Practical Guidelines for Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training for Cyclists
Amateurs, Masters, and Time-Crunched Cyclists benefit from both strength training and endurance training, but struggle to fit both into limited available time. The aerobic development from endurance training is obviously sport-specific for cycling and critical to performance. Strength training can enhance some aspects of cycling performance. More important, it is crucial for longevity and long-term health for athletes over 40 years old. But can an athlete successfully train for strength and endurance simultaneously? If yes, then how should you schedule strength and endurance sessions for maximum gains?
The short answer is: Yes, you can train for strength and endurance simultaneously. There are tradeoffs as well as mutual benefits, meaning the focus you place on one affects the other. This is why scheduling concurrent training for cyclists, particularly Time-Crunched Cyclists, is informed by sports science but involves some level of practical interpretation.
Interference Effect: mTOR vs AMPK
Training stress stimulates a cascade of signals and reactions within your body, and the specific signals are associated with the type of stress applied. For example, strength training simulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis. At the beginning of that process, maximum contractions while lifting heavy weights activate something known as the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR). According to a 2014 research review from Kurt Watson and Keith Baar, “When an individual performs a strength exercise, there is a large increase in the contractile (myofibrillar) proteins, whereas when endurance exercise is performed there is a rise in both myofibrillar and mitochondrial protein synthesis” (Watson, et al., 2014).
The concept behind the “interference effect” comes from the fact endurance exercise activates a different signal for adaptation: 5-adenosine monophosphate activated protein kinase (AMPK). The metabolic stress from endurance training increases AMPK activity, which signals the body to increase mitochondrial protein synthesis. The problem is, mTOR and AMPK appear to interfere with each other. Increased AMPK activation results in decreased mTOR activation, which means it’s biologically plausible that concurrent strength training and endurance training could interfere with each other, limiting either or both strength and endurance adaptations.
You’re probably not here for a biochemistry lesson, but if you want to delve deeper into the Interference Effect, mTOR, and AMPK, check out the references at the bottom of the article. The Hickson 1980 study was the origin of the idea.
Does Interference Effect Matter for Amateurs, Masters, and Time-Crunched Athletes?
At our core, coaches aim to leverage sports science findings to improve performance and health for athletes in the real world. The Interference Effect is interesting, but how important is it relative to the ways amateur and Time-Crunched athletes actually train?
Like we talk about with relative contributions from energy systems, the body has “dimmers” rather than “on/off switches”. In other words, the activations for mTOR and AMPK increase and decrease in response to the types and amounts of exercise you perform. An aerobic ride or interval workout on the bike doesn’t absolutely shut down mTOR activation or completely cancel the process of adapting to strength training. Similarly, a heavy strength training session doesn’t negate the aerobic impact of an endurance ride or interval workout.
An athlete’s profile also plays a role. If your primary goal is to maximize muscle size (hypertrophy) and force production (strength), then reducing interference from endurance exercise-stimulated AMPK may be warranted. For endurance sport coaches and the athletes we work with, that is rarely the case. For amateur endurance athletes and Time-Crunched Cyclists, the path to performance goals calls for prioritizing aerobic capacities. The benefits of strength training can enhance your performance in aerobic activities and, more importantly, minimize age-related declines in VO2 max, muscle mass, hormone production, metabolic function, balance, and more.
In other words, even if concurrent strength and endurance exercise limits the maximum effectiveness of each, both are so important for your overall performance that it makes sense to train both concurrently and deal with the tradeoffs as best we can.
Practical Recommendations for Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training
Alright, we’ve established that the big picture benefits of concurrent training outweigh the potential interference between strength and endurance adaptations. The next big question is: How should athletes schedule strength and endurance training to maximize the effectiveness of both?
Strictly Science Recommendations
One option is basing training recommendations on recent research, like this 2023 systematic review with meta-analysis from Markov et al that focused on healthy middle-aged and older adults (i.e., males and females, 50-73 years old). Pulling directly from their conclusions:
“Concurrent training is an effective method to improve measures of physical fitness (i.e., muscle strength, power, and cardiorespiratory endurance) in healthy adults aged between 50 and 73 years, irrespective of sex.”
The table below summarizes the review study’s recommendations for maximizing the benefits of concurrent strength and endurance training.
For endurance athletes, then, separating endurance training from strength training sessions appears to be the ideal scenario. In the study, they designated this as “separate days” as opposed to two sessions separated by a specific number of hours within the same day.
Real-World Concurrent Training Strategies for Cyclists
So, how do we schedule strength and endurance training for adult amateurs, Masters, and Time-Crunched Cyclists in the real world?
Strength and Endurance Training on Separate Days (Ideal but Impractical)
One common training pattern is illustrated below. This pattern has multiple problems for Time-Crunched Cyclists. First, although strength workouts are separated from endurance workouts, there’s very little actual rest. The second problem is that it’s difficult for many TCCs to schedule workouts on 6 days per week.
