The Secrets of Peak Performance III: Strength and Power.
To be brutally honest…strength training, resistance work, gym sessions call them what you like, are crucial to any cyclists future performance. Laying the foundations of muscular structure in the winter when endurance volume is low (Intensity can and should be maintained to a certain extent) is well known (with plenty of evidence) to benefit cyclists at all levels. There are a plethora of reasons why concurrent strength and endurance training is necessary…and don’t for the life of me understand why this is still a contentious issue with ‘traditional’ coaches, who…as their title suggests, prefer or tend to stick to antiquated methods, either because of their lack of desire to keep up to date with advances in applied physiology and sport science..or simply are too stubborn, due to lack of understanding or even apathy.
If you aren’t in the gym by late November/ early December (I would say as early as late October, during the base period which should come at the end of the season) to work on the imbalances, weaknesses and inflexibility cyclists are prone to, whether as rehabilitation or a to build on the previous season…then you are probably in for another lacklustre season on the bike unfortunately. You may never realise your full potential or even make it to your desired level (insert category racer as applicable) level, by jeopardising another chance to build and grow every season.
Of course not everyone has to or it may not be totally necessary for a significant gym programme as part of their cycling training. There are exclusions (don’t forget I’m a scientist) but unless you either….have a mesomorph inherent physiology (a strong capacity of both Type I & II fibers), have trained since youth in cross-disciplines, take anabolic steroids or are able to pace behind a 65km/hr derny on a track twice a week…then you probably don’t fall into that category.
Admittedly, traditional coaching would say that strength can be built by engaging the muscle (neuromuscular function) under high load, low cadence, basically performing bodyweight training on the bike, and they would be correct….with the added risk of breaking your bike or falling off into traffic on a slippery moldy climb mid-winter! What is missing is the conditioning and specificity of intensity that individual resistant exercise can put on ALL your cycling muscles…AND increase that load beyond body weight. So that means, INSTANTANEOUSLY you will be A. Better than you could be than by yourself, and B. Better that the terrain you are training on. Nice. I really hope this makes sense, as my ability of explanations in the language of laymans has been criticised.
As we can now putatively see how strength training helps us. More evidence I hear you ask?….first the real-world stuff. Chapter 12 of Joe Friels The cyclists training bible is all about strength training for cyclists. He is spot on, although quite brief and doesn’t cover all of the practical aspects, but it’s a start. It is practically succinct for those wanting to get started in the gym. Strength training needs to be periodised in the same way endurance training is. This is to provoke the relevant adaptations which may be transferred to the bike. Its all about conditioning muscle fibers to express more aerobic, less fatigueable forms. That process does still occur under strength training. Strength sessions typically make Type II fibers bigger….but when performed with concurrent endurance exercise such as intense interval sessions, then the greater forces produced in a single leg press can translate to greater forces sustainable over time on the pedal….in other words, more POWER. Being your strongest at one pedal stroke….will transfer down to longer durations, in that you have improved your sustainable power, over the length of time you are training for, whether it is threshold or 5min maximal efforts.
Ironically, Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan don’t consider this in their chapter on Quadrant Analysis in Training and Racing with a Power meter…suggesting that the greatest force you can produce on any one average effective pedal force is sufficient to translate to sustainable force over longer durations, i.e. power. This is quite a simplistic view of muscle physiology. I say ironically, because they quote from Joe Friels book on numerous occasions, who does advocate strength training for performance gains quite blatantly. Hence I though it was interesting to have two opposing schools of thought on the matter, in bed with each other.
Basically, to develop higher power that is sustainable over periods of time, we need to have more effective muscle fibers functioning to spread the load and create the force required without fatiguing. Just because instantaneous strength produces a force higher than that produced at successive power requirements doesn’t mean greater muscle mass/ size or density isn’t beneficial. In fact, professional cyclists are known to rotate power production through 25% greater Type I muscle than well-trained amateurs. Which unburdens Type II fatigable muscles, is more economical by saving muscle glycogen and relying more on fat metabolism, and reduces the average load on the muscle and hence overall stress/ perceived exertion which contributes to a higher lactate threshold. That sort of hypertrophy of muscle doesn’t come from aerobic conditioning, but many seasons of very high intensity racing and stress which can be replicated by strength training in amateur cyclists or any other discipline for that matter. So conditioning muscles through the stages of strength periodisation will influence their force production, size and function and how that translates to average force production on the pedal.
