What are the benefits of Strength and Conditioning for cyclists? Let’s dive into some of them and investigate further…
This is probably the most commonly-suggested reason as to why cyclists should include Strength and Conditioning (S&C) as part of their training plan. There have been countless studies looking at how S&C helps increase cycling power, but it will probably surprise a few people to hear that the power benefits lie beyond just sprint performance. There’s no doubt that, for track or road sprinters, lifting heavy and fast helps with the generation of force and results in an increase of fast twitch muscle fibres (Type 2B or Type 2X or Fast Glycolytic fibres) which are capable of producing large amounts of power quickly. But a lot of research has found that S&C also improves power output during time trial events where oxidative muscle fibres are the main producers of force, as well as increasing overall speed/performance. Some weight focussed cyclists may be worried about building muscle and gaining weight, but when it comes to leg muscle, increased quadriceps cross-sectional area has been linked closely with increased power and performance, as can be seen in the study by Vikmoen et al., 2016 (see references). So, although weight might go up a fraction, the W/kg equation will likely remain the same or increase and, if it remains the same, then performance on the flats and downhills will improve while uphill performance remains the same.
Efficiency and Economy
Another big why cyclists should do strength and conditioning is efficiency and economy. Economy relates to the amount of power you can generate at a given percentage of your VO2max or oxygen consumption, a little like your miles to the gallon. Efficiency relates to the amount of work you can generate for a given energy expenditure. So, if you are using 2 litres of oxygen per minutes (the average for untrained women) and producing 150 watts, S&C could improve your economy and increase that power to 160 watts for the same oxygen consumption. If you are expending 4000 kilojoules of energy an hour, but only 800 kilojoules of that is going to the pedals, you have an efficiency of 20%, fairly common in road cyclists as we generate a lot of excess heat energy. However, if you can put down 1000 kilojoules to the pedals, your efficiency increases to 25%. Studies such as Sunde et al., 2010 have shown that S&C training can increase both cycling economy and efficiency.
Time to Exhaustion
As a result of this improved efficiency and economy, another area found to be improved by S&C is the time to exhaustion (TTE). This is often referred to as the time it takes to not be able to continue exercise while performing at a steady state, be that FTP (not our favourite measure), Critical Power, a set percentage of VO2max, or Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS) etc. So, let’s say you did an FTP test and you held 300 watts for an hour, your TTE would be 60 minutes. Studies have found that after an intervention of S&C training alongside cycling (compared to just cycling), TTE does increase. This is supported by Sawyer et al., 2014, who attributed it to an increase in Watts Prime (W’) but interestingly did not find an increase in CP in their participants. However, with a static CP and a higher W’, the TTE will be decreased and ability to maintain powers about CP will increase.
Another key point relating to performance is position, specifically with regard to aerodynamics. We see a lot of the pros in some amazingly aerodynamic positions that look near enough contorted, and yet they are still putting out large amounts of power with a very reduced hip angle and a lot of pressure on the shoulders and triceps. This is where a full body approach to S&C is very important, as to maintain these very fast and efficient positions, a great amount of core (trunk) strength and stability is required, as well as a good functional range of motion in the hip, and not having a tight posterior chain or even back and shoulder muscles.
Another issue that cyclists can encounter if they don’t do S&C is injuries. We’ve heard of overuse injuries, imbalances, muscle tightness, or even joint issues. Correctly prescribed and properly performed S&C can help to prevent these, as it enables us to strengthen the tendons and ligaments concerned in order to avoid damage to them, as well as to the muscles themselves. When we stretch out not just the tight muscles but also the rest of the muscles along the chain (a tight shoulder can lead to referred pain in the back of the knee), we can increase joint stability and strength by ensuring the muscles around them are strong and functioning properly (shoulder, hips and knees are a common one for this). S&C is particularly good for this as cycling doesn’t necessarily work the muscles which need to be strong in order to reduce chances of injury. Additionally, cycling is a concentric exercise (muscle shortening), whereas eccentric stimulus (muscle lengthening) has been found to be even better for strengthening muscles.
Long Term Health
Finally, we have probably the most important one and the reason why everyone should be doing resistance training or S&C. As cyclists, we don’t experience much impact exercise; it is also a weight limited sport where disordered eating is common. A negative impact of both of these is decreased bone mineral density, which can result in the early onset of osteopenia or osteoporosis. Strength training significantly improves bone mineral density as well as increasing muscle strength, which is very helpful for maintaining proper posture, supporting the bones to reduce the chances of them getting damaged, and maintaining a higher metabolism. Another benefit of this is that, in the long term (decades), performance will be better maintained and/or the rate of decline of the performance will be heavily reduced.
Fortunately as part of SYSTM, we have a host of different strength plans aimed at multiple disciplines, as well as being very beneficial for long term health and function. If in doubt about what level to start at, we recommend starting lower and then building up. It is always better to start lower to avoid any injuries and keep a consistent progression, rather than doing too much too soon.
Vikmoen, O., Ellefsen, S., Trøen, Ø., Hollan, I., Hanestadhaugen, M., Raastad, T., & Rønnestad, B. R. (2016). Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists. Scandinavian journal of Medicine & Science in sports, 26(4), 384-396.
Sunde, A., Støren, Ø., Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M. H., Hoff, J., & Helgerud, J. (2010). Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2157-2165.
Sawyer, B. J., Stokes, D. G., Womack, C. J., Morton, R. H., Weltman, A., & Gaesser, G. A. (2014). Strength training increases endurance time to exhaustion during high-intensity exercise despite no change in critical power. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(3), 601-609.