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You can reduce the number of rides, perhaps by adopting a pattern like the example below. This puts an athlete at three rides and two strength sessions per week, with two complete days of rest. During a base period of the year, this might provide enough aerobic workload (especially with long weekend rides), but the pattern may not be sufficient to support high performance for cycling goals during the season.
There are other possible iterations of weekly training patterns that separate strength from endurance training. And if your schedule is flexible, you can dissociate your training pattern from a 7-day week, but this is rarely pragmatic for Time-Crunched Cyclists with jobs and families. The pain point remains, though: separating strength and endurance training makes it difficult for Time-Crunched Cyclists to simultaneously squeeze in enough strength work, aerobic work, and rest.
Strength and Endurance Training within the Same Day (best fit, when feasible)
The primary rationale for doubling up on strength and endurance training in the same day is to create contrast between “hard days” and “easy days”. For amateurs and Time-Crunched Cyclists, preserving easy days for recovery is a big deal. So, even though competing training stresses in the same day may not be ideal, the concentration of training stress is beneficial because it allows time for complete rest. There’s even some evidence that suggests neuromuscular activation of fast-twitch muscle fibers (which are used in both strength training and high-intensity cycling intervals) may improve performance in a subsequent training session. If you go this route, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Hard cycling intervals first: If cycling is your primary focus and strength training is a supporting exercise, complete cycling interval workouts first to optimize power outputs when you are fresh.
- Lift weights at least 3 hours post-ride: The aerobic exercise-induced interference with mTOR fades after about three hours. Ideally, consider scheduling hard cycling intervals in the morning and lifting in the afternoon or early evening.
- Weights before Zone 2 rides: Consider scheduling your strength training workouts first when combining with a 1- to 3-hour Zone 2 aerobic endurance ride. Even if your legs feel fatigued from the strength session, the cycling intensity is low enough that you can complete a high-quality ride. It’s rare that you’d want to combine a ride longer than 3 hours with strength training on the same day.
A schedule for this scenario might look like this:
Strength and Endurance Training within the Same Session (good for general fitness)
Time-Crunched Cyclists already struggle to schedule 3-5 workout sessions per week, so double days are sometimes a laughable fantasy. When that’s the case, can you combine strength and endurance training in the same session? This could mean completing strength exercises immediately before or after a ride. Practically, this is a challenging scenario for amateur athletes (it works for some elite athletes in specific cycling disciplines) because splitting the focus, time, and energy diminishes training quality for both the strength and endurance workouts. If you are pursuing an ambitious or competitive cycling goals, try to separate strength and endurance training by at least 3-24 hours.
Strength and endurance training in the same session is a more common scenario for non-competitive cyclists and athletes who place equal priority on health, longevity, and performance.
If you go this route, consider the following guidelines:
- Limit pre-ride strength training to activation exercises: Glute activation movements (e.g., hip bridge, banded monster walks, glute kickbacks) and lower body exercises with bodyweight resistance (e.g., bodyweight squats, step ups, lunges) are good choices. These exercises engage and prime muscle groups you’ll use on the bike.
- Lift weights (upper and lower body) after rides: For both performance and safety, ride with fresh leg and upper body muscles. Your legs may be pre-fatigued for a strength session, but that might not be a bad thing. Again, you’re not trying to win a weightlifting or bodybuilding contest. You’re trying to complete sets of 8-10 reps with a “2 rep reserve”, meaning a weight heavy enough that you stop when you could realistically complete two more reps with good form. If that weight is a little lighter after a ride, you’re still going to make progress and you’ll be less likely to injure yourself.
- Focus more on upper body weightlifting: This doesn’t mean ignore your legs in the weight room. Just realize you already stress leg muscles on the bike. Cyclists are often deficient in upper body strength and have substantial opportunity to build modest upper body muscle mass. In other words, if you’re a cyclist with limited time and effort to devote to strength training, upper body movements provide great bang for your buck. What about core strength? Incorporate some core-focused movements, but realize that core muscles are highly engaged in most multi-joint exercises. So, don’t forego upper and lower body strength movements to overly focus on your torso.
A schedule for this scenario may look like this:
Baar K. Using molecular biology to maximize concurrent training. Sports Med. 2014 Nov;44 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S117-25. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0252-0. PMID: 25355186; PMCID: PMC4213370.
Hickson RC. Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1980;45(2-3):255-63. doi: 10.1007/BF00421333. PMID: 7193134.
Markov A, Hauser L, Chaabene H. Effects of Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training on Measures of Physical Fitness in Healthy Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2023 Feb;53(2):437-455. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01764-2. Epub 2022 Oct 12. PMID: 36222981; PMCID: PMC9876872.
Watson K, Baar K. mTOR and the health benefits of exercise. Semin Cell Dev Biol. 2014 Dec;36:130-9. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2014.08.013. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25218794.
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