While aerobic capacity is a critical foundation in an endurance sport like cycling, the ability to generate bursts of power is often the secret sauce that determines victory or success. Is there a difference between training for power on versus off the bike?
Solo power from Annemiek Van Vleuten at the 2022 Worlds
A Powerful Argument
First, let’s define what we mean by power. We are focusing on the physics or neuromuscular definition, which is the ability to perform a lot of work in a short period of time. In physics, Power = Work / Time.
Think of an American football offensive lineman coming up from the line of scrimmage to block an onrushing defensive lineman. Pure strength or work performed by itself isn’t the critical determinant of success, so being able to lift a massive weight very slowly isn’t going to help. Rather, success comes in the ability to generate a huge amount of force very quickly to push back against the defender for a very brief period of several seconds.
In cycling, the power number in Watts that we see on our display is the same equation. Namely, 1 Watt = 1 Joule / Second. So 500 W means that we’re performing 500 Joules of work in 1 Second.
So How Do We Increase Power?
Increasing neuromuscular power on the bike brings about a host of benefits. It can help us surge up a series of short rolling hills. It can make those stinging attacks that create a gap from the pack. And of course, it can help us beat our buddies in townline sprints.
But power training also appears to provide a host of benefits during less intense and more steady-state endurance efforts. These include improvements in cycling economy at submaximal efforts, lactate threshold, resistance to fatigue, and even body composition.
So if you’re keen to do specific power training, one question is whether it should be done off the bike with resistance training staples such as squats, hip thrust, and lunges; or whether you can stay on the bike and theoretically benefit from the sport-specificity of the cycling motion. This was tested in 2021 by a Spanish research group (Valenzuela et al. 2021). Here’s the setup:
- 21 male professional (U23 or elite competing at the national/international level) cyclists with maximal oxygen uptake of 78 mL/kg/min. 8 ultimately performed cycling power training (CPT) and 10 resistance power training (RPT).
- Training period was 7 weeks over the off-season (November to January), while they were training 10-15 h/week of mostly endurance riding. CPT or RPT was performed 2x/week.
- RPT consisted of squats, hip thrust, and lunges, with 3 sets of as many repetitions as possible at >90% “Optimal Power Load.” This meant the program was individualized to a resistance designed to generate maximal power rather than sheer weight.
- CPT consisted of 3×4 sprints of standing 6-second all-out sprints in the highest possible gear.
- Outcome measures included body composition, muscle strength (1 rep max on the squat and lunges), VO2max, and power over an 8-minute time trial.
Sprint training for Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux’s Girmay Biniam
On or Off?
First off, both power-training programs were beneficial for almost all outcome measures. This can partly be put down to the simple fact that any additional training – remember that both groups added 2-3 h of weekly training rather than replacing 2-3 h of endurance riding with power training – was going to be beneficial.
However, the beneficial response also matches the emerging consensus in the scientific literature that high intensity or power work during the off-season is critical for maintenance or enhancement of cycling fitness.
But to the question at hand, were there differences between RPT and CPT?
- Three participants dropped out of the study (21 started, 18 finished) but the dropouts weren’t due to the study (crashes, race commitments), and no intervention-related injuries occurred. Training load across both groups were similar.
- Muscle strength outcomes tended towards being slightly better for the RPT group, with significant or close-to-significant improvements for most outcomes. In contrast, the CPT group had no significant improvements in strength measures. Part of this might be explained by familiarity with the lifting task in the RPT group.
- Ultimately, we’re cyclists and care most about cycling outcomes. Here, both RPT and CPT improved equally by roughly 4% in absolute average power or in W/kg over the 8 min TT. In both groups, no intervention effects were seen in cadence, suggesting that both groups were able to generate more torque (i.e., ride a bigger gear) during the TT. Both groups saw a similar slight improvement in power output at either ventilatory threshold or respiratory compensation point.
As I noted above, this study supports the consensus that incorporating power training to a diet of endurance training benefits endurance capacity and performance. This really reinforces that, no matter your preferred discipline of cycling, power training will make you a better and stronger cyclist. This is true even if you are a bikepacker or ultra-endurance rider.
If you are so married to the bike that you refuse to do anything but ride, then the good news from this study is that you can stay on the bike and add some workouts of big gear sprints to your training.
However, while it seems that the benefits can be gained even if you stayed on the bike, I would still really encourage everyone to get off the bike and cross-train. The off-bike training will make you a better and healthier all-around athlete, and also provide better odds against mental burnout or overuse injuries from a single motion over and over.
You can also periodize your on/off bike power training. Get off the bike during the off-season and do some form of resistance training, then include on-bike power training during the nice riding seasons. Or do CPT indoors on the trainer in a controlled environment during the off-season, then balance the huge volumes of cycling we tend to do during summer by getting off the bike for RPT!
Ride fast and have fun!
Valenzuela PL, Gil-Cabrera J, Talavera E, et al (2021) On- Versus Off-Bike Power Training in Professional Cyclists: A Randomized Controlled Trial. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 16:674–681. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2020-0305