So, you’re looking to increase your cycling speed, your mile time, or improve whatever other endurance goals that you may have. You bring this up to your friend; a fellow cyclist. He tells you that he’s started to get more serious about lifting weights in the gym and has added a strength training routine to his cycling regimen. “But how would that improve your cycling ability?” you think to yourself. “That doesn’t make much sense.”


Does Strength Training ACTUALLY Help With Your Cycling Abilities?

It actually makes quite a bit of sense. So much so that there are quite a few studies illustrating your friends’ case to be true. In one study of 19 elite female duathletes (meaning that they were both runners and cyclists), they were divided into two groups; either endurance training alone or endurance training combined with strength training. The strength training group performed lower-body exercises such as squats and leg presses, progressing to heavier weights as the 11-week study continued.

What this aforementioned study primarily discovered was that including strength training in conjunction with their endurance regimens was able to increase the athletes’ power output during 5-minute maximal cycling testing. Plus, this was performed in a fatigued state, as they had already performed both the strength training protocol as well as a 180-minute prolonged cycling session beforehand. Another related study with moderately-trained cyclists illustrated a significantly improved cycling economy and time to exhaustion after strength training. So we can definitely see here how strength training can help out with endurance performance!

Not so Fast, my Friend…

Although strength training is a great tool for us endurance athletes, it’s also not going to be your primary training focus. You should always prioritize your cycling-specific training over strength training. I say this because although significant parameters such as cycling economy and time to exhaustion were improved, more important endurance performance variables like VO2 max did not improve. They stayed exactly the same between both the study groups.

How About for Running?

There is much more data available about this than there is for cycling. In fact, there is so much evidence that authors of a 2018 paper were actually able to publish a systematic review on the topic. Basically, a systematic review is the combination of the results of similar studies within the same topic of examination.

Here, it was illustrated that for long-distance runners, running economy was improved by as much as 2-8% in 20 out of the 26 studies. Interestingly, this was seen in runners of all levels of experience; ranging from moderately-trained to elite-level athletes. And although adding strength training won’t improve your VO2 max as previously mentioned, it doesn’t hinder it either. This is a major plus, as there is a commonly misleading belief in the endurance athlete community that participating in strength training will cause a shift in adapting too much to non-aerobic training and will cause them to lose their endurance performance since these are two very different training stimuli. Fortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case. The ability to train concurrently, meaning the utilization of two different training methods in order to reap the rewards of both, is definitely possible while mitigating any potential negative effects.

Inter-individual Variability

However, what we do have to keep in mind, just like with the cycling studies, is that inconsistencies do exist in the scientific literature. This is due to several hosts of factors, such as differences in a studies methodologies, which would be the way in which the researcher conducted the study. This would include things such as what variables they measured or what sort of training program they put them through. Also, science has a natural error associated with it due to the number of differences, or what we call in the scientific literature, “inter-individual variability”, between athletes. This is why researchers randomize subjects in their studies, however, although this may limit the effect that this variability plays, it still does exist to a slight degree.

Because of this, applying these previously mentioned strength training recommendations to your routine should be made with caution. Even though “the science” may say it works, everybody is unique and responds optimally to different things, so utilizing trial-and-error here is a must. But you’d be missing out if you didn’t at least try to apply strength training to your endurance routine for at least a 6-week time frame to truly see if it makes a difference in your performance.

How Do I Get Started?

I’d replicate what many of the studies in the systematic review used. In this way, you’d be using a training program that has been previously validated by researchers, which is what you want. This is what most of the studies in the systematic review used for their training programs:

Training Program Basics:

  • 2-6 sets of 3-10 reps per exercise @ 70% of their 1-rep max
  • 2-3x per week on average
  • Utilize at least 1 multi-joint exercise, such as a squat or leg press
  • Use a combination of both free weights and machines
  • Utilized the concept of Progressive Overload, which basically states that you must increasingly challenge your body with each and every workout, such as by increasing weight and reps, decreasing rest time, etc.

I’d start out on the lower end of the set range, such as 2-3 sets for about 8-10 reps, which would allow you to work with lighter weights. In this way, you avoid burnout and you’re more likely to stick with the training program. Then, as you get stronger, you can progress from there.

Conclusion

So give this a shot. Chances are, as illustrated by the vast amount of scientific literature that’s available, it’ll help you improve your endurance performance more than your previously-held beliefs led you to think. The great thing about this is that it doesn’t take much additional time either; only 2-3x per week for about 45-60 minute sessions. This includes approximately 45-60 second rests between sets, so it won’t fatigue you too much, allowing you to keep up the same intensity in your endurance-specific training. Alright, now you’re armed with the tools, now go put it to good use. Let me know how it works out for you!

Looking for a strength and conditioning plan tailor made for endurance athletes? Check out our plan here!


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References

Blagrove, R. C., Howatson, G., & Hayes, P. R. (2017). Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 48(5), 1117-1149. doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7

Sunde, A., Støren, Ø, Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M. H., Hoff, J., & Helgerud, J. (2010). Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in Competitive Cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2157-2165. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181aeb16a

Vikmoen, O., Rønnestad, B. R., Ellefsen, S., & Raastad, T. (2017). Heavy strength training improves running and cycling performance following prolonged submaximal work in well-trained female athletes. Physiological Reports, 5(5). doi:10.14814/phy2.13149

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) Certified Coach, a level 2 certified Training Peaks coach, a USA Cycling certified power based training coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a licensed physical therapist assistant. He is also the creator of Zwift's "Build Me Up" Flexible Training Plan. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com for any cycling or training related questions.

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