Coach Patrick Fotheringham breaks down what cyclists can gain from strength and conditioning training.
Strength and conditioning is a form of cross training to optimise sports performance; strength refers to strength training, and conditioning refers to the training of the energy systems. For cycling, the different energy systems are worked predominantly with on the bike training, however strength training is often overlooked. In the modern world of cycling, on-bike training, nutrition, and aerodynamics are all optimised and knowledge about these is well documented and available, but less is appreciated about the training gains that can be made off the bike too, and how they translate to cycling performance across all levels, from recreational all the way up to elite racing. Strength training requires heavily overloading the muscles for them to adapt to be able to withstand and produce high levels of force, and the most common form of this is through lifting weights in a gym. As an athlete you can never be too strong; the ability to exert more force is invaluable, with greater muscular strength allowing an individual to produce more force to move their own body mass against the environment. This is applicable across all sports, from sprinting in athletics to gymnastics, but specifically in cycling through increasing the power put through the pedals to counteract gravity or air resistance.
Increases Max Power Output
Strength training in cyclists leads to a direct increase in Mechanical Power Output; the more force the muscles can produce, the higher the power output. This is seen across the whole power curve, from short duration such as 5-15 second, all the way down to 20-minute power and more. An increase in max power output, particularly in sprinting, is often noted due to being a particularly visible change, and one that is much harder to achieve through on-bike training alone, due to its heavier reliance on force production as opposed to the contribution from an energy system.
Improves Rate of Force Development
Another key performance increase that is seen in cycling following strength training is Rate of Force Development. Sometimes referred to as explosive strength, this is the speed at which force can be applied. With strength training, there is the increase in force production, but it also increases how fast it can be produced, especially through training modalities such as plyometrics. This seen in elements of cycling where there needs to be a large increase in power in a short duration, such as sprinting in a road race finish, attacking up a climb, accelerating out of corners in cyclo-cross or on the road, or a standing start in track cycling.
Increasing Gross Mechanical Efficiency
Following strength training, we also see an increase in Gross Mechanical Efficiency. There are two key points here, which is the difference between power production and power output. Between power being produced from the muscles, and being put through the pedals to provide motion, there will be some form of power loss. By becoming more efficient by improving the transmission of power, there is less energy and therefore power lost externally. Strength training can help to improve mechanical efficiency, with posterior chain and core strength aiding with this, which can look like increased stability on the bike, but comes down to an improvement in the kinetic chain and how the muscles work together.
Decreasing Injury Risk
Strength training also decreases the likelihood of injury, due to increases in the structural strength of ligaments, tendons, tendon to bone and ligament to bone junctions, joint cartilage, and connective tissue sheaths within muscles. One of the most common injuries in cycling is overuse injury, with the high volume of training and stress put through the body, and strength training directly decreases the likelihood of suffering from overuse injury by half. Strength training also increases mobility and stability around joints, which can enable a more comfortable riding position and allow power to be put down for longer too, but also once again decrease the likelihood of injury. Furthermore, cycling is a non- weight bearing sport, which can lead to an increase in likelihood for bone-density related issues, therefore the load put through bones and subsequent strengthening, is beneficial for general health for cyclists too.
Minimizing Weight Gain Concerns
There is a common misconception amongst cyclists that lifting weights will cause weight gain through muscle mass, which can be true when the repetition ranges are optimal for hypertrophy, the growing of muscles. However, it is possible to make improvements strength and power through working in lower rep ranges, while minimising increase in size. But also, a small increase in weight through higher muscle cross sectional area will result in an exponential increase in higher power, which when considered in watts per kg, the increase in power will outweigh an increase in weight. Furthermore, when the other performance increases are considered, the benefits of this small weight gain are much bigger than the potential losses.
Benefits for All Cycling Disciplines
The benefits of Strength and Conditioning for cycling are huge. Other endurance sports such as long-distance running, swimming and cross-country skiing have utilised the performance gains from a good strength programme, so there is no reason why cycling shouldn’t do the same. From time trials to sportive, from track to road, and from gravel to crits, the increase in power, rate of force production and efficiency from strength training will lead to great improvements on the bike, as well as decreasing injury and improving general health off the bike too. This is applicable too for cyclists of all levels, be it leisure riders or world champions, it is a gain that everyone can have. Furthermore, while strength adaptations can be achieved without going to the gym, a gym is a friendly, welcoming environment, and a warm, dry place to train during the cold winter months. My advice for anyone looking to improve their performance further over the winter is get yourself a strength programme, get to the gym and become a stronger, faster, more resilient and healthier athlete.