Comparison of Short-Sprint and Heavy Strength Training on Cycling Performance
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Purpose: To compare the effects of short-sprint training (SST) and heavy-strength training (HST) following a 4-week strength-training period on sprint and endurance capacities in well-trained cyclists.
Methods: Twenty-eight competitive cyclists (age 29 ± 6 years) with maximal oxygen uptake of 61.1 ± 5.9 mL⋅min–1⋅kg–1 participated. After a 4-weeks preparation strength-training period, the participants were randomized to add either HST or SST to their usual endurance training for the subsequent 6 weeks. Body composition, and power output at blood lactate concentration ([La–]) of 4 mmol⋅L–1, as well as a 100 min cycling test including 6 and 30-s sprints, 60 min cycling at [La–] of 2 mmol⋅L–1 and 5-min all-out cycling were performed before the 4-week preparation strength-training period, and before and after the 6-week intervention period. In addition, 1 repetition maximum (RM) in half-squat and 55-m maximal sprints on the cyclists’ own bikes were measured before and after the 6-week intervention.
Results: SST was superior to HST in 6-s sprint performance, both in a fresh state (4.7 ± 2.6% vs. 1.1 ± 3.5%) and after prolong cycling (6.1 ± 1.8% vs. 1.8 ± 4.2%), in 30-s sprint (3.7 ± 2.8% vs. 1.3 ± 2.5%) and in 55-m seated sprint on own bike (4.3 ± 2.1% vs. 0.2 ± 1.8%) (all p < 0.002). HST induced a larger 1RM improvement in the half-squat test than SST (9.3 ± 3.6% vs. −3.9 ± 3.8%; p < 0.001). No group differences were revealed in the 5-min all-out test, power output at 4 mmol⋅L–1 [La–], or in gross efficiency.
Conclusion: SST led to a greater increase in average and peak power output on all sprint tests compared to HST, whereas HST led to a greater increase in maximal strength. No group differences were found in relative changes in endurance capacities. Altogether, our results show a high degree of specificity in the adaptations of both SST and HST.
Road cycling is a demanding endurance sport, with performance mainly determined by maximal aerobic power, the ability to utilize a large fraction of maximal aerobic power over long-lasting competitions and cycling efficiency (Jeukendrup et al., 2000; Faria et al., 2005). In addition, the ability to perform breakaways, to close gaps, and to sprint fast in the finish-sprint are important to win races (Faria et al., 2005). Although endurance training is undoubtedly the most important component in cyclists’ training regimen, training with the goal to increase the capacity to produce high-power output for a relatively short duration through heavy strength and sprint training could be beneficial. In fact, especially during the pre-season, many competing cyclists include strength training in addition to the usual endurance training with the goal to increase the capacity to produce high-power output. A strength-training period usually starts with a preparation period focusing on building basic strength capacity through high volume and medium load, followed by a period with heavy strength training (HST) to increase maximum strength through lower volume and higher load. Finally, there is a sport specific high power strength period focusing on maximal power development (Kraemer and Ratamess, 2004; Fleck, 2011). It has been shown positive effects of HST on various factors related to cycling performance, without any negative interference effects on the endurance capacity (Koninckx et al., 2010; Ronnestad et al., 2010a, b, 2011, 2015a, 2016; Aagaard et al., 2011; Ronnestad and Mujika, 2014; Vikmoen et al., 2016). To the best of our knowledge, the effect on cycling performance of going directly from the basic strength-training phase to the sport specific maximal power development phase has not been compared with the traditional approach of moving from the basic strength phase to the maximum strength phase.
Although many road cyclists regularly carry out short-sprint training (SST) in addition to the usual endurance training during the pre-season, only a few studies have examined the effects of this training method. Specifically, two previous studies found that only 2 weeks of SST, involving 6-s sprint intervals, improved peak power output (PPO) and 10 km time trail cycling performance in triathletes (Jakeman et al., 2012) and in physically active men (Lloyd Jones et al., 2017). Another study conducted with trained students found that 7 weeks of SST, performed as 5-s sprint intervals, improved PPO and total work during 30-s all-out cycling (Linossier et al., 1993). Consequently, both HST and SST are common methods in competitive cyclists. However, to date, no studies have compared the effects of HST and SST during the pre-season on sprint and endurance capacities. Therefore, the main aim of the present study was to compare the effects of 6-week HST or SST after a 4-week preparation strength period on sprint and endurance capacities in trained cyclists. In addition, we compared whether the possible effects from these types of training could be transferred to sprinting ability on the cyclists’ own bike. We hypothesized that a larger improvement in sprint performance would occur after SST (as compared to HST), while we expected no differences between SST and HST in endurance capacities.
