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The role of strength & conditioning in endurance cycling performance

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

Many endurance cyclists neglect the physiological improvement that specific strength programming can have on enhanced performance and reducing possibility of injury.

Typically those who engage in strength training often buy into the idea of "over-specificity" rather than nailing the basics of movement and aiming to improve the neuromuscular capacity of the body to output more efficient and economical movement patterns which are the the primary outcomes of any quality strength training intervention.

Endurance athletes are not strength sport athletes, therefore to maximise the neuromuscular development they must train appropriately. It is good practice for endurance athletes to include strength training as general preparation and aim to develop key functional athletic attributes, rather than trying to train the exact movement we do in our sport under a resistance.

The main goal

The goal of strength training as a whole is to increase the force applied through a movement and/or to improve the rate of force development. But the muscle is only responsible for the final output of this. The pathways between the brain and the muscles (neuromuscular system) is largely responsible for prompting muscle fibres and producing coordinated motor patterns.

'Neural Drive' refers to the motor unit recruitment within the muscle fibres caused by the nervous system sending electrochemical signals to activate and enable contraction of the required musculature. The way in which this process is enhanced via strength training is highlighted below and the result of neural adaptation is an increase in neural drive. Simply put a greater ability to activate only the required muscles.

For example the cycling action - lifting the leg up towards the chest: + Agonist Muscles = the muscle causing the movement (i.e. Quad) + Antagonist Muscles = the opposing muscle that performs the opposite action (i.e. Hamstring) + Synergist Muscles = the assisting muscles to help create the movement or stabilise the joint (i.e. abdominals assist the stability of the hip).

Driving with brake on

Without correct innervation (activation) of the applicable muscles during activity, athletes are limiting their output potential. Think about trying to drive with the handbrake on. The car will still move forwards, though the handbrake limits the output whilst burning up extra fuel. Release the handbrake, and the car accelerates with far less effort. Strength training can have the same outcome for the endurance athlete, you are more efficient and begin to open up far greater performance potential.  The only way to achieve this is teaching the body to move correctly by performing controlled repeated motor patterns that aim to develop connection between multiple joints. At the end of the day, endurance sports are whole body, multi-joint movements. The athlete must have a clear connection between these joints, particularly the hip, knee and ankle to produce the most economical motion possible. Same output, with less energy or effort.

How to do it

Spend time on the most important areas, which are multi-joint, complex movements. Initially work on your technique, squat and deadlift for the lower body, push up/bench press and row/pull up pattern. Do not neglect the "core" muscles including the gluteal muscles to maintain stability of the hip and provide a platform to transfer force from lower to upper body and back.

There is a time and place for accessory or isolation exercises including calf raises and hamstring curl/nordic hamstring variations . However, these are not the essentials and time is better spent on the exercises and their variants. 

Always perform the multi joint areas first in a single session before completing the accessory exercises. Larger compound movements require greater energy and will fatigue you quickly. Note that performing isolation exercises first will fatigue that individual muscle (i.e. calf raises will fatigue the gastrocnemius and soleus) thereby compromising the use of the calf complex during squatting and deadlifting. This will significantly influence your ability to perform the movement.

As for specificity. I reiterate a point I made earlier. Being specific to your sport does not mean doing the same action, the same number of times just with resistance (i.e. single leg cycling in a heavy gear or running hills till exhaustion). We can get a far better stimulus from much simpler, safer and more effective exercises while also minimising the recovery process. A loaded hip thrust or glute bridges will greatly improve hip extension translating to great power output through the pedals for cycling.

Sets & Reps

Sets & Reps aren't the extent of training variables to be employed in strength training. We can also consider rest periods, intensity (weight lifted) and tempo of the movement. However to be able to build neuromuscular pathways the best place to start is with learning to perform a movement correctly. During the learning process it is critical to get the assistance of a qualified S&C coach. A perfectly executed squat at body weight for example, is a far more positive stimulus on the body than heavy loading of a poor technique. Risk vs. Reward, if performing a heavy loaded movement is going to put you at an increased risk of injury due to technique breakdown, it's not worth it. Strength is a supplement to the endurance athlete training regime, not the number 1 contributor.

Beyond this, aiming for 1-3 sets of 1-8 reps per exercise with a load of body weight for beginners and between 70-90% 1RM (RM = Repetition Maximum) will specifically develop muscular strength. Remembering back to the goals of strength training, muscular strength will greatly contribute to increasing the force output of the muscle.

In both cases aiming for a rest period of between 2-4mins between sets is ideal for allowing adequate recovery and greater focus on the neuromuscular benefits rather than promoting muscular damage and ultimately hypertrophy (gain of muscular size).

For athletes beginning to reach a strength peak or whom are capable of translating that new force into a performance setting, targeting muscular power development is key. This is now talking about the rate of force development. Here we aim to achieve 1-3 sets of 1-5 reps at a reduced intensity of 40-55% 1RM.

The sole intent throughout any compound lift (i.e. squat, deadlift) however, should be to lift as quickly as possible. This engages that neural drive to fire at a higher rate and provide a greater neurological stimulus on the body. The beauty of this technique is you don't need to be lifting outrageously heavy to do this. Simply doing a classic vertical jump for maximum height is an example of moving with the intent to be fast.

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