This is the time of year when a lot of athletes ask about strength training. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Should they lift heavy or light? Free weights or machines? And what about Crossfit? Coaches have been debating the effectiveness and necessity of strength training for endurance athletes for many years, and even my own view has evolved considerably. Ten years ago I would have told you that if you’re a cyclist, strength training is a waste of time and effort. Not anymore.
We’re Not Getting Any Younger
Any conversation about strength training for endurance athletes requires some parameters of who you’re talking about. It is still difficult to make a compelling case for elite and professional road cyclists or even 30-something high-level Masters to spend significant periods of time lifting weights. The vast majority of the athletes working with CTS Coaches and reading this blog are 35-65 years old, have full-time jobs or are retired, and have athletic aspirations that do not include National Championships or a pro contract. For this population – and I am one of you – strength training should be a component of your year-round training.
Strength training preserves muscle mass
Athletes over 40 always complain about their slower metabolism, and while age plays a role, the amount of muscle you’re carrying on your frame plays a bigger one. As we get older we tend to be less active, and as a result we lose muscle mass. You may be more active than others in that you’re a cyclist, but look at your overall lifestyle. Are you more or less active now than you were in your twenties? You most likely sit more, do less manual labor, less lifting and chasing of children, etc.
Resistance Training and Weight Training Enhance Coordination
Whether you are doing bodyweight resistance exercises, lifting free weights, or using rubber tubing, there are balance and coordination components to your movements. This develops and maintains neural pathways for proprioception and balance, and it develops small muscles that help your stability. Why is that important? When your balance and coordination are not well trained during middle age you end up lifting objects or moving your body in ways that place inappropriate stress on weak muscles. This is part of the reason moving furniture or hiking with a heavy pack leads to significant soreness or injury.
For the people who are already past middle age, falling and breaking a hip is a real concern, even for aerobically fit older athletes. Breaking a hip can take years off your life expectancy, mostly because it often hastens the decline in overall activity level. While a broken hip may not be an immediate concern for most of the athletes reading this blog, an established routine of resistance or strength training, even yoga, can keep your balance and proprioception at a higher level for many years to come. The higher your overall fitness and coordination is in middle age, the more of that fitness and coordination you can retain as you get older.
Strength Training makes you smarter
It’s well established that exercise improves cognitive performance, and in recent years research has delved into how different types of exercise affect the brain. In a review in Frontiers in Medicine, Yael Netz explains that physical training (aerobic or strength training) and motor training (complex movements with lower metabolic cost, like Tai Chi and balance challenges) both improve neuroplasticity, which increases our ability to take in and retain new information. Improved physical fitness also improves oxygenation and blood flow to the brain.
It turns out intensity is a key factor when it comes to physical training activities improving cognitive performance, and movement complexity is key when it comes to motor training activities. Dual activities (activities with physical and motor components) are even more effective (and time efficient). Strength training often falls into this category because the movements can be complex and physically strenuous.
In elderly populations, there is a lot of interest in strength training’s potential for reducing cognitive decline. Not only does strength training keep older adults more mobile, stable, and physically capable; aspects of strength training can be executed by people with low mobility or balance issues. The duration and physical footprint necessary for strength training are smaller than with aerobic training, perhaps making it more practical for elderly populations. You and I may not be elderly (yet), but the principles are consistent: improved physical fitness from high (relative) intensity, complex movements has a positive impact on cognitive performance and executive function.
Strength training increases your options
This is crucially important for lifelong cyclists. I have long described something I refer to as “the cyclist’s paradox”. Cyclists have extremely well developed aerobic engines, yet very underdeveloped musculoskeletal systems for any sport other than cycling. You have the aerobic engine to run pretty fast for a prolonged period of time, but because cycling is weight-supported many cyclists can “outrun” their skeletal system’s ability to handle the stress of either the speed or duration their aerobic engines can support. Similarly, lifelong cyclist frequently have severely underdeveloped upper body strength. This limits the exercise and activity options cyclists feel prepared to participate in. When you are a time-crunched athlete, having the option to go for a run or hit the hotel gym during a business trip can mean the difference between doing something and doing nothing.
Strength training keeps you in the game
Even if you see yourself as primarily a cyclist I encourage you to expand your vision and aspire to be a well-rounded athlete who happens to focus on cycling. This distinction touches on all the points raised in the sections above, but perhaps the greatest advantage of being a well-rounded athlete who cycles is that your activities off the bike help you to be more effective on the bike. Note, I didn’t say that your off-bike activities made you faster on the bike, but rather, more effective. In my experience, well-rounded athletes are able to be more consistent in their sport-specific cycling training because they spend less time sidelined by soreness and injury caused by being unprepared for activities of daily living. Yes, silly things like moving furniture and heaving luggage knock cyclist out of sport-specific training frequently enough to disrupt training programs.
But, does Strength Training Make you Faster?
So, does strength training make you faster on the bike? Probably not in a direct sense. Even though squats, for instance, use the same muscles you use to push on the pedals, the rate of force production is far slower during a squat than it is during a pedal stroke. You don’t squat at the leg speed of a 90rpm cadence. However, in an indirect sense, the fact that strength training makes you a more well-rounded athlete, increases the range of activities you can participate in, and increases your chances of exercising on a more consistent basis, means you can apply a greater training stimulus more frequently than you could otherwise. And that can definitely make you a faster cyclist.
There are a lot more topics to cover on the subject of resistance and weight training, including what equipment and movements to use, how frequently to incorporate strength training, and how to balance strength training with endurance training. We have some additional articles on the subject, here:
CEO/Head Coach of CTS