Peaks Coaching: Strength Training for Cyclists
By Bill McLaughlin, PCG Elite Coach
Strength training has become a hot topic of discussion among trainers, coaches, scientists, and athletes themselves. But there have always been three core questions: Is strength training an aerobic exercise? In this context, is it cycling-compatible? If so, is it compatible during the same training period? To many, it doesn’t seem logical that a strength-training program (mainly an anaerobic activity) can improve cycling (mainly aerobic). Science says otherwise.
The primary energy system during cycling at a comfortable pace is the aerobic system. But when you start to push the pace or come to the end of a long ride or race, the anaerobic system is called into play. If you’ve worked your anaerobic system through strength training, you’ll be able to ride longer, harder, and faster before fatigue starts to set in.
These days it seems that there are as many strength training plans as there are people on the planet. Finding the right one for you and your particular type of riding is just as important as bike fit. After the break we’ll discuss strength training for the transition phase, which prepares your body for heavier weights later on while giving you time to rest and recover.
Here at the end of the season is the time we rest and recover from the hard work of racing, training, and cycling in general. This phase is important, as it helps prevent both mental and physical burnout. However, this is by no means the time of year to put up the bike, sit on the coach, eat, and watch TV. It’s the time to look over the past season, see where you did well (met your goals), look over your limiters, and start setting goals for the upcoming season. Training isn’t done; we just need to shift our training. Yes, we should take about two weeks off the bike (perhaps shorter or longer, depending on your past training/racing load), but I advise my athletes to do some cross training with any type of aerobic exercise they enjoy (roller blading, hiking, swimming, etc.) to help maintain aerobic conditioning. During this period I also meet with them to review next season’s goals and lay out a rough ATP that may or may not include strength training.
At this time of year my focus toward strength training is to prep my athletes for the harder weight training ahead. This transition phase can last anywhere from two to four weeks, and the main purpose is to get started correctly with proper form and to ease into strength training without too much muscle soreness.
Most of the time I start this phase off with body weight exercises for the first week rather than going right into the weight room. Again, this gets you conditioned and makes sure that you have proper form. Typical body weight exercises are push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, leg raises, lunges, etc. But if an athlete finds that the upper body exercises are tough to do with body weight, we move into a weight room and find comparable exercises, such as bench presses for pushups and lat pull-downs for pull-ups.
After the initial week of body weight exercises, there are two different ways to proceed. The first is circuit training, where you do a set amount of exercises with a minimum of rest between (1 set of exercise A, then exercise B, then exercise C, and so on till all exercises are complete for the first set), then resting and starting another cycle. This type of training is not designed to focus on any particular body part but helps to keep the blood flowing and constantly changing. It creates a good cardio-respiratory benefit, but due to the limited rest and the varied exercises, the strength gains are minimal, and I really only recommend this during this transitional phase.
The other type of strength training that can be done during the transitional phase and also carry into the other phases of strength training is as follows: perform a set of a given exercise, rest one or two minutes, then follow with set number two, and so on for the prescribed amount of sets. There are generally no more than three sets in the transition phase, and light weights and higher repetitions (between 12 and 20) are utilized. You should combine both upper and lower body exercises. In this type of strength training, it’s best to get up and move around between sets so you’re recovered and able to put your best into the next set. This is different from circuit training, as circuit training is designed to have inadequate rest, focusing more on cardio than pure strength.
The transition phase is very similar to your first easy endurance rides in the winter months. Ace it and get ready for some hard work!
Bill is a Peaks Coaching Group elite coach, a USAC Level 2 certified coach, and a certified personal fitness trainer. He can be contacted directly through www.peakscoachinggroup.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.