The winter season is the perfect time to take a break from sports-specific workouts and get in some strength training. It’s been proven that this will make you better prepared for summer competition. While the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes has been proven time and again, you may actually be better off staying out of the gym this winter.
In deciding whether to include gym work into your winter training program, you have to take a look at the total amount of time you have to devote to training during the week. Every hour you spend in the gym is one less hour you have to spend on your bike, and if your work and family schedules, together with limited daylight, leave you with fewer than eight or nine training hours each week, you’re better off spending all your available time on your bike.
Strength training is effective for increasing muscular strength, improving the integrity of connective tissues (tendons and ligaments), increasing bone mineral density, and increasing power output. As an endurance athlete with limited training time, however, you have to consider whether these benefits will improve your cycling performance more or less than spending your time on your bike rather than in the gym.
If you have eight total hours to devote to training each week this winter, and an effective strength training program will require three one-hour trips to gym, you’re only leaving yourself five hours a week for riding. Divided across four workouts, your longest rides are probably going to be two hours or less. Spreading all eight hours across four workouts, you may be able to extend your rides to two to three hours. Maintaining and improving aerobic conditioning requires a steady and continuous load on your aerobic engine, meaning your two- and three-hour rides are going to be more effective than one-hour rides for improving your aerobic engine.
Staying out of the gym doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the benefits of resistance training. On-the-bike resistance workouts provide many of the same benefits without the need to add hours to your total training load.
On-the-Bike Resistance Workouts
On-the-bike resistance workouts generally involve the use of large gears and low cadences in order to set up an “overgeared” situation. By increasing the tension you’re pushing against, you’re placing a heavy load on your leg muscles during each pedal stroke, much like you do when lifting weights. Two examples of highly effective on-the-bike resistance workouts are PowerStarts™ and MuscleTension Intervals™:
Shift into a large gear (53×12-15) and slow down to a very low speed (1-2 mph). With your hands in the drops and one pedal in the two o-clock position, you’re going to jump out of the saddle and pound on the pedals to accelerate as rapidly as you can for 10-12 seconds. The point of the effort is to produce a great deal of power in order to accelerate against a high resistance, so once you’re spinning the gear quickly, the effort is over. Shift into an easy gear and spin for five minutes of recovery. Start with one set of four Power Starts, and progress to two sets of six.
Muscle Tension Intervals
These intervals are best performed on a gentle grade (about 5%) between five and ten minutes long. Shift into a large gear that allows you to maintain a steady effort at a cadence of about 50-55 rpm. For the duration of each interval, you’re going to want to stay seated, with your hands on the tops of your bars. This overgeared climbing puts a lot of tension on your leg muscles and helps enhance muscle fiber recruitment. Most of the time, your nervous system only recruits a portion of the total fibers in muscle; these intervals help train your body to spread the work over a greater proportion of available fibers. The more muscle fibers you recruit, the more power you can produce. Start with two five-minute Muscle Tension intervals, separated by 10 minutes of recovery. Gradually increase the length of the efforts to ten minutes, and then start adding additional intervals.
And For a New Twist… Single Speed Mountain Biking
Part of the allure of going to the gym is that it adds variety and a change of scenery for cyclists who spend the rest of the year patrolling the same dozen routes around town. One other way to add a new twist to your training, and gain strength and power in the process, is to ride a single speed mountain bike.
Single speed mountain biking has enjoyed a cult following for a long time, and has become more popular over the past several years. Not to be confused with a fixed gear bicycle, a single speed has a freewheel that allows you to coast, but only one gear and no option to shift into an easier or harder cog. The most common setup is a 2:1 gear ratio, which you can make with a 34-tooth chainring and a 17-tooth cog or a 36-tooth chainring and an 18-tooth cog.
Having only one gear forces you to think ahead, as preserving momentum is often the only way to avoid having to get off and walk to the top of a hill. Whenever the trail tips upward, you will find yourself overgeared, much like during a MuscleTension Interval. The terrain will dictate how much time you spend pushing against a lot of resistance, but over the course of a one- or two-hour single speed ride, you can accumulate a lot of high-power, low cadence resistance work.
Single speed mountain biking provides a less-structured, yet highly effective method for developing leg strength and power that easily transfers over to your road cycling. Carmichael Training Systems coaches who utilize this type of training with their road racing cyclists find their athletes see dramatic improvements in their ability to accelerate from low speeds, like out of tight corners in criteriums and turnarounds in time trial events.
While lifting weights can be an effective way to gain strength and power, many athletes don’t have enough total training time to divide between the bike and the gym. If you have ten hours or more to devote to training each week, weight training may be a viable option for you. For those of you with less time, stay on your bike and out of the gym. Spending your hours wisely, on your bike, will deliver you into next spring with a stronger aerobic engine, improved sport-specific strength, and greater power. As an added bonus, now that you don’t need that gym membership, you’ll have more cash for holiday gifts.