Follower Q & A: Cross Training for Cyclists
Another question that came up when we asked our followers on Instagram what topics they would be interested in. As a cyclist should you cross train/will it be beneficial.
First, we need to define what we mean by cross training. Our follower specifically mentioned running, so that will be a focus, but we will also cover strength work/gym, and also what we will term ‘general cross training’ as a broad category for other sports.
General cross training for cyclists
When we talk about this category, we are referring to things outside of our other focus categories for this article, so this may include things like swimming, or rowing for example.
When we look at an exercise and how it will impact cycling, there are two basic things we can look for. Will it improve our ‘central’ factors, with the primary things included here being pulmonary diffusing capacity, cardiac output, and oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, and will it influence our ‘peripheral’ factors, with the main one here being skeletal muscle characteristics, so things such as mitochondria, capillary density, and various enzymes.
If we take swimming as an example, we know that it is going to have benefits to our ‘central’ system. Obviously swimming is an aerobic activity, and thus it is likely to improve the capacity of our heart and lungs to do work. But when we look at the muscles used, they are not ones we use much on the bike. This does not mean it is an activity to be avoided, just look at someone like Richie Porte who is one of the top cyclists in the world and has regularly mentioned he does a lot of swimming in the off season. What it does mean is that it isn’t an optimal exercise for cycling, but that is not really the point of cross training is it? If you are looking for something a little different to do, then swimming will certainly benefit you overall ‘central’ fitness, just don’t expect it all to cross over onto the bike.
When we look at rowing it’s a little different. This is pretty much a whole-body activity, it activates the legs significantly, and even in a motion/activation pattern that is not that dissimilar from cycling. This is part of the reason we see so many rowers cross over and become successful cyclists. It works our ‘central’ system to a very high degree, as the extra muscles involved mean you can utilise a little more oxygen than when just cycling, where the legs are really the only muscles doing any significant work, and because you are using your legs you are also going to be building on the peripheral factors there. Chances are you aren’t going to get big and heavy by just adding rowing to your program (that is as much or more to do with diet as well as the training), so really working the ‘core/trunk’ and upper body as is done in rowing is certainly not a bad thing. This part of rowing may not improve your cycling greatly, but as far as general health and strength goes it’s a great addition for a cyclist.
Strength training for cyclists
This is a little tricky. We are going to focus on ‘leg exercises’. This includes things like deadlifts and squats which obviously work far more than your legs, but leg strength is what we will discuss here. Working your stabilising muscles as those exercises do, and doing a regular ‘core/trunk’ routine is a good idea all year round alongside your cycling, here the focus is more on adding in leg strength workouts for cross training purposes.
The focus here is peripheral adaptation in the muscle, and neuromuscular control of the muscles. Yes, if you do enough reps you will stimulate central adaptation to a degree, but if we were focussed on that we would just jump on the bike.
If this is a good idea or not really depends on your ‘baseline’ strength, injury history, and your goals as a cyclist.
If you aren’t particularly strong, and find your sprint or short-term power is a big weakness which is letting you down in the races you are doing, or short-term power is your strength that wins you races then this type of cross training could be for you. If you have had previous injuries and need to re-strengthen an area, then this could also be a good idea (provided you don’t aggravate whatever the injury was), if you are more of a time trial, GC, or climber type of rider, then it depends on the time you have available and how you periodise the training.
There are obvious benefits to max power and sprint power from doing gym work, what a lot of people don’t realise is that strength training can also lower the oxygen cost of exercise. What this means is that you can ride at the same power output, but it will require less oxygen than before, meaning you are more economical, and are having to burn less fuel than you were before. But it can also raise the maximal glycolytic rate, which may be of benefit if you want short term power, but it a negative for more ‘endurance’/’steady state’ riders.
The answer here then is to periodise your gym training. Most cyclists have at least heard of periodizing their training on the bike, though very few implement it correctly, but far less do anything of this sort when it comes to strength training.
There are two factors to consider when periodizing gym training.
1. Where it fits into your racing season
2. Periodizing the strength training itself
It should be pretty obvious that implementing a strength training program mid-season is probably not the best idea. If you start early enough, and need to maintain your strength training to maintain high short-term power outputs (e.g. as a sprinter would do), then you may do quite a bit of strength training throughout the season, so cross training all year round essentially. If you aren’t really focussed on that short-term high power, then you will probably want to focus on this just in the off season, and just do maintenance or no strength training during the season. This way you can get both the strength and economy gains from the gym work, and then do more aerobic and endurance training to get rid of the effects of the heightened glycolytic rate this might bring as you get back to higher levels of training on the bike, however, for most riders I wouldn’t advise doing too much in the gym as cross training during the season unless they are someone who’s best chances of winning races are through sprints or short efforts.
