Resistance Training: Does it Really Work for Road Cycling?
– Stephen S. Cheung, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dalhousie University
In the last installment, I suggested a number of cross-training activities to keep your cardiorespiratory fitness high over the winter. However, some of you may have wondered why I left out weight training. Until recently, endurance athletes were strictly warned against any kind of resistance training, as dogma held that endurance and strength gains were mutually incompatible. Over the past decade and a half, however, resistance training has expanded beyond its original bodybuilding image and has become more accepted by cyclists, runners, and Nordic skiers. This has also led to more understanding of the actual resistance training needs of endurance athletes, namely muscular endurance (the ability of the body to pedal a relatively big gear for a sustained period of time) and high power generation (rapid acceleration of a relatively big gear during sprints, short hills, and breaking away from the pack).
That’s all fine and good, but what is the evidence that resistance training will actually improve aerobic performance? Surprisingly, the evidence is relatively sparse. Most studies showing a benefit from resistance training have made the major error that the resistance training program has been added on top of the existing training program. In simple terms, they have added four hours of resistance training to the standard training program of 10 h per week. So you are now comparing 10 h of training per week with 14 h per week, and any improvement might be due to the added volume rather than the resistance training itself. And in real life, we are not able to add extra training time to our week, so resistance training must come at the expense of bike time. Is this a good tradeoff?
It wasn’t until late 2001 that a study finally addressed this problem. Bastiaans et al. (2001) had amateur cyclists (average 13 h training per week) with no background in resistance training perform nine weeks of either strictly endurance training or ~2:1 ratio of endurance to strength training. Strength training was based on low weights and high repetitions, with a focus on explosiveness (high speed of the lift). The important difference with this study was that both groups had the same overall volume (time) of training. After nine weeks, both groups improved their maximal power output and 1 h time trial performance a similar amount. However, the strength training group had a faster improvement after four weeks, and also had greater power output during a short sprint test.
How does this play out on the road? First, strength training, especially during the off-season or when bad weather or travel impacts your bike time, will not be detrimental to your cycling performance and might even improve it in the short term. Second, strength training will increase your short-term power output, which certainly will help you make the split the next time the hammer is dropped. So do not fear the weight room, but keep things focused on cycling specific workouts.
Bastiaans, J.J., A.B.J.P. van Diemen, T. Veneberg, A.E. Jeukendrup. The effects of replacing a portion of endurance training by explosive strength training on performance in trained cyclists. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 86: 79-84, 2001.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at [email protected]