Developing the muscular strength & stability required to maintain form and function when you’re deep into your race should be the goal in your strength training and the following paragraphs will help you understand why we think this is true.
Cyclists Lack Muscular Strength
Many can ride hundreds of miles per week, complete 200 miles over windy, hilly terrain, or climb big mountains but none of that necessarily equates to being particularly strong or stable. Strong in will and determination, perhaps; but ask them to perform a one-legged squat and not have their knee track to the inside or execute a single-leg prone bridge and not have their hip drop, and more often than not, they can’t do it.
Many will claim that cyclists don’t need to strength train. Rather they argue that aerobic fitness is the most important thing. In addition any time spent training outside of their primary sport is a waste of time. They say for example, “If you want to be better at cycling, you simply need to ride more”. Aerobic fitness is certainly a necessary component of cycling. Similarly, it is true the more you ride the better a cyclist you will become. However, time spent improving your muscle recruitment, strength, flexibility, and stability will improve your economy of movement. This means you will be able to move (with what fitness you have) more powerfully. In addition, you’ll move more efficiently while wasting less energy and minimizing potential injuries. All which in turn, yield faster speeds and increased endurance at the same level of aerobic fitness.
Muscular Strength is What Creates Movement
When riding a bike we apply force to the pedals while turning the cranks at high cadences to produce power. Through the implementation of resistance training you can increase the force-producing capabilities of the “major muscles” that contribute to power production. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, leg curls, leg extensions will train the force-producing quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscle groups. A stronger muscle will be able to produce more force as well as fatigue at a slower rate, thus increasing your muscular endurance.
There are several other factors to consider when addressing the concept of muscular strength. Equally important, and perhaps even more valuable to the endurance cyclist is the concept of muscular stability. This concept focuses more on the “minor muscles” that don’t necessarily contribute directly to power production. These muscles include, but are not limited to, the collection of core muscles that surround the hips, including the lower back and deep abdominal muscles. Stability and power in all sports initiates from the hips and extends outwards to the limbs that make the movement happen.
Excess Movement = Wasted Energy
As an example, rocking hips and/or upper body movement when cycling is wasted energy that stems from a lack of stability in the hips. Stabilize the hips and shoulders with specific training movements and you improve your form, efficiency, power production and endurance. Time well spent.
A factor that coincides with stability surrounding a joint is flexibility. Joint flexibility contributes to range of motion which is essential to producing power for movement. Anyone with inflexible joints can attest to the limited power and speed that is attainable. On the contrary, hypermobile joints that are “overly flexible” can create issues of instability and possible injury. An increase in muscular strength surrounding the hypermobile joint can often improve the stability for those individuals. Just like strengthening muscles with specific exercises, you can improve your flexibility and range of motion with specific exercises. By honing your flexibility (either minimizing or maximizing) your surrounding joints will become more stable and powerful; and in-turn, be less prone to injuries.
Being able to perform an endurance event requires your muscles to repeat movement over and over for many minutes to several hours. Overuse injuries are a major cause of missed training and unmet goals. If your muscles are not functioning in the way they were designed you are putting increased stress on your other soft tissue and joints.
Activate to Alleviate
We engage our larger ‘primary mover’ muscles very easily when training. However, quite often the smaller supporting muscles get overpowered or neglected causing them to ‘turn off’. These muscle ‘imbalances’ often lead to frustrating niggles, if not full blown injuries. As result, these can derail an athlete’s training and racing objectives. By activating these smaller muscles with stability training, you allow them to ‘turn on’ in conjunction with your dominant muscles. Thereby improving both your economy of movement and resistance to injury.
Fortunately, many endurance athletes embrace the idea of strength training. Most athletes typically include some form of strength training for several weeks during their off-season. Unfortunately, most athletes end up dropping their strength training sometime early in their pre-season training. This occurs either because they are bored or feel it gets in the way of their riding. This is an unfortunate occurrence. For long-term continuing improvements from year to year it is critical to include strength and stability training throughout the entire year.
Your return on investment in strength and stability training includes:
- increased force and power production
- decreased rate of muscular fatigue
- increased economy of movement
- less wasted energy
- ability to tap into more of your given aerobic capacity
- more consistent training
- capacity for higher training loads due to increased injury resistance
For these reasons alone, cyclists should make strength & stability training a high priority in their overall annual training program in order to reach their highest level of performance.