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Will Strength Training Make You a Better Cyclist?

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article by Anthony Walsh of A1 Coaching

As a cyclist, you can get on well without a strength and conditioning program. But a racing car with a powerful, finely tuned engine won’t perform to its optimum on a weak chassis.

A conditioning program develops a platform for strength, power and speed. Its benefits are proven and the off-season is the time to start.

With cyclists often suffering from low bone density due to a lack of weight bearing activity, especially as they grow older; by building a strength and conditioning component to your training you can avoid osteoporosis and related conditions.

Strength and conditioning can also stimulate growth hormone and testosterone production; slowing the decline of fast-twitch muscle fibres in proportion to slow-twitch as we age.

Getting Started

You need good advice and supervision when getting started with weights. And your programme also needs to be based on periodization; which simply means tailoring it to suit your changing goals as the year progresses.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking building and maintaining strength and conditioning is only for the off season.

Planned properly, a weights program can be developed to maintain the gains you’ve made right through the racing season without compromising performance.

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When getting started its important to remember:

  • Get your existing strength levels assessed and plan you program based on the advice of experienced people. Do not start lifting random weights.
  • You need to learn a good technique for lifting weights in order to avoid injury and prevent aggravating any existing problem with your knees or back, for example.
  • Don’t be put off if you have an existing injury as weights-based strength and conditioning can benefit a range of conditions, up to and including arthritis.
  • Free weights are recommended above machines because they work more parts of the body.
  • You can easily do your conditioning at home with a small amount of weights and equipment.
  • Self-restraint and self-monitoring is important. You must be able to discipline yourself and ditch the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ mentality.
  • Lower-body strength is most emphasized in cycling conditioning, via exercises like squats, lunges, step-ups and so on. But it’s best to incorporate at least some upper-body maintenance work.
  • Focus on form rather than effort. You have enough done when you can no longer hold perfect form.
  • This type of work may result in the need for more stretching and rolling.

Core Strength and Conditioning

A real buzz word in recent years, ‘core’ may be fashionable but it’s a vague expression.

In cycling terms it’s often understood as all the muscles that help maintain pelvic stability on the bike. This is the ‘core’ of power-production and needs to remain stable under load, sometimes over long periods.

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When doing core work, there are some important points to keep in mind.

  • Form is vital for core work. You shouldn’t be struggling or panting. You are overloaded when you lose form.
  • Many local classes claiming to be ‘core’ sessions are just old-fashioned ‘keep fit/aerobics’ classes re-branded.
  • Try to secure good instruction, especially when starting out, precisely because form is so important with core work.
  • Many core activities emphasize abdominal exercises. But working the back – ‘the posterior chain’ – is even more important for cyclists.
  • Good yoga and pilates exercises provide good core conditioning. The ‘warrior pose’ in yoga, for example, mimics the riding position closely.
  • Proper yoga and pilates include a meditative and mindfulness element. This can offer balance to the pressures of a training programme.
  • Strength and Conditioning on the Bike

Strength and Conditioning on the Bike

Some strength and condition work can be done on the bike, but not as a complete alternative to off-the-bike work. Let’s go through three routines that can be done on the bike.

Sustainable Strength Exercises

Pedal on a medium incline at around 60 rpm in a big gear for 5 to 15 minutes. These can easily be incorporated into a group spin on a rolling course.

Form and technique are important and these drills are also good for improving your pedalling technique:

  • Remain seated and remain aerobic.
  • Effort is moderate – perhaps 6 out of 10 – with most effect on the legs.
  • You shouldn’t have a death-grip on the bars, be rocking from side-to-side, or panting.
  • Keep the hands and upper body relaxed and still, with no movement above the saddle.
  • Focus completely on the foot-pedal interface, with power being evenly applied.
  • Concentrate on pulling right through the bottom of the stroke, and up again.
  • Keep doing some high-cadence work during the winter – you don’t want this kind of pedaling to slow your normal cadence.

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Sustained Power Exercises

Begin by rolling at moderate speed in a big gear on the flat or slight incline, and then start ‘stomping’ on the pedals. These are stressful and will build lactate.

