Part of a training program for any big ride incorporates cross-training and recovery elements, which play an important role in helping you become a stronger cyclist and preventing injuries by correcting muscular imbalances.
Strength & Conditioning Tips
Follow these tips to help you prepare for the RBC GranFondo Whistler.
Avoiding Strain Injuries on your Bike
With the growing popularity of cycling comes a truth; by nature it is a low impact activity but the repetitive nature of the movement comes with a large possibility of muscle imbalances. Ultimately it is muscle imbalances that will make a rider more prone to strain and injury on the bike, and will keep him or her from real advances in his/her strength, speed and leg endurance. Read more.
Developing Power for Climbing
I hate riding up hills. Do they ever get easier? How does one get stronger and better at hill climbing?
These questions pop up quite a bit...Every rider wants to climb faster (even pure sprinters) and if you're willing to train hard, it'll happen. Training on the terrain you want to improve on is key, and simply put, climbing hills will make you better at climging hills. Will it make you stronger though? Not necessarily, and in this article, I'll tell you why and give you some basic exercises that every cyclist should be doing.
Climbing speed is about power, pure and simple - turning the pedals as fast as you can. Turning a big cog is great, but you have to do it fast. Power on the bike is defined as just that: the speed at which you can move the cranks and the resistance to that movement. A high cadence will tax your cardiovascular system more while a heavy gear will drain stored muscle energy, burn you up and slow your recovery. Finding the right balance is very important. Your ability to produce power is a function of the efficiency of your pedal stroke, your physical ability to buffer against and remove lactic acid build up while pumping blood to the periphery - but also your absolute and relative strength. This last point is often forgotten - you have to be STRONG to get up hills. Training lots on the bike will definitely improve your conditioning but only to a certain point.
Strength can be said to be both absolute and relative. Absolute strength is the amount of force you can produce, clean and simple. Relative strength is that value compared to, in this case, your bodyweight. Big, heavy and strong guys are great on the flats and in sprints because they can generate huge amounts of speed due to high absolute strength. Compared to light and short climbers on the flats, it's no contest. In the hills though, weight is a burden, and even though the smaller riders have less absolute strength, because of their light weight, their relative values are much higher. So do the small guys then need to improve their absolute strength as well? Yes of course!
Here's how: hit the gym. Here are some of my must-do's to improve general strength. Weights need to be heavy, with a low number of reps and high sets. (4-8 reps x 3-6 sets)
This is a great exercise. Huge bang for buck and will improve you in many ways. I like the front squat as it sets up for success. With the load in the front, you're better able to sit back into the move and go deeper into the squat. If you're not into doing it with a barbell, see below to modify with kettlebells or dumbells. Also, check out this video for more detail.
Here's another exercise that will do a lot for you. It's important to first perfect your hip hinge i.e., your ability to bend over with a neutral spine. I repeat, this is not to be done with a round back. A neutral spine is necessary to prevent injury and produce greater forces. This is easily modified to use a kettlebell or dumbell. Here's another great video explaining the lift.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This is a great addition to the routine as it emphasizes a unilateral stance which mimics cycling. I like this one better than other lunges as it is closed-chain and allows for great hip flexion angles in the working leg while the opposite leg goes into hip extension. Be sure to stay upright without arching your back.
Pull up / Row
Ever found yourself pulling up hard on your handlebars as the climb steepens? Enough said. Here's what I'm talking about.
An underrated exercise for sure. This will strengthen your core better than crunches ever will. Be advised, you should feel this in the front of your stomach and not too much in your back.
Although, only just a start, these exercises offer a lot and will go a long way to helping you climb better. I've been asked about other exercises to improve power such as the classic and modified Olympic lifts, box jumps and plyometrics and how they fit in. These are also phenomenal but in my opinio are not as valuable for cyclists putting in long hours in the saddle. Strength is first! Get super strong, and then we'll talk.
Don't blame your bike for that aching back!
