How strength and conditioning now will develop your cycling power

Posted on: November 7th, 2018

Strength conditioning training cyclists winter

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


Strength and conditioning training for cyclists in winter


It’s an ideal time of year for strength and conditioning coaching. But don’t be fooled into thinking lifting weights and working on your core is only for the off season, writes Dr Tom Daly of Masters Cycling Coaching.


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

A conditioning programme 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 programme can be developed to maintain the gains you’ve made right through the racing season without compromising performance.

When getting started its important to remember:

  • Get your existing strength levels assessed and plan you programme 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 emphasised 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.


Strength conditioning training cyclists winter

Free weights are recommended above using machines in the gym.


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.

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 emphasise 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

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 pedalling to slow your normal cadence.


Strength conditioning training cyclists winter

Track powerhouse Chris Hoy used strength and conditioning as a key part of his training; though only sprint specialists would look to build the kind of bulk and power he did.


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.

Peak Power Exercises

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.


Strength conditioning training cyclists winter

Plenty of riders are turning to strength and conditioning; Ireland’s Dan Martin included.


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.