Individually, the phases to follow in any effective resistance programme for cyclists should be..
ADAPTATION – (anatomical, preparing tendons and ligaments for lifting heavier weight in the next phases, especially if the cyclist has little or no history of weight lifting. If someone has performed a strength period within the last year or maintains strength sessions then they may omit this phase.
HYPERTROPHY – The focus is to increase the size of the muscle fibres as much as possible, but is the most delicate phase for risking injury and should be generally avoided by those new to weight training.
STRENGTH – Increasing the maximal neuromuscular force of the muscles, and muscle fibre stimulation.
POWER – Improving the duration of sustainable force production and muscle fatigability.
MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (Anaerobic) – Delaying Type II fatigability, of short duration contractions, high force for as long as possible. Which will ultimately transfer to cycling, termed transference.
MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (Aerobic) – Delaying Type I fatigability, of longer duration contractions, med/low force as long as possible. Which will ultimately transfer to cycling, termed transference.
STRENGTH MAINTENANCE – At least one session a week, similar to the strength phase but with fewer multi-joint exercises should be enough to stimulate the muscle to keep their new force capacity, which will not be maximal but help to stimulate neuromuscular function throughout high volume/ intensity training. Reducing stress of resistance when entering specific and general endurance conditioning is also key for event preparation. This may be supplemented by hill-work at the right time.
Both strength and endurance session promote changes in Type IIx fibers to become less fatigable, aerobic but still high force production intermediate fibers IIA. This requires the variations in lifting and load through it phase, becoming more ‘all-out’ towards muscular endurance. Each phase possesses the requirement to perform a certain number repetitions and sets for each exercise. Primarily focusing on the major cycling muscles (prime movers), Quadriceps, Gluteus, Gastrocnemius and hamstrings.
These should be multiple joint exercises which maximises productive gym time, such as squats, step-ups, leg press, knee extension, leg curl, calf-raises/ heel-raise also free weight exercises with double and single leg presses. And of course upper-body and core abdominal/ lower back exercises, seated row, lat pull-downs, chest press, push-ups and sit-ups etc. These should also mimic cycling movements as closely as possible. The number of exercise are gradually reduced through each phase, and become more ‘cycling’ intensive ‘triggers’ which allows for greater time on the bike but still improve race performance. Timing peak performance will require abstaining from any resistance training for an amount of time relative to the intensity of your training. This gives the muscles to rest fully from the tension, complete the repair process and maximise blood flow and glycogen storage in time for your event.
When strength sessions are performed concurrently with endurance training, ‘bulking’ up is generally avoided. Lean mass gains in power-to-weight ratio are actually desired as too many cyclists strive for purely weight loss, which is commonly associated with over-training and reduced power. Any fat accumulation due to too many calories taken in, is dealt with by an increased endurance volume in the later phases. Always consult your physician first if you are unsure about starting a resistance training programme. Cyclists new to load bearing exercises should get help on technique from an experienced instructor to avoid injury.
Building strength will also reduce the probability of injury and improves general well-being, health and is an excellent preventative ‘medicine’. I have many cyclist clients who have said they will definitely maintain weight-training for the rest of their lives…preventing the decline associated with aging in semi-active and sedentary populations. They also have exceptional blood chemistry values, for free testosterone and red blood cell numbers. Above all they are continuously achieving personal best powers and times at target races and through-out the training year.
To summarise, the benefits of resistance training include:
- Correction of muscle imbalance.
- Prevention or reduced risk of injury.
- Improved strength, health and well-being off the bike.
- Reduced perceived exertion and increased short duration power.
- Increased performance, long distance stamina and power production on the bike.
When done successfully, resistance work usually means fewer hours of focused training on the bike in preparation for an event, training more efficiently and productively on performance objectives to achieve personal goals. My next posts will include a summary of the current findings and conclusions about how to work a strength and endurance programme effectively, to maximise adaptations and to understand the practicalities of implementing these. Then I want to briefly describe how recovery and adaptation to both strength and endurance training helps us get better, quicker and how we can emphasis these aspects or not.
Keep warm and get lifting!