Materials and Methods
Thirty-two participants (28 men and 4 women) were included in the study, but due to injury and illness, four participants withdrew. Thus, in total, 26 men and 2 women (age 29.6 ± 0.6 years; height 183 ± 7 cm, weight 79.3 ± 9.0 kg) fulfilling at least two of Jeukendrup’s criteria for trained road cyclists completed the study (Jeukendrup et al., 2000).
The Regional Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics in Western Norway evaluated the study to ensure that it did not include any medical or health-related ethical concerns. The study was then approved by The Norwegian Data Protection Authority. All participants gave their written, informed consent to participate in the study, which was completed according to the Declarations of Helsinki.
A pre-post design was used in this study (Figure 1). Participants were tested before and after a 6-week training intervention. After a 4 weeks preparation strength period, participants were randomized either to implement SST (n = 16) or HST (n = 16) two times a week (in addition to their regular endurance training). All cyclists (except three from the SST group and one from the HST group) completed at least 10 of the 12 SST or HST sessions during the 6-week training intervention, and had done at least 6 out of 8 HST sessions in the 4-week preparation strength-training period. Preliminary analysis showed no differences between groups for any of the variables before start of the 6-week intervention (Table 2; all p > 0.05).
A daily undulating periodization HST program (Rhea et al., 2002) based on previous studies reporting significant improvement in strength and cycling performance in well-trained cyclists was used (Ronnestad et al., 2010b, 2015a, 2016). The strength exercises included half-squat in a Smith machine, leg press with one foot at a time, one-legged hip flexion, and toe raise (Ronnestad et al., 2015b). The HST was conducted with the intention of maximally accelerating the load during the concentric phase, while the eccentric phase was performed more slowly.
In the 4-week preparation strength training period, before the intervention, all participants performed 3 sets of 10RM in the first weekly session and 3 sets of 6RM in the second weekly session during the three first weeks, and 3 sets of 8RM and 3 sets of 5RM the last week. During the 6-week intervention, the participants in the HST group performed 3 sets of 8RM in the first weekly session and 3 sets of 5RM in the second weekly session for 2 weeks, and 3 sets of 6RM and 3 sets of 4RM during the four following weeks. Rest between sets and exercises was 2 min. To ensure proper technique and load, an investigator supervised all participants during the first week in the preparation period and all participants in the HST group at the first session in the 6-week intervention period.
The participants in the HST group were encouraged to continuously increase their RM loads throughout the intervention period and to record load (kg), repetitions, and sets performed during each session into an electronic form after each session. They were also encouraged to complete the workouts with another participant from the HST group.
Short-Sprint Training Protocol
The SST program was based on a recent study conducted in our laboratory (Kristoffersen et al., 2018). All sprints in the SST sessions were conducted using an air-braked cycle ergometer (WattBike Ltd., Nottingham, United Kingdom) in a seated position, from a standstill start, with the preferred leg chosen by the participant. All the participants got the cycle ergometers individually adjusted before entering the study. Moreover, the pedaling resistance applied to the sprints was individually adjusted in the first SST session, where each participant performed at least three 6-s seated sprints at different resistance levels to ensure that the participant achieved the highest possible power output at a cadence of 110–120 rpm (Hopker et al., 2010; Herbert et al., 2015). The SST session consisted of 15 min warm-up, followed by three sets of four intervals with maximum effort (separated by 2 min of active recovery between intervals), and 5 min active recovery between sets of cycling at 70% maximal heart rate (HRmax). To reflect practise, a daily undulating periodization SST program with progressive overload by increasing the duration of the sprint intervals every second week was used. During the first 2 weeks, the first and second weekly sessions consisted of 4- and 6-s sprints, respectively. The subsequent 2 weeks consisted of 7- and 5-s sprints, and the final 2 weeks consisted of 8- and 6-s sprints. All sprint sessions were monitored and transferred to the Training Peaks diary through the participants’ bike computers.