Strength training in endurance sports

  • strength training during the preparation phase can improve performance more than just endurance training.

  • Maintenance strength training during the competition phase can improve performance further whilst endurance training does not.

  • Strength training can improve time trial performance and also longer distance oxygen economy.

  • Strength training can improve the power output in a sprint finish at the end of a longer distance.

  • There is benefit in performing a mixture of explosive and high intensity training like CrossFit.

 

We have had a few cyclists and triathletes come and go at MVMT42 over the past year. To start with I’m going to combine the groups to ‘cyclists’ — yes, I know the difference, but the movement mechanic faults are seen in both groups.

These cyclists seem to stay shy of strength and conditioning or a CrossFit program, they challenge the usefulness of gym exercise for an endurance sport like cycling. Most of them are recreational cyclists and my argument is I think more power is always useful to have.

Power is defined as force x speed. More power comes about by pedaling faster for the same force, delivering more force, or a combination of the two.

In our first introduction class we look at the athletes posterior chain in its current form and start to build the basic foundations of posterior chain development to the athlete. This is normally in the form of a deadlift.

In most cyclists its been noted that when they stand in a neutral position there is an anterior tilt on the pelvis, slight thoracic flexion and shoulders internally rotated. I assume from the broken position on a bike the athlete holds to limit wind resistance and the body sets here. The ankle and foot also show ‘pes planus’ or flat feet where if the athlete stands the arches are collapsed.

As a strength and conditioning coach I cannot give input to why it happens to a recreational cyclist. Maybe the combination of sitting in an office chair with a 4 hour bike ride in a broken position over time created the upper body section. But the flat feet should be a cause of concern. Flat feet tend to lead to quad dominant athletes and week hamstring development. With our cyclists in the gym they typically show strong front squat and weak deadlift statistics during their first testing weeks that supports this theory.

This initially implies that the athlete can hammer the pedals hard down but struggles to bring them back up. But further study suggests under developed hamstrings further weaken the zone 1 down stroke.

“A lot of people think hamstrings are used only on the upstroke,” says Carver, “but a good cyclist uses a lot of hamstring in the downstroke, because it extends the hip.”

This got me thinking and the research continued…

My understanding of the off season is that its the time to get the miles in and is characterised by long slow rides. While “getting the miles in” has been the mainstay of classic endurance cycling programs the idea was to find out if strength and conditioning supported cyclists in the off season and if staying indoors out of the cold, dark and wet sussex roads would benefit them.

The first article by Rønnestad, Hansen, and Raastad explores pre-season and in-season strength training. Two groups of cyclists were compared for cycling performance, oxygen consumption, muscle cross-section area, and strength during a twelve-week preparation phase followed by a thirteen-week in-season program. During the twelve-week preparation phase, one group followed a program of endurance and heavy strength training twice per week.

The other group undertook a program of endurance training only. During the thirteen-week competition phase, the previous strength training group undertook strength maintenance training once per week. The exercises were designed to resemble cycling motion and included half squat, recumbent single leg press, standing one leg hip flexion, and ankle plantar flexion.

It is perhaps, no surprise that the leg strength increased by 23% in the weight training group and was maintained. Leg strength did not increase in the endurance group. Additionally, in forty-minute time trial tests, the strength group increased their mean power by 8% during the preparation phase and then a further 6% by the end of the competition phase. The endurance group increased mean power by 4% at the end of the preparation phase and this was not increased in the competition phase.

A year later in 2011, Rønnestad, Hansen, and Raastad executed another test to see what would happen if cyclists undertook a longer submaximal activity of 185 minutes followed by a five-minute sprint. This might be similar to a road race with the final finish. As before, one group performed strength and endurance training, while the other group performed just endurance training. The strength group showed a lower heart rate and oxygen consumption during the last hour of the 185-minute exercise compared with the endurance group. The strength group also increased mean power output during the final five-minute sprint by 7.8% compared to no increase by the endurance group.

In 2010, Sunde et. al. studied the effect of maximal strength training on cycling economy, work efficiency, and time to exhaustion between a strength training group and an endurance group. The strength group performed half squats three times per week to supplement endurance training over an eight-week period. The strength training group exhibited significant improvements in rate of force development (16.7%), cycling economy (4.8%), work efficiency (4.7%), and time to exhaustion at maximum aerobic power (17.2%). The endurance group showed a small increase in work efficiency (1.4%), but the other factors were not improved.

And back in 2005, Paton and Hopkins subjected cyclists to a combination of explosive and high intensity training during the competitive season. They found a program of explosive single leg jumps and high intensity thirty-second intervals contributed an 8.7% improvement in power during a 1km time trial, an 8.4% improvement in power during a 4km time trial, and a 6.7% improvement in peak power. The changes observed for the control group were less than 0.3%.

One final thought is that as you get older natural processes, if left unchecked, can reduce bone density and muscle tone. Even if you are not convinced by the benefits of resistance training for cycling, if you wish to win a vets race in ten years time, you may wish you had.

In conclusion:

  • strength training during the preparation phase can improve performance more than just endurance training.
  • Maintenance strength training during the competition phase can improve performance further whilst endurance training does not.
  • Strength training can improve time trial performance and also longer distance oxygen economy.
  • Strength training can improve the power output in a sprint finish at the end of a longer distance.
  • There is benefit in performing a mixture of explosive and high intensity training like CrossFit.

 

Nathan Hearn

Co-Founder at MVMT42

First Published in November 2014 

 

Smart Performance