Winter Strength Training for Summer Cycling

Monday, December 16th, 2019

We have teamed up with John Phelan, chartered physiotherapist and nutritionist who will be helping us get ready for the 2020 cycling season. In the first in a series of blogs John shares his views on strength training and how it can improve cycling performance.

“You expect me to lift something that heavy” and “how will that help my cycling” are two expressions expressed by some of my bike fit clients.  There are also those who don’t verbalise it, but I suspect they are thinking along the same lines as those who do! As a physiotherapist, I am responsible for keeping up with scientific research and relay this information onto my clients, with clear explanation, so that they fully understand and are therefore more likely to comply.  Numerous science studies have shown a significant relationship between strength training and improved cycling performance.  The purpose of this blog is to explain the connection as best I can, so that you the reader will see every reason to get stuck into some strength training over the Winter months.

Building muscle and why it’s important

Only right that I should start with my strongest card.  Resistance training builds muscle.  We are destined to lose between 3-5% muscle mass every decade after 30 if we don’t do anything about it.  Loss in muscle, called sarcopenia, is responsible for decreases in quality of life and lifespan itself.  If we strength train twice per week and ensure we are getting sufficient protein and recovery, we can stave off sarcopenia for as long as possible.

Cycling and strength training

If that frightening fact doesn’t convert you, then it’s time to bring your favourite past time into the mix.  Cycling is brilliant, but it has its weaknesses. As you well know, cycling is a non-weight bearing activity, making it great for early stage lower limb injury rehab but not so great for healthy bone production. Weight training gives a bona fide benefit when it comes to bone building.  Cycling pushes us to keep going, improving the endurance capacity of our muscles and raising our cardiovascular fitness like nobody’s business. BUT, it’s not proper strength training.  Here are a couple of definitions to help explain my statement.

Muscle strength is the ability to lift, push or pull something heavy with full force over a short time.  E.g a squat with dumbbells for 8 reps and the last 3 reps must be very difficult.

Muscle endurance is the ability to keep doing something over and over and over without fatiguing. 

Here’s the best bit

A recent study in Norway showed how strength training improved cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2Max and cycling economy in female cyclists.  That all sounds very good!  Fractional utilization of VO2Max is defined as the percentage of your VO2Max that you can sustain for a sustained period of time.  If you are not sure what VO2Max is, fear not, it will be covered in a later blog.  The point I wish to make here is that strength training not only makes you stronger on the bike (handy for climbing hills and racing your club members to the nearest café) but it also improves your endurance capacity and cycling economy.  A win-win if you ask me.

The science of how

Trying to stay brief with this one, blogs are supposed to be easy reading!  I will attach a link to the scientific paper at the end of the blog for any willing readers to check out for themselves.  The female cyclists in the study followed a structured strength training programme over 11 weeks, at a frequency of 2 times per week. This caused a change in the lower limb (quadriceps) muscle fibres from type IIX to type IIA, which happen to be more economical and less fatigable than type IIX.  What some more? If I mention mitochondria, who understands what I mean?  They are the powerhouses within our cells.  It’s where our energy to move is made.  Since strength training increases muscle mass, then it goes without saying that it also increases your mitochondria count.  More mitochondria – more energy.

Right then, who’s in??

If you are completely new to strength training, I would advise watching this short YouTube video with Martin Evans, head of strength and conditioning for British Cycling.  He takes you through the basic movement patterns first, before you start to add weight and get stronger.

And the full scientific paper for all our science nerds.

John Phelan runs a clinic in Cork by the name of Life Fit Physio. 

Wicklow 200 takes place on 7th June 2020 and is now open for registration.