Cyclists frequently ask my thoughts on back pain. It's a loaded question with many factors at play and angles to consider and no blanket solution for everyone. A poor bike fit is often the culprit, but, I'd like to discuss some other underlying issues.
Many of us don't realize that our lifestyles and long hours spent sitting at our desks could be causing the harm. Consider the position you're holding all day in your chair - getting up once in a while and moving could really help.
When someone comes in and complains about back pain, I have a look at their posture and very often see what is referred to as Upper and Lower Crossed Syndromes. Simply put, I see the person's body working against itself. Tight muscles on one side coupled with weak or inhibited forces on the opposite side causing imbalances, which change how we feel and ultimately how we perform.
In the case of the Upper Crossed Syndrome - forward head position and rounded shoulders are the most common posture faults. Muscle imbalance patterns develop as muscles tighten and pull the shoulders forward and out of ideal alignment. This can put a lot of stress on common areas like the upper traps, neck and lats. These muscles are 'turned on' and take over as the opposing areas are weak and inhibited ie. the posterior shoulder blade stabilizers and mid back.
In the case of the Lower Crossed Syndrome - the tight anterior component pulls the pelvis forward, causing strain on the low back. One of the main indicators of lower-crossed syndrome is the anterior pelvic tilt. This is caused by the front thigh muscles pulling the pelvis downward. As a result, tension is put onto the hamstrings and an excessive low back spinal curve is created.
An easy way to look at it:
Upper Crossed Syndrome
Lower Crossed Syndrome
upper back & neck
shoulder blade stabilizers
How does this apply to cyclists?
Think of the position we're holding for long periods of time on the bike. Discomfort on the bike could be caused by tight hip flexors, quads, chest and neck, with weak glutes and core function, winging shoulders and a reduced ability to touch the chin to the chest.
Cyclists usually suffer from Lower Crossed Syndrome the most but are unaware of the root of the problem - and stretching the hamstrings provides temporary relief. What solves the problem is corrective exercise, especially if you spend a lot of time in one position and it gets uncomfortable, you have to work on doing the opposite.
Here are my top 3 corrective exercise strategies
1. Hip flexor and quadriceps stretches
This is the most important for lower crossed posture with an anterior pelvic tilt. The easiest and most effective way to get these stretches is in the half kneel position. The first one is primarily for the hip flexors and is done with the back foot on the ground. This should be felt higher on the front of your leg close to your hip. The second is mainly for the quad and uses a flexed knee. This should be felt in the belly, mid-thigh.
When doing these, shift forward slightly while keeping your back flat and your upper body vertical. Being too far forward with your chest is not as affective and should be avoided.
2. Side lying rotation with reach
This exercise offers a lot! Not only does it help your ability to rotate by improving spinal mobility, it's a great way to open up your chest. It's important that your legs form at least a 90 degree angle at your hips. This one feels great.
3. Toe touch progression
This one is a bit tricky as there are many segments to consider here. Being mobile enough to touch your toes obviously plays a great role in your comfort on the bike. Peopl who struggle with this are usually the ones that get sore on long rides. To be brief, a functional toe touch requires mobility in your low back and hamstrings but also requires control in the movement.
Practicing this is important. I like to do 5 touches each with my toes elevated, heels elevated, and feet flat. Helpful cues include establishing core tension to pull yourself down, tucking your chin into your chest, exhaling while pushing your hips and knees back as you lower down.
If you're experiencing discomfort on your bike, corrective exercise can be used to improve posture and alignment. This change can greatly improve efficiency, power and enjoyment while on the bike. The above strategies are a great way to warm-up before and to cool-down after your ride.
Todd is an exercise physiologist and a coach in movement, strength and conditioning at Fit to Train. With an extensive background in soccer, baseball and golf, endurance sports such as running and cycling are his new passions. His specialty is corrective exercise for endurance sports with five years of experience working with a wide range of clients, using a multi-faceted approach with an array of techniques and exercises specifically tailored to their needs.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Todd graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Human Kinetics in Kinesiology. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, as well as a Functional Movement Systems (FMS) specialist.