone health.

Strength training can also enhance the connective tissue network resulting in an increased ability to withstand greater tensional forces and improved overall joint integrity.

Overuse injuries can be frustrating to century, brevet and other endurance riders and can potentially result in lost training time and severe setbacks. Fortunately, many of these injuries are predictable and can be prevented with proper training progressions and a "prehabilitation" strength-training program. Prehabilitation refers to the realization that a potential for injury exists, and implementing specific strategies to prevent such occurrences. Each sport has common overuse injuries that affect many athletes. In cyclists, inflammation of the patellar tendon (patellar tendonitis) can result from repeated knee flexion and extension during pedaling. During a four-hour training session, the knee joint can undergo over 25,000 flexion/extension cycles subjecting the tendon to high stress. Supplementing the cyclist’s training program with strength exercises can help maintain proper muscular balance and enhance the connective tissue network to reduce the possibility of patellar tendonitis.

Lactate threshold, an important element of endurance performance, can be enhanced with strength training. One study in 1991 found that strength training improves cycling endurance performance independently of changes in VO2 max. After twelve weeks of strength training performed three times per week, cycling endurance time performed at 75% VO2 max improved by an average of nearly nine minutes. The improved endurance comes from changes in muscle fiber-type recruitment. A greater percentage of slow-twitch and reduced rates of fast-twitch recruitment during exercise results in increased endurance and power.

Developing high levels of exercise economy is critical to the century, brevet and other endurance cyclists. Exercise economy refers to the energy cost to maintain a given level of output. Economical cyclists can perform at a higher level while experiencing less fatigue. A 1997 study by the University of New Hampshire of 12 distance runners revealed that strength training significantly improved running economy, and strength in the upper and lower body.

To achieve full potential as an endurance cyclist and be successful in challenging events, a cyclist should incorporate a strength training program. Each cyclist brings to the training table a set of unique talents and abilities that can be molded and shaped into a more complete athlete with the addition of a regular strength training program.

Strength training is any activity that overloads muscles more than on the road bike, thus resulting in strength gains. Strength training does not necessarily require special equipment, or long hours in the gym. The exercises below can all be done at home with minimal equipment!

Strength training can have five benefits for the endurance cyclist:

  1. Increasing core strength and creating a stable platform for pedaling power.
  2. Developing leg muscle strength, which can be turned into increased power on the bike.
  3. Improving the balance among muscle groups, resulting in increased pedaling economy and efficiency.
  4. Strengthening connective tissues, to reduce the risk of injury .
  5. Improving upper body endurance and comfort on the bike.

In part one of this article, we suggest basic exercises in each of the categories for off-season and early base training. In part two, we describe more advanced exercises for later base training as well as ongoing strength maintenance. First, some general principles of strength training:

  • Activities that are weight-bearing and/or use free weights (e.g., hiking, lunges) require more balance and motor control and thus stress connective tissues more than strength training with machines.
  • Exercises that work multiple muscle groups and joints (e.g., lunges, wall squats) are more efficient at developing strength than activities which work a single muscle group (e.g., hamstring curls).
  • Strength activities which move in the same forward-backward plane as cycling, and have a similar motion to road cycling (e.g., snow shoeing, mountain biking) will translate more directly to improved cycling than activities which are more general (e.g., squats).
  • Since most of us have a dominant side, exercises which work each leg separately (e.g., one-legged pedaling, lunges) are better than activities which work both legs (e.g., rowing).
  • Exercises which work a single muscle group (e.g., hamstring curls) are useful for addressing specific muscle imbalances.

Strength Training Exercises
Doing these exercises three or four days a week will improve your performance off the bike and reduce the risk of injuries. These simple activities don’t require much special equipment — you can purchase strength bands, ankle weights, etc. at

Days, sets and reps

  • Since you are trying to build muscular endurance, do strength training 3 or 4 days a week, with rest days interspersed.
  • For maximum improvement don’t increase total workout volume; rather, reduce some of your other training so that the total training load on your body remains the same. This will allow sufficient recovery so you get stronger!
  • Warm-up thoroughly. Swim, ride a trainer, walk briskly, jog, use a Nordic track for at 10-15 minutes.
  • For most exercises, do sets of 12-20 reps. If you are doing two sets of 12-20 reps, start with two sets of 12 reps; the next session, do two sets of 13, etc. Keep increasing the reps until you get to 20 reps. Then increase the resistance and go back to two sets of 12 reps.
  • Rest 30 seconds between sets (short rest breaks builds endurance) .
  • Rest 1 minute between exercises.
  • Use moderate resistance; you should feel like you are working, but not at your maximum and should not be sore the next day.
  • Lift weight for two counts and lower for four counts.
  • Exhale when lifting, inhale when lowering.

Recommended exercises for

  1. Increasing core strength [  Part 1  |  Part 2  ]
  2. Developing leg strength [  Part 1 |  Part 2  ]
  3. Improving muscle balance [  Part 1  |  Part 2 ]
  4. Strengthening connective tissues [  Part 1  |  Part 2 ]
  5. Improving upper body endurance [  Part 1 |  Part 2 ]

References

  1. Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (eds.) 2000. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  2. Burke, E.R. (1983). Improved cycling performance through strength training. NSCA Journal, 5(3), 6-7, 70-71
  3. Johnson, R.E., Quinn, T.J, Kertzer, R. & Vroman, N.B. (1997). Strength training in female distance runners: Impact on running economy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(4), 224-229.
  4. Marcinik, E.J., Potts, J., Schlabach, G., Will, S. Dawson, P, & Hurley, B.F. (1991). Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 23(6), 739-43.

Originally printed in UltraCycling