Strength training for

endurance performance

WORDS BY Benoit Capostagno

We are constantly looking for new ways to make our bikes go faster and to that end we often spend hours and hours each week training to try and get that little bit extra out of our legs. What if the secret to increasing our speed didn’t involve our bikes at all? What if the key to improving our performance didn’t lie on the trails or the tarmac, but rather at our local gym? The benefits of strength training on endurance performance have long been debated. Previously strength training was thought to negatively affect endurance performance due to the increase in muscle mass. However, recent research has shown that it is possible to improve endurance performance with well-structured strength training, without an increase in body mass. In this article I will explain the proposed benefits of strength training as well as provide some guidelines on what to look for in a strength training programme.

How does strength training affect the determinants of endurance performance?

Two of the most common methods of strength training are heavy strength training and explosive strength training. Both of these methods can improve endurance performance, but both promote different training adaptations. Heavy strength training is designed to increase or maintain the maximal force that can be produced by the muscles and is typically characterised by lifting loads that allow for 1 – 15 repetitions. Explosive strength training is typically involves accelerating lighter loads (sometimes only body weight) at maximal speeds.

One of the most commonly reported “predictors” of endurance performance is maximal oxygen consumption or V̇O2max. Measured in a controlled environment in a laboratory, large V̇O2max values have been associated with success in endurance-based sports. However, it is important to remember that the winner of a race might not be the competitor with the highest V̇O2max. Although there is a large genetic component to determining an athlete’s V̇O2max, it is “trainable” and can improve following well-structured training. However, there is no evidence to suggest that adding strength training to an endurance athlete’s training programme will increase their V̇O2max more than endurance training alone.

Another important determinant of endurance performance is the energy cost (economy) of performing the exercise. In much the same way as no two cars have the same fuel economy, there are large differences in the exercise economy between athletes, even if their V̇O2max values are the same. Improvements in exercise economy are likely to be mirrored by improvements in endurance performance. The effect of strength training on cycling economy is unclear at present, but there is some evidence to suggest that recreational level cyclists may improve their exercise economy following a period of heavy strength training.

The maximal power output that can be sustained for a prolonged period of time (40 – 60 minutes) is known by many names, but it is most commonly referred to as the “threshold”. This threshold intensity has been shown to be extremely useful in predicting endurance performance in cyclists. However, it is not clear from the scientific studies performed to date whether or not strength training improves a cyclist’s functional threshold or not. Some studies show a benefit to including heavy strength training, while others show no change in functional threshold. However, it is worth noting that there is no evidence to suggest that heavy strength training negatively impacts on an athlete’s functional or lactate threshold.

Endurance performance can also be predicted from a cyclist’s peak power output (PPO), which is the intensity associated with their V̇O2max. The inclusion of strength training to cyclists’ training programmes has been shown to improve their PPO and the time they are able to ride at this maximal intensity. However, it is interesting to note that the addition of explosive strength training to cyclists’ training regimes does not appear to improve their PPO.

Performance in mass start races can often be affected by getting into a good position at the start of the race. An XCO race is a great example of this, with riders fighting it out to be in the front positions when they reach the first single track section. Failure to do so could result in riders getting stuck at bottlenecks or behind slower riders. A good start requires riders to generate a high power output for a short period of time. This attribute is not limited to the start and generating high power outputs for relatively short periods of time could allow riders to get past slower riders, break away in an ultra-marathon or win the sprint and the gold medal in the Olympic Cross Country race. Heavy strength training has been shown to increase the maximal power output in well-trained cyclists.

Strength training improves endurance performance by reducing the energy cost of the exercise, delaying fatigue, improving anaerobic capacity and maximal force production.

What should you look for in a strength training programme?

When including strength training as part of your preparation, it is important to remember to decrease the volume of your endurance training. Simply adding strength training to an already high-volume training regime may not result in improvements in performance. The strength training exercises should target the muscles groups used in cycling and the movements should be similar to the sport-specific movements of cycling. In cycling the muscles around the hip, knee and ankle joints are required to work together in order to deliver force to the pedal. Heavy strength training appears to be superior to explosive strength training in improving endurance performance in cyclists. Maximal strength can be increased gradually during the “strength” and “base” phases of your training programme with two sessions per week. Cyclists should try and include multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts or the single-leg versions of these exercises.

During more intense phases of training, when strength development is not the main goal, one session of explosive-type strength training should be sufficient to maintain the adaptations made previously. A good example of a cycling-specific explosive exercise is to warm up for 10 minutes on a stationary bike in the gym. Follow this with five repetitions of the following:

  • Cycle for 30 seconds against a high resistance at a low cadence (60 – 70 rpm)
  • Follow this with 20 explosive step-ups on a 40 cm box
  • Complete the step-ups on your right leg before moving to the left
  • Recover for 2 minutes and then repeat
  • Cool down for 10 minutes.

It is important to remember that, just like your endurance training, your strength training should be individually tailored to your individual strength level. The load of your exercises can increase as your force capabilities improve. However, before you begin any strength training programme, it is advised that you learn how to perform the exercises correctly. Learning how to perform the exercises correctly with lighter loads can prevent injury when heavier loads are used later. Consult a qualified strength and conditioning specialist at your nearest Sports Science Institute to assist you.

Benoit Capostagno

Currently works for Science to Sport in Cape Town. He is currently completing his PhD at the University of Cape Town and is investigating training adaptation and fatigue in cyclists.

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 " Heavy strength training has been shown to increase the maximal power output in well-trained cyclists."