Whether you can periodise strength training to have maximum effectiveness is also another factor here. We won’t go into too much depth here as this could be another blog in itself, but strength training in general follows this progression
3. Speed/rate of force development
Therefore if you really want the most effective gym training program you are going to have to go through all these phases which will take quite a while and surely see you doing strength training throughout the season, which as mentioned, may or may not be a good thing.
If you just must choose one of these areas, focussing on strength is likely the best bet. Building a foundation of strength allows power development and then speed or rate of force development to follow on from this, but those can be done on the bike. Strength training involves lifting very heavy weights in sets with low amounts of reps, with long rest periods, so the primary energy system is from phosphocreatine. This also means there is lower activation of anaerobic glycolysis, less increase in glycolytic rate, meaning you avoid some of the downsides that strength training can have on endurance performance.
There is also the case of how do you fit this around you riding. If you do a hard gym session one day, you are unlikely to be good on the bike the next day, but if you take a rest day after every strength session before doing a quality bike session then you aren’t going to have a very high training volume. But add a hard gym session after a hard bike session (or vice-versa) on the same day then one is going to suffer in training quality, and there is also evidence that the signalling pathways (PI3-k–AKT–mTOR for strength PGC-1a and AMPK for aerobic) which provide the adaptative signal are activated sub-optimally when concurrent training is implemented.
Running for cyclists
From a metabolic perspective, running is similar to cycling. It is a highly aerobic endurance activity. It relies on the same central factors as cycling (heart, lungs, blood etc), and even the same muscles to a degree (the legs).
There are therefore just two major differences we will cover between running and cycling, which are biomechanics and muscle/tendon /joint factors.
The biomechanics of running are obviously vastly different to that of riding a bike. The most obvious of these is impact with the ground. Running can essentially be broken into three phases which are absorption, generation, and swing/float. The absorption phase, where you are hitting the ground, involves primarily eccentric muscle contractions (lengthening of the muscle), while the generation phase (pushing of the ground) is mostly concentric muscle contraction.
Cycling can also be broken down into three key phases, ‘propulsive’(10-180°), ‘pulling’ (170-350°), and ‘pushing’ (350-10°). There is no ‘impact’ with cycling, and the muscle contractions are primarily concentric (shortening).
Eccentric contractions damage the muscle a lot more than concentric ones, which is part of the reason running can be more damaging on the body than cycling. So even though these two sports use similar muscle groups, the way they are doing it is different. There is also different neuromuscular control of the muscles between the two sports, which explains a large proportion of why ability in one of these sports does not automatically crossover into the other.
Another factor to consider is muscle and tendon stiffness. Running develops this stiffness as for lack of a better description it helps the muscles and tendons work a bit like a spring, while also reducing the energy cost of braking (hitting the ground). This is another factor of running that isn’t really part of cycling, which explains why the two aren’t a perfect match.
So with all that said, time for the good news. Running will likely help your cycling, and cycling will likely help your running, as long as you continue to do both. Remember earlier we talked about peripheral adaptations in the muscles, well running will still achieve this in the muscles in the legs, and as we already mentioned, the central adaptations are pretty much the same too. This is great news for triathletes in particular as it means much of your training for running and cycling can crossover and benefit you for both sports, and if you are a cyclist who wants to go for a run to do something different, then it will likely help your cycling, not to the degree actually riding the bike would, but if you want something different to do for a while it’s a great option.
So why don’t many cyclists make great runners?
That is largely to do with the things like neuromuscular control, and tendon and muscle stiffness we mentioned earlier. This severely reduces running economy, meaning you need to utilise a lot more oxygen to go the same speed, meaning you go slower for the same effort. So it doesn’t really matter how fit you are, if you haven’t developed the structural adaptations in the muscles, tendons, and also joints, to handle the pounding of the pavement, and to create that ‘elastic’ energy return, then you won’t be a great runner. This is also why new runners, or cyclists who get too enthusiastic about running when they start tend to end up injured.
So by all means go for a run if you want, it’s certainly not a bad exercise to supplement your cycling as long as you are used to it, and if you are a triathlete it should help both your running and cycling, but less so swimming as the only cross-over here will be central adaptations.