Strength Training for Cycling and Running.

Strength is a major component of fitness and is essential for any given sport including endurance sports. Most strength and conditioners now understand and implement such strategies to aid elite sporting performances. Recent studies have found reason to focus on strength training to compliment endurance sports such as cycling and running (1, 2 and 3).

Strength training will not make most people big and bulky like hypertrophy training (body building techniques) but will make one able to lift a progressively heavier weight over time whilst maintaining exactly the same muscle mass. In addition it will increase a cyclist’s power output, create a shift in muscle fibre types, and improve cycling economy. Ever wondered why other cyclists can turn on serious amounts of explosive speed and leave you for dead in a race in a split second? There are physiological explanations for this. But 1st lets delve into what strength actually is?

Strength is an essential component of all human performance and its formal development can no longer be neglected in the preparation of any athlete” (Mel C Siff - Supertraining). Strength defined is a “product of muscular action initiated by electrical processes in the nervous system of the body.”  

Defining strength for sports can be difficult as there are different types of strength.

Maximal strength is the ability of a particular group of muscles to produce a maximal voluntary contraction in response to optimal motivation against an external load.

Absolute strength is an involuntary muscle contraction when the muscles receive a sudden external load for example walking down the stairs and missing the last step but still being able to deal with the situation.

Absolute strength has also previously been defined as the overall weight one can lift in repetition.  

There is also speed-strength and explosive-strength which we can discuss on another day.

If one would like to improve and develop strength for their given sport there are some factors to take into some consideration before hitting the gym and lifting some heavy weights:

  • Physical preparation –no injuries, muscles are firing off as they should be, postural analysis and joint mobility.
  • Learning of motor skills – practising the given movement prior to loading the weights.
  • Psychological preparation – mentally stimulated to perform such exercise.
  • Physical and Psychological restoration – utilising rest days so adaptation can occur.
  • Appropriate nutrition – fuelling the tank to aid adaptation and recovery.  

In order to gain the maximal return of your efforts these factors above will need to be addressed.

Whatever you do don’t literally jump into plyometric training (as some old school running coaches suggest) before you have established sound strength gains. Strength builds the foundation of plyometric training, failing to do so may lead to joint pain in the lower back, knees and hips. Tendons and ligaments need to be strong before exposing them to high amounts of force (typically 7x your body weight). This will also boost your stretch shortening cycle much more than simply starting plyometric training with no prior strength training.

 

So how does strength training benefit us?

  • As stated above all skeletal muscle contractions are a result of electrical stimulation from your central nervous system (CNS - brain and spinal cord). Once the CNS familiarises itself with given movements its internal wiring changes and adapts (3). Electrical synchronisation occurs. Imagine you are in a game of tug of war and your opposition are a bunch of over grown men vs your team of super lean people. However, the over grown men pull the rope at different times compared to your team that pulls at the same time. The super lean people will win every time due to the total volume of force being applied to the rope in sync. The same occurs with regular strength training in regards to our nervous system.

 

  • When we deliberately turn on the pace in a race our CNS switches from type I muscle fibres (slow twitch) to type II and type IIx muscle fibre types (fast twitch and super-fast twitch – not it’s technical term but you get the idea) (2). Although these fast twitch muscles fibres don’t last for long it can make the difference between many places in the race. Especially if you develop speed-endurance when you can repeat this process many times in a race. Think of André Greipel in cycling or Mo Farah in a 5k run at the end of their races. Granted they genetically have an advantage but they still have to train this way for the desired effect.

 

  • Cycling economy has found to be improved as well especially in the early phase of the pedal stroke. One study suggests that this may be due to increased strength within the hip flexor tendons that boosts peak torque allowing a more powerful pedal stroke (2).

 

One thing is for sure though, strength training will not significantly boost your VO2 max (ability to utilise oxygen when exercising) (1). This will be boosted with your actual endurance training getting out on the bike for long periods of time.

Other aspects to consider is periodisation of your training programme. When to incorporate the overall plan across the year so your body peaks for specific races.

Exercises such as the back squat, split squat, and reverse lunges are great for developing those neuromuscular adaptations. I would advise against the deadlift as this can be devastating especially under loads of 85% of 1 rep maximum for 5 reps. Do that wrong and your season is over. You need special attention and guidance for that lift. 

Furthermore the clean and jerk alongside the snatch are highly effective exercises (again under supervision) in developing explosive strength. 

We work with some up and coming cyclists that have started to implement such training protocols - click here to see. We also provide a specialised Bike Fit Package from our sister company NJD Sports Injury Clinic - click here for our short video. Personal Training courses - click here

 

Thanks for reading!

Garth Spencer BSc and MSc