As the cycling season shifts to off-season mode, the topic of strength training moves front and center. While few cyclists enjoy walking into a weight room bustling with grunting and texting meatheads, most would endure the punishment if it spelled more speed on the bike.

Before we answer the cycling performance question, it’s important to highlight the general health benefits of strength training.

General Health and Variety

The benefits of strength training on general health are well established.  Some of these benefits include maintenance of lean muscle mass (especially important for older athletes) [1], increased basal metabolic rate [2], increased bone mass [3], and improved functional mobility [4].

From a practical standpoint, some athletes enjoy strength training and the variety it adds to their program.  If you’ve got 20 hours a week to train, spending some of it in the gym can be an important mental break from the bike.

It’s clear that strength training provides general health benefits and adds variety to training, but do these benefits translate to speed on the bike?

Research in Review

A recent (2014) review article examined this question with a narrow focus on well-trained endurance athletes.  This review looked at 26 studies from the disciplines of running, cycling, cross-country skiing, and triathlon.

Its authors concluded that strength training does improves endurance performance, while leading to improved economy, VO2max, and muscle power [5].

Cycling Performance

While the aforementioned review covered multiple sports, this article will focus exclusively on cycling performance.  Let’s take a closer look at the cycling specific studies included in the review.

9 cycling studies met inclusion criteria. Most of these studies utilized a similar methodology I’ll summarize below.

Most studies…

  1. Compared two groups of cyclists
    • Group 1 (Control): Typical endurance riding
      • “Typical” meant mostly zone 2 riding specified by HR and training zones
    • Group 2 (Intervention): Typical endurance riding + strength training
      • Strength training protocols varied, but most included “maximal-strength” exercises
  2. Were performed in the pre-season
  3. Utilized strength training 2-3 times a week
  4. Lasted for approximately 12 weeks
  5. Used a strength training progression culminating with low repetitions and high resistance

Reality is Always Nuanced

While this review has been widely referenced to support the positive impact of strength training on endurance performance, I think reality is more nuanced.

Examining these cycling studies overall, we can pretty confidently conclude that endurance riding in addition to maximal strength training makes you faster than endurance riding alone.  A more basic observation would be, “The group that trained harder got faster”.

So should cyclists wanting to get faster start strength training?  If your only objective is getting faster on the bike then I don’t think so.

Here’s where practicality goes a long way. Most cyclists are limited by training time. Their dilemma often looks like this.  “I have 10 hours a week to train, what’s the most efficient use of my time”?

In light of the training efficiency question, the conclusion reached by our review article looks less definitive.  Let’s cook up a hypothetical strength training study to illustrate my point.

Sample Study

In our study we will…

  1. Compare three groups of cyclists
  2. Limit each group to 10 hours of total training
    • Group 1 (Control): Typical endurance riding
    • Group 2 (Intervention 1): Typical endurance riding (8 hours) + strength training (2 hours)
    • Group 3 (Intervention 2): Typical endurance riding (8 hours) + riding at an intensity near lactate threshold (2 hours)

Current research suggests that Group 2 will be faster than Group 1, but what about Group 3 when compared to Group 2?  If your training time is limited, does it make sense to spend 20% of it in the weight room?  To date, no research has answered this question.

Conducting Your Own Experiment

The comparison between high-intensity strength training and low intensity riding doesn’t reflect the “training efficiency” question of most cyclists.

If I’m advising an athlete and their primary objective is to get faster, I’m putting my money on the bike not the weight room.  While “more bike” might be my general recommendation, the best way to approach your training is to utilize personal experience and data.

If you’ve got a power meter, set up your own experiment and measure your results on the bike.  You won’t be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but your experiment should lay the groundwork for identifying the most efficient way to spend your training time.

In Summary

  1. Strength training has numerous health benefits.
  2. Strength training provides variety.  Variety is key to maintaining motivation.
  3. Current research suggests strength training does improve endurance performance, but this research is limited in its application to the “training efficiency” question.
  4. Conduct your own research.  Observe your results using power and performance data.
  5. If you’re crunched for time, err on the side of training specificity. Want to get faster on the bike?  Get on the bike and skip the gym.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1. McArdle, W.D., F.I. Katch, and V.L. Katch, Exercise physiology : nutrition, energy, and human performance. 7th ed. 2010, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health. p.
2. Pratley, R., et al., Strength training increases resting metabolic rate and norepinephrine levels in healthy 50- to 65-yr-old men. J Appl Physiol (1985), 1994. 76(1): p. 133-7.
3. Kohrt, W.M., et al., American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand: physical activity and bone health. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2004. 36(11): p. 1985-96.
4. Liu, C.J. and N.K. Latham, Progressive resistance strength training for improving physical function in older adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2009(3): p. CD002759.
5. Beattie, K., et al., The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes. Sports Med, 2014.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now full-time cycling coach, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.