Strength training and cycling: do they mix? Let’s address a few of my favourite myths first: Lifting weights will not suddenly make you massive. Although one of my friend’s mum did say: ‘be careful not to lift too many weights or you will end up looking like Arnie’, this is (big surprise!) not true. Building muscle, significant muscle, takes a lot of time, effort, and surplus calories over years. Lifting weights will also not slow you down, but on the flipside just doing some squats will not make you into a great sprinter. ‘Cyclists don’t need massive arms!’. That’s true, but whole-body strength will make you more resilient, will improve bone health and you’d also be surprised how much you use some muscles when cycling, and how neglected others become.
In this blog I will break down the different benefits of strength training, how it can improve your health, performance, and finally how to effectively incorporate it into your training regime.
Strength training is just that: you train to become stronger. Being strong is good, not just for performance, but for health and everyday life as well. One of the good things about cycling is that it is very low impact, which means less damage to your muscles and joints, and faster recovery. But this is also its downfall: no impact or stress makes bones weaker.
Our bones only grow stronger in response to stress placed upon them, and cycling does not do that. It is very common for cyclists who have been riding since childhood and have done little else to have comparatively weak bones, especially in the areas we really need them to be strong (Andersen et al., 2018). Those are our pelvis, femur, and spine. Of course, you want nice and strong bones all over, but if those specific ones are weak and brittle then crashes or falls can really be a big issue. Therefore, before we even get to the performance benefits (and there are many), let’s talk about bones and especially bone health.
Bones are living tissue that constantly remodel themselves. In fact, this happens so often and fast that a single meal containing calcium (or lacking it) will have an impact on how your bone behaves in the hours following exercise (Haakonssen et al.2015). Vitamin D helps absorb calcium, but as it comes from sunlight it is recommended to take a supplement in the winter months (Vitamin D also has other health and performance benefits). Naturally you need to consume enough calcium (which most of us do) but be careful with plant-based diets or dairy-free milks, because sometimes you might not be getting enough.
“This is an easy fix, and you should aim for 500-700mg of calcium and a minimum of 1000 IU of vitamin D.”
I won’t bore you with lots of detail on osteoblast and osteoclast activity (one builds, the other takes away), but in a nutshell, your bone builds itself stronger in the area it is put under stress (compression or force). Osteoporosis is a condition where the bone is being broken down at a higher rate than it is being replaced, and can have many causes, but lack of stress to the bone is one of them (Fig.1 for illustration of osteoporotic bone).
You can see microtubules (fibres made from the protein tubulin) in bones under the microscope that develop in right angles to gravity (Lewis et al., 1998). When you go to space where there is zero force, the lines just go all random and bones get weak with 1-1.5% bone loss in just one month. Obviously, unless you’re an astronaut (if you are, well done!) this won’t affect you, but I wanted to use it to illustrate that we need to load our bones constantly, otherwise they get weak.
You could have amazingly strong thighs, glutes, and calves, but a weak skeleton. Most won’t have, but many cyclists also might lack upper-body strength and thus have poor bone health in both the upper and lower extremities. If that isn’t enough reason to get lifting, I’m not sure what is. I doubt anyone wants a snapped wrist or broken femur when you could maybe do some strength work and walk away with some pain, but your bones intact.
“We need to load our bones constantly, otherwise they get weak.”
Andersen et al. (2018) looked at bone mineral density (BMD) in elite endurance athletes, comparing runners and cyclists. Not surprisingly they found that all cyclists had lower BMD at all sites compared to the runners, and 10 out of 19 cyclists were classified as having low BMD. This was despite them claiming to perform heavy resistance training at the lower extremities.
They reported that low BMD was site specific having occurred in the lumbar spine and femoral neck, and was not confined to females, but was related to cycling itself. In fact, one rider was classified as osteoporotic despite his young age and had suffered a spinal fracture previously. One of the conclusions from the study was that in some cases heavy lifting alone is not sufficient, as this was only performed for 2-4 months of the year (in the off-season). The recommendation is therefore to include things like running, sprinting, jumping and plyometrics (explosive jumps and landings) as well as strength training year-round.
Next, we should talk about imbalances. This is very common and basically means that one area of muscle is stronger than other areas, usually agonist and antagonist (think biceps vs triceps). As cyclists we spend a lot of time in a very specific position on the bike and supporting muscles for this position are usually nice and strong (neck, some parts of the lower back, triceps to name a few).
