Before we even begin on this, let me say that this is probably one of the biggest debated topics in endurance training. Every fall there are inflammatory threads starting in training forums all over the interwebs. Most of them lack any scientific basis. What I would like to present is a scientifically supported argument to why strength training is beneficial to performance as well as an athlete’s general health.
As the season comes to end, most endurance cyclists are taking a bit of time off for recovery (seriously don’t skip this!) and then beginning their base season training for the next year. Base training can vary by the athlete, but the main goal is to establish the base fitness required for a successful season. Traditionally, endurance athletes would just pile on the miles and try to fit in as much time as possible. Recently over the last few years we have seen athletes changing that model and started including more intensity through threshold intervals, traditionally 2 x 20 minutes at ~95% of threshold, and a bit less volume. Including some sub-threshold intensity is good, but what I see most endurance athletes missing is a good weight training program throughout the base program to build strength.
“Whoa there buddy! Endurance athletes are typically skinny, bird chested guys. We don’t need weights!” Who couldn’t forget this IMBA ad.
Yep, elite cyclists in particularly have traditionally been skinny with as little upper body muscle mass as possible. Triathletes have typically been a bit more balanced, but strength training hasn’t been a huge part of a typical triathletes training program either. Thankfully, in both cyclists and triathletes we are starting to see this change and getting into the gym during the winter is becoming much more common. But does it really make us a better athlete?
For triathletes, the evidence is very clear that strength can be a huge limiter in running. As an athlete runs faster the forces against the body increase exponentially. For cyclists it is a little less clear since max force in most situations is not a limiter in cycling performance. What can be a limiter is the drop in sub-maximal force production as we fatigue. If you are starting with a higher capacity to create force, the drop in force production from fatigue is significantly less, and you are less likely to fatigue at all from the smaller force requirements of cycling when compared to what is required in weight lifting. It is hard to create the amount of time under tension needed in cycling to drive these increases in force production. While some short, over geared efforts are effective at creating the necessary torque, the dynamics of cycling make it hard to maintain that torque for very long. Doing some strength training is necessary to get the required time under tension.
It is also that time under tension that helps increase the innervation of muscle motor units in the legs. Stimulating more motor units is key to driving adaptation to strength training. Work done by Dr. Henneman (ELWOOD HENNEMAN AND CAMILLE B. OLSON2 (1964) RELATIONS BETWEEN STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION IN THE DESIGN OF SKELETAL MUSCLES Department of Physiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts) has shown that muscles will fire smaller motor units first and progress to bigger fibers as force increases. This is important when looking at how best to improve muscle innervation and overall muscle adaptation. Movements that require less force will typically stimulate less muscle fibers resulting in more fatigue in those fibers. If we are able to make a better brain-to-muscle nerve connection and stimulate more motor units of the muscle than we can effectively lengthen time to fatigue. To do that we need to train our muscles at higher force levels than typically seen in cycling, or running. I would even argue that this is a good indication that to maximize our gains in the gym we need to lift relatively heavy. At least heavier than most traditional endurance athlete strength programs prescribe.
Beyond force production gains, strength training can also increase effective joint ranges and mobility. The stronger we are, the better we can control extremities through a broader range of motion. One of the most challenging aspects of riding a bike efficiently is maintaining an ideal position. Most cyclists struggle with mobility and maintaining an effective hip range of motion while keeping a neutral spine on the bike. This very evident when looking at a rider’s position on a time trial or triathlon bike. Typical efficient aerodynamic positions on a time trial or triathlon bike require around 120 degrees of hip flexion which can be improved in the weight room with squats where we are requiring the hips to drive power well past 120 degrees of flexion. An ideal road bike position typically requires ~110 degrees of hip flexion which is still 20 degrees past where most people typically flex their hips (are you sitting while you are reading this?!). Training in a greater range of motion will result in better control in movements requiring less range of motion.
It should be noted that bike fit can accommodate virtually any hip range of motion. As a bike fitter, we often have to accommodate tight hamstrings, glutes, and other limitations but those limitations don’t result in an ideal position. It is an accommodated position that makes compromises to power production for better comfort of the rider. By working on mobility, both in and out of the weight room, we achieve a better, more efficient position.
Runners also run into form issues when the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and lower back) fatigue resulting in a lack of hip extension. This creates a forward lean and more dependency on the anterior legs, calves, and hip flexors as well as a decrease in performance. The best example of this phenomena is in the finishing miles of an Ironman triathlon where many athletes are lacking the ability to even stand up straight.
If you need other reasons to force yourself to start a weight training program this winter, you can look at the several general health benefits you can get through strength training that you can’t achieve through typical endurance training. For example: increases in bone mass; preventing or reversing sarcopenia; more effective weight loss; and better hormonal balance.
The studies done to date have shown that to really maximize these benefits it is needed to lift relatively heavy weights. While doing strength workouts with relatively lighter weights is needed at times, picking up the bigger weight plates and doing a few less reps will have a much bigger impact on your fitness and overall health. This does put a bigger load on the central nervous system and the risk of injury is slightly higher, but prioritizing these workouts before getting in the endurance workout is crucial for safety and maximizing performance.
What is the best way to start? Learn to front squat and deadlift properly. These can be huge foundation movements and can drastically improve movement patterns for everything you do in life. Honestly, the benefits of learning these movements are huge and should not be underestimated!
I am very happy to announce that later this winter, my book Weight Training for Cyclists will be released and will further expand on the above topics as well give the athlete a good weight training program that can be easily added into their on-the-bike training. Stay tuned for more details!
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