Strength and Conditioning for Road Cyclists
You have probably heard that strength and conditioning for road cyclists can improve performance, and you might have even seen inspiring videos of pros like Peter Sagan training in the gym.
However, many riders don’t know where to start. Maybe you worry about lifting with correct technique or are concerned about increased body weight through gaining muscle. Some people can’t envisage how to fit weight lifting into an already busy schedule in when miles on the bike are considered priority. Or perhaps you’ve dabbled in strength training before but it has left you too tired to ride well, or without meaningful gains from the time you put in. Or maybe you’re just confused about the best approach.
All these problems are common since the vast majority of strength and conditioning advice for cyclists in magazines, social media and training books is not personalised and generally doesn’t offer modern, sound advice rooted in scientific- and real-world evidence.
Read on to learn more, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you wish to explore things further.
‘As someone who doesn’t naturally take to strength training I’ve been amazed and delighted at the advances I have made in a short period of time. As a cyclist I feel stronger on the bike, pushing bigger gears and my endurance has improved too.’ – James
Your questions answered
Everyone! It doesn’t matter whether you’re 18 or 68, whether you’ve just started riding, race Cat 1, time trial locally, love audaxes, prefer touring and bikepacking, love KOM/QOM-hunting, mainly ride sportive & grand fondo, or just ride for the fun of it – strength and conditioning will make you a better rider!
It is easy to intuitively think that to get better endurance we only have to train using endurance-based workouts. Of course, riding should form the majority of your annual training programme. But this isn’t the whole story. Strength forms the foundation of all athletic performance. Cycling is no different – to deliver power to the pedals mile after mile after mile, we need a strong body to support the endurance engine.
A large, robust body of scientific research has shown that making improvements in maximal strength through lifting weights can:
Improve endurance attributes, including cycling economy (power per unit of oxygen consumption), power at VO2max and fractional utilisation of VO2max (the percentage of your VO2max that you use at any given intensity/power);1,2
Improve anaerobic function (i.e., sprinting ability);
Improve time-trial performance;
Strength and conditioning for road cyclists isn’t just about lifting weights to improve force generation. For example, the extremely common sore lower back or niggly upperback/neck/shoulder blade can reduce our on-bike performance and our enjoyment of riding (most of of us have experienced this at some point). Developing better mobility, more torso stability, better muscular endurance in postural muscles and improving balance are parts of strength and conditioning that will make you a better rider, who is more comfortable on the bike, with a more aero position. A good strength and conditioning programme will address all of this.
Simply, being strong allows you to train harder, ride further and is essential to life-long performance, consistency and injury resistance.
This is a widely held misconception that prevents many cyclists from even considering strength training.
The physiological reasons are a little complex, but the the real-world evidence is clear: strength training with the correct, scientifically-based protocols does not add significant amounts of muscle mass that are detrimental to endurance, or to power-to-weight ratio.3,4
In fact done correctly, strength training has the opposite effect: it improves endurance (see above) and increases power-to-weight ratio. This is principally because adaptations to correct strength training are not driven by muscle growth (hypertrophy), but by changes in neuromuscular systems (how your nerves and muscles communicate and coordinate), musculo-tendon stiffness (how much elastic energy is stored in your muscles) and energy systems (how your body produces energy).
We can train with weights to increase muscle growth, and for some types of rider at certain points in their riding career, we might want to. But that is where the art and science of training programme design comes into play – you perform the training to get the physical changes you want to meet your goals.
Simply, strength gains suitable for cyclists can be made with just 1-3 short gym based sessions each week. Effective strength training is simple and efficient. In fact, depending your physiology, during spring and summer we might only strength train for an hour or two every 7-10 days, if at all. If you’ve never strength trained before the bottom line is that you’re missing out on a very easy way improve performance with relatively little time investment.
Like all good training plans, we periodise strength and conditioning based on the needs of the individual, for example by doing heavier more frequent lifting in the autumn & winter. Unlike endurance gains which we lose relatively quickly, the wonderful thing about gaining strength is that done properly, consistently, over long periods you don’t lose the gains when you reduce the lifting frequency. This is because the physiological mechanisms that determine strength and endurance are different.
As a life-long cycling fan who has road raced and time-trialled in the UK, and has achieved Elite and Gold times in mass-participation events such as The Fred Whitton Challenge and La Marmotte Grand Fondo, I intimately know the demands of the sport, the requirements of training, the challenges of training around work and life, and the concerns and questions that you might have about the benefits of strength & conditioning for road riding.
Originally a scientist by trade, my approach to coaching is evidence-based highly, personalised and consultative – none of my athletes has exactly the same plan because we all have different physiology, different goals and different life situations.
I like to take my athletes on a journey in which we work together, not only to help you improve, but where you also learn about the skill, art and science of training and learn about how you personally respond physically and mentally to training.
After our first consultation session we build a plan from the appropriate starting point, ensuring that you’re sufficiently well conditioned for the programmes that we embark on. Over time we progress and regress exercises and programmes appropriately so that your strength and form is developed properly and sustainably for the long-term.
Training, coaching and programming will be a blend, according to your personal needs, of face-to-face coaching and/or virtual face-to-face coaching. Your personalised training plans are delivered and tracked using my web-app platform and we normally have contact every week, whether it be face-to-face, on the phone, or via email and messaging.
Every exercise I prescribe and session I programme is about giving you the biggest return for your time in the gym. You’d rather be riding than in the gym, so lets make the gym sessions really effective and efficient.
If you would like to start getting strong for riding, drop me a line and we can make a start!
- Beattie, K., Carson, B.P., Lyons, M., Rossiter, A., Kenny, I.C., 2017. The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. J Strength Cond Res 31, 9–23. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001464
- Støren, O., Helgerud, J., Stoa, E.M., Hoff, J., 2008. Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Med Sci Sport Exer 40, 1087–92. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e318168da2f
- Damasceno, M.V., Lima-Silva, A.E., Pasqua, L.A., Tricoli, V., Duarte, M., Bishop, D.J., Bertuzzi, R., 2015. Effects of resistance training on neuromuscular characteristics and pacing during 10-km running time trial [WWW Document]. URL https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00421-015-3130
- Sedano, S., Marín, P.J., Cuadrado, G., Redondo, J.C., 2013. Concurrent Training in Elite Male Runners. J Strength Cond Res 27, 2433–2443. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318280cc26
- Rønnestad, B.R., Hansen, J., Nygaard, H., 2016. 10 weeks of heavy strength training improves performance-related measurements in elite cyclists. J Sport Sci 35, 1435–1441. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1215499
‘I would say Sam’s input and support has undoubtedly increased my endurance and strength. His sessions are clearly evidence based and derive from science/ theory rather than arbitrary sessions I have done with others.’ – Dale