The problem is that the muscle on the opposite side or that is supposed to support other movements and positions is often not working and becomes weaker, leading to an imbalance. Most have heard that a strong ‘core’ is important, but what that really is, or how to achieve it is not that clear (Dr Nic’s top tip: just doing some crunches with your feet wedged under the sofa is not enough). There are a surprising number of supporting muscles that require some attention, and some specific movements to recruit and work them. Pilates is a really good choice to recruit a wide range of often overlooked muscles, and once you can move again without aching you will start to appreciate how beneficial it actually is.
“Just doing some crunches with your feet wedged under the sofa is not enough to build a strong core”
And now what you really were here for: will strength training make me faster, a better rider, smash those PBs and drop all my mates? The answer is a resounding yes (if you follow the Spoked training plans). But joking aside, yes it will improve your performance.
Have a look on Google Scholar (or similar scientific journal search sites) and look up ‘strength training and cycling’. You will not only find quite a lot of articles, but almost all have some positive outcome, or even several.
So what is ‘heavy strength training’? It can be defined as: “all training aiming to increase or maintain a muscle or a muscle group’s ability to generate maximum force”. This means training with a load that allows between 1 repetition maximum (RM) and 15 RM. Explosive strength training are exercises with external loading of 0–60% of 1 RM and maximal mobilization in the concentric (shortening) phase.
Beattie et al (2014) nicely summarised the demands of endurance-specific muscle power: Endurance-specific muscle power is the ability of the neuromuscular system to rapidly produce force following a sustained period of high-intensity exercise (high glycolytic and/or oxidative energy demand).
This combined neuromuscular and anaerobic ability may be the differentiating factor for elite endurance performance as successful athletes at world-level can produce high velocities and power outputs to win a race following a sustained period of high-intensity exercise (i.e., sprint finish). The same group also made a useful diagram, which I have included below in Fig.2
The consensus from almost all articles I read was that weak (neuromuscular inefficient; not being able to recruit certain muscles properly) or non-strength trained endurance athletes can benefit from a general maximal-strength orientated programme. This can improve maximal force, power, and reactive-strength capabilities, as well as improving economy, delaying fatigue, and in some studies power at VO2max also increased slightly (Beattie et al. 2014; Ronnestad and Mujika, 2013).
Ronnestad and Mujika (2013) performed a systematic review and made a handy list highlighting evidence of benefit and negative outcome of heavy and explosive strength training on endurance performance:
Performance in most cycling events is mainly determined by the maximal sustained power production for a given competition distance, and the energy cost of maintaining that given speed. In shorter cycling events and during accelerations and sprint situations, anaerobic capacity and maximal speed may also contribute to performance.
Strength training has been shown to enhance endurance performance by several factors, namely improving the economy of movement (lower oxygen cost), delaying fatigue (ability to produce a given power for longer), improving anaerobic capacity (better ability to sprint / sprint repeatedly / recover from sprints), and enhancing maximal speed.
Here are some specific examples of positive adaptations from a few select papers that looked at including strength training in endurance training programmes. Beattie et al. (2014) listed improvements in 5-minute and 45-minute TT performance and improved ‘delta efficiency’.
Delta efficiency (%) is the change in work rate/change in energy expenditure and an improvement here means that energy is not wasted as much as before, and glycogen stores are spared. Bastiaans et al. (2001) found improved economy in the final 60 minutes of a 185 min cycle test. This was a well-designed study, as it included a realistic amount of work before the measures of economy were taken.
Obviously an improved economy is always beneficial, but for most cyclists who spend many hours racing, having improvements at the sharp end is the most useful. In the same study they also reported better ‘work efficiency’, which is typically defined as the relationship between mechanical work done and the chemical energy spent in doing it, that is, the ratio between work output and the net oxygen cost (Sunde et al., 2010).
Performing endurance and heavy strength training at the same time can increase power at VO2max and time to exhaustion. Others found lowered heart rate at the end of 2h submaximal cycling after 5 weeks of heavy strength training, or small improvements in velocity at lactate threshold and improved power output at a certain lactate concentration (Hausswirth et al., 2010).
Ronnestadt et al. (2011) found that mean power output production during a 5-min all-out sprint after 3h of cycling increased by 7%. Increased peak power output was also observed, important for periods where a high power output for a short period is needed, such as getting a good position at the start of a race, closing a gap, making a race-critical pass, breaking away or winning the final sprint. Importantly none reported any negative effects.
