Chapter 2: Getting Faster

While nearly any strength training is good for your health, if improved cycling performance is your goal, lifting heavy is your best bet [15, 16].

To understand why heavy strength training is preferred for performance-minded cyclists, let’s pause for a simplistic primer on the three general types of muscle fiber [17].

Type I

Oxidative fiber with a high endurance capacity, low force capacity, and high fatigue resistance

Type IIa

Oxidative/Glycolytic fiber with a moderate endurance capacity, high force capacity, and moderate fatigue resistance.

Type IIx

Glycolytic fiber with a low endurance capacity, the highest force capacity, and low fatigue resistance. 

As an endurance sport, cycling is most reliant on oxidative metabolism. The incredible aerobic potential of Type I fiber is why the best endurance athletes in the world spend hundreds of hours mainly doing low intensity/high repetition training (i.e., pushing relatively lightly on pedals) [18].

Our oxidative energy system is the primary driver of cycling performance

While long, slow distance may optimize your “low force” Type I’s [19], all that time in the saddle can have a withering effect on your “high force” Type II’s [20].

Those neglected Type II fibers are the primary target of heavy strength training routines found in exercise science literature [21].

Mechanisms of Performance

So how might getting off your saddle and spending more time in a squat rack make you faster? Let’s examine a few theories.

Heavy strength training may:

Shift Fiber Composition

Untrained and highly trained cyclists saw a shift to a higher proportion of Type IIa fiber after heavy strength training. Since Type IIa fiber is more oxidative and fatigue resistant than its IIx brethren, researchers suggest this shift in fiber composition may be responsible for improved performance on the bike [22-24].

Improve Fatigue Resistance

Cyclists who performed heavy strength training showed improved performance in an all-out 5m time trial after 185 minutes of sub-maximal cycling [25]. This research supports the idea that heavy strength training may increase cycling economy by decreasing the percentage of maximal effort needed to drive each sub-maximal pedal thrust [26].

Improve Neural Drive

Research shows that chronically strength-trained individuals have a superior “neural drive,” enabling recruitment and coordination of more Type II fiber, leading to increased force production [27-29].

Reduce Cramping

Research suggests that acute muscle damage during exercise might be a driver of muscle cramps. In short, incorporating strength work in your training may reduce muscle damage during exercise, making you less likely to cramp during an event [30].

It Depends

We’ve already stated that improved health is the most compelling reason to start strength training, but what if all you care about is getting faster? Should you sacrifice precious ride time for work in the gym?

How to best divide training time between the bike and gym is where cycling coaching opinions often diverge. Since everyone has an opinion, I’ll share mine. 

I think the degree to which strength training might improve your performance on the bike likely depends on a combination of your available training time, age, exercise enjoyment, and genetics.

To illustrate this point, I’ll evaluate four hypothetical cyclists and offer a snap judgment on whether adding strength training to their cycling will make them faster. We’ll assume each cyclist has access to equipment for heavy strength training and that total time commitment, stretched across two strength workouts a week, will be about two hours.

Again, my judgment only considers whether strength training is likely to improve their cycling performance in the short term, without concern for overall health. Here we go.

Cyclist One

22-year-old male, history of various team sports throughout high school, 10 hours a week to train.

Snap Judgement: Skip the strength work and pour all your time into the saddle but know your bones and long-term durability might pay a price.

Cyclist Two

48-year-old male, busy professional, 15 hours a week to train.

Snap Judgment: You’re getting older and have lots of time to train, adding strength training makes sense.

Cyclist Three

22-year-old professional cyclist, 30 hours a week to train. 

Snap Judgment: Your whole life revolves around the bike. Adding strength training for health and potential performance improvement is the best call.

Cyclist Four

35-year-old female, busy mom, 6 hours a week to train.

Snap Judgement: Put all your time into the bike while incorporating sprint work whenever you can but don’t put off strength training for too much longer.

The takeaway? Improved health is a good enough reason to strength train, period. But if all you care about is getting faster and have limited time to train, make sure you’re riding enough to maximize your aerobic potential before sacrificing ride time to lift weights.