  • Remain seated.
  • Try to get the bike up to speed as much as possible – basically a sprint from a low speed in a very high gear Sustain the effort for just 15 to 20 seconds.
  • Recover fully between each effort and four or five efforts are usually enough.

Begin at almost a dead stop on a steep hill in one of your biggest gears. Then, make a full out-of-the-saddle effort.

  • These are demanding and deserve caution – they mimic the squat in the gym but more things can go wrong on a bike.
  • Form is important: do not throw the bike around– the upper body should remain as vertical as possible.
  • The effort should be short – no more than ten pedal strokes each side.
  • This is very stressful on the back and you should be built up with care. However, it is less so on the knees because the knee angle is more open out of the saddle, reducing patellar stress.

Like all training, this type of conditioning on the bike can be mixed-and-matched in various ways and incorporated into your training plan.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind if you decide to do this kind of work:

  • As with all intervals, these should be periodized and begin at a manageable level to avoid injury.
  • Depending on the intensity, these can be stressful on the knees and lower back – thoroughly warm up, build up the intensity gradually, and cut back if soreness occurs.
  • These efforts cannot be done properly on an indoor trainer; the dynamics involved are different as the trainer absorbs much of lateral stresses normally controlled by the core in hard efforts.
  • Your bike needs to be in top condition – you could have a nasty outcome if a chain or other component failed during some of these exercises, particular the peak power intervals.
  • As with all intervals, you are finished when your output drops below 5 to 10 percent of the normal; then it’s time to flick into a low gear and enjoy the cruise home.

What Next?

Taking on a conditioning routine may appear daunting if it isn’t already part of your routine, especially if you’re time poor.

However, the time and commitment involved will be much lighter than your traditional cycling training.

You can get a lot done in 30 minutes, even though 45 minutes to an hour is more common. Some can fit it into the work day. It can also be done at home, and when it’s dark outside or the weather is bad.

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A1 Coaching was founded by Dubliner, Anthony Walsh, when he retired from professional cycling in the USA in 2013.

Even though qualified as a Barrister, Anthony had a vision of providing a coaching service through which he could share the knowledge, strategies and experience he developed through years of tireless research, experimentation and adaptation, and which helped him reach the top of the game.

Anthony envisioned a coaching and mentoring approach based on the best available scientific evidence, combined with a high-level of practical experience and common sense. This would be blended with sensitivity to the unique physiology, ambition and life-circumstances of each client, and also respect cycling’s rich heritage, culture and handed-down wisdoms.

The client-base quickly grew and Anthony began to develop a team that would share his own vision and contribute as broad a spectrum of expertise and experience as possible. This coaching team collaborates closely so that clients effectively draw from the expertise of all.

While the A1 team is continually striving to improve its clients’ performance, it is also constantly seeking to improve the service it provides. In this regard, A1 has developed a unique scheme whereby clients are invited at regular intervals to evaluate A1’s service. In this way there is a reciprocal relationship between A1 and its clients – each helping improve the other’s game.

The use of the most up-to-date scientific evidence underpins A1’s striving for excellence. The game is constantly changing and new scientific data on training methods is emerging every week. But, what information should you trust and which should be viewed with skepticism? What will work in test conditions and what will work in real life for everyday people? And, how does this relate to traditional wisdom and custom, especially dominant in European cycling and related sports?

There is a very strong academic background amongst A1’s coaches and this, combined with huge practical experience, helps A1 bring a scientifically-based, well-informed and holistic approach to the coaching. We do not rely on formula-type coaching approaches. As Head Coach in A1, Anthony Walsh has responsibility for maintaining a consistent high-quality service for clients.

A1 Coaching currently provides a service to a broad spectrum of athletes and in all disciplines, triathlon and adventure racing – we serve athletes from elite international level to those who just wish to stay fit and healthy from cycling and related activities. Our clients range in age from 15 years old to over 60 years old and are based in Ireland, the USA, Canada, Qatar, Australia and many other countries. Along with direct one-to-one coaching, we provide an ever-growing range of allied services.

Cyclists and other athletes supported by A1 work from programs and mentoring which are rooted in science, sensitive to the individuality of the client, and draw inspiration from cycling’s rich heritage and traditions.

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