A word of caution though, Yamamoto et al. (2010) highlighted that adding resistance training on top of endurance training does not improve performance, as the added training volume results in fatigue in high-level athletes. However, they recommend replacing a portion of endurance training with explosive resistance training to increase TT performance and maximal power output and thereby minimizing the risk of fatigue.
“Replacing a portion of endurance training with explosive resistance training to increase TT performance and maximal power output and thereby minimizing the risk of fatigue.”
Briefly circling back to my earlier point about not suddenly becoming ‘massive’ from a bit of strength training. A long list of studies in this review article by Ronnestad and Mujika (2013) found no increase in total body mass after the strength training interventions. Some studies found a small 3-6% increase in measurements of muscle hypertrophy of the main muscles that were targeted, but no one was reported to have become the Hulk from looking in the direction of a few barbells as some people will have you believe.
You might eventually end up gaining a very small amount of weight through gaining muscle mass if you persist, but you will also be leaner. Cyclists who regularly perform strength training over years have been shown to have more fat-free mass (muscle) and lower levels of body fat. This in itself is healthier and better for performance.
I’ll keep this brief, as explaining everything is way beyond the scope of this humble blog. Improved performance is likely due to altered muscle fibre recruitment patterns. Strength training can delay the fatigue of type 1 (slow twitch / endurance) muscle fibres, so that less economical type 2 fibres (fast twitch / sprint) aren’t recruited until later.
The early recruitment of type 2 muscle fibres has a twofold cost: fatigued type 1 fibres need oxygen to recover, although no longer contributing to the workload, and type 2 fibres are less economical and thus require more energy for the same work. Ultimately this leads to increased oxygen cost despite no change in work rate.
Other reasons include more type IIA fibres and fewer type IIX fibres being recruited. Type IIA are basically a hybrid that can be trained to use more oxygen despite being essentially fast twitch, whereas IIX are totally fast twitch / anaerobic and will always tire quickly. Other potential reasons for performance increases are reduced glycogen usage, as studies have shown that strength training can result in higher phosphocreatine and glycogen content and lower blood lactate at the end of 30 min of high intensity cycling at 72% of VO2max.
Strength training can also lead to an improved rate of force development and increased maximum force can be the result of increased neural activation as well as improved blood flow to working muscles. Basically you are able to recruit more of the muscles that you have, and they are better supplied with oxygen and nutrients.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but here’s what you need to know from the outset: it will hurt, and it will continue to hurt until you have adapted. There’s no way around it and you can minimise the inflammation and pain but can’t totally escape the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
DOMS is at its most painful 24-72hrs post exercise, and you are often tricked into thinking you are fine as the first 12-24hrs might not be so bad; hence ‘delayed’ onset. Because you know this (maybe after you read this, but that doesn’t matter) you should factor this in and start your strength training in a time away from heavy training and competition, as this could otherwise affect your performance. Begin slowly and allow yourself long recovery periods between the initial sessions. More pain does not always equal more gain. Your lower-end cycling should not really be affected by this, it might just be a bit uncomfortable, but high intensity work will be and should be avoided post strength training (at least initially).
We need to distinguish between the strength training that might be supplemental and good for health and that which improves endurance performance. Strength training for health can be quite varied and should include things like running, jumping, punching or kicking, using dumbbells or kettlebells, moving quickly in various directions (playing tennis, basketball etc.) or plyometrics. Ideally this is something that can be fun, and it really doesn’t have to be performed in the gym but can be done anywhere. It just needs to stress your bones with some impact and force.
To enhance the probability that strength training can enhance endurance performance the exercises should involve similar muscle groups and imitate sports-specific movements. Maximal strength should be built up in the preparatory period. 2-3 sessions per week (2 is sufficient, but 3 might allow more rapid adaptations) over 12 weeks, with lifts at 4-10RM and 2-3 sets with approx. 2-3min rest between. It is important that the proper technique is learned before heavier lifts are attempted. This can be started at the end of the competitive season, and the first 2-3 weeks should be at the lower end of the recommendations. When competing and endurance training is prioritized again one low volume strength training session per week has been shown to maintain the previous strength adaptations.
Curious about giving Spoked a whirl? You can download it from the Apple and Google app stores and use it for free, with the option of paid tiers and a free 30-day trial of our Pro plan for each new user. Or want to leverage the Spoked technology in your business? Read more here.
With that: happy riding and lifting!
All the best from your Dr Nic
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