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Strength training makes you buff…Or not - The why and how of strength training for endurance sports!

There are so many opinions about strength training when it comes to endurance athletes. I’m here to help you form your own opinion on what’s right for you, because ultimately, every athlete is an individual.

Myth #1:

First off, let’s talk about the elephant in the room… “Strength training makes you buff/ lifting weights makes you heavy!” This is one of the most talked about strength training myths around, in reality, this form of exercises doesn’t build bulky muscle as easily as one would imagine. If you were to speak to most body builders, they would tell you how hard it is to build this kind of muscle, how it takes a long time and about the vast amount of calories they have to consume to support the muscle growth. This being said, strength training can change your body’s physical appearance, but it may not be as apparent as you might expect.

Myth #2:

Another common myth around cycling circles is that “If your training time is limited, then being on the bike/running is more important than weight training”. I do understand that not everyone is a professional who has all day to dedicate to training, but the time we do have available can be spent wisely. Naturally a large part of your training time would be on the bike, but those 30-45min slots you have once or twice a week for a gym session are so important. I (and many other athletes) often fall into the trap of, “I only have 45 minutes, I’d rather rest”, getting up and going to the weight section adds diversity to your schedule and can benefit you far more than you could imagine.

So now that we have debunked the myths, let’s talk about the “why” behind the strength training. Most athletes have a hard time understanding how time not on the bike can be productive and help them reach their performance goals. It is really important to understand that as an athlete, we need to be well rounded. How we do this is by identifying our weakness and improving in these areas. This is where strength training comes in. When we are in the gym we can work on our weakness, niggles, aches and pains that don’t get addressed when we are on the bike. A lot of the time cyclists need to work on upper body, core and posterior chain strength to increase pedal mechanics and power.

Along with the increase in strength and power, comes injury prevention. It is important to remember that when we are cycling or running, we are doing a very repetitive movement for hours on end, so the same muscles are working in the same way day in and day out. It is therefore important to spend time strengthening the muscles that don’t get used as much on the bike but are of vital importance to performance, like the core (research has shown that core fatigue has a negative impact on pedaling mechanics). Another factor to keep in mind is as cyclists, is that we often crash. The stronger our bodies and bones are, the quicker and stronger we come out of the crash on the other side. We reach our peak bone density between the ages of 20-30 years of age, after which a steady decline happens as part of the aging process. Strength training and impact activity helps to build bone density and decrease the risk of bone fractures. Cycling has been shown to be a healthy mode of exercise, but is a low impact activity, which means many cyclists have lower bone density than would be expected. Long story short, weight training builds bone density!

Now for the when and how! A good time to start strength training is in off season or early pre-season, this will help your body adapt to the new training stimulus. When in off season, hitting the gym 2-3 times a week focusing on strength, balance, proprioception and mobility is important. Once you have a strong foundation and pre-season starts to kick off, strength and conditioning can be reduced to 2 days per week where more powerful movements can be focused on. Once the season has begun strength maintenance is important, remember, if you don’t use it you lose it! So don’t neglect the gym, even if you can only do 30mins twice a week, it is far better than nothing! When spending time in the gym it is important to give the muscle groups at least 24h to recover fully from the previous session, so I would recommend skipping a day in-between. If you have a hard high intensity ride, try schedule your gym for the day after or two days before. Another key note is if doing more than one session a day (Cycling in the morning and strength in the afternoon for example) try leave 6-8h in-between sessions to allow for recovery.

As for the exercises that are important, I would recommend some stretching and mobility to start, followed by some light weight movements (add some balance in too) to prime the muscles that you plan to use. This can be followed by 4-6 exercises for the lower body and/or upper body to make up the bulk of the session and then 2-4 core exercises to finish off. When speaking of reps and sets for muscular endurance we usually use a higher rep range of 12-20 and 2-3 sets at a lower intensity with shorter rests and for strength and power we usually use a lower rep range of 2-6 and 3-4 sets at a higher intensity with longer rest periods (up to 3mins).

There is never a right answer for exactly what exercises to do for each individual athlete, but some common ones are things like hamstring curls, squats, deadlifts, split squats, glute bridges, hip openers for the upper body, pushups, pull ups, rows for the upper body and planks, dead bugs, stability ball rollouts for the core. There are so many exercises out there but I recommend multi-joint functional strength exercises. Never be afraid to do your strength training in front of a mirror, that way special attention can be paid to form. Lifting technique is important, it is therefore recommended that you work on strength and form before you lift too heavy. Don’t be afraid to seek professional advice in the gym to make sure you get it right and don’t injure yourself.

That’s all from me, happy strength training!

Stacey Wilkinson

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