When I start with a new client, they often inform me that their legs are weak and they need to work on strength. They’ve come to this conclusion based on the fact that their muscles are often the first thing to give out during a hard effort. Before their lungs start to burn or they begin to gasp for breath, their legs fill with lactic acid and they can no longer put pedal to the metal. Although it may feel that their muscles are giving out on them, in truth, lack of strength is rarely what causes this feeling of muscular burnout.
Leg strength is an important part of the equation when it comes to cycling performance, but if it was the end all be all of cycling performance, then you would see elite cyclists with the massive quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings along the lines of professional body builders. Although many pros do have impressive musculature, they are still extremely lean compared to athletes in other sports where pure strength is essential to success. In fact, many cyclists, namely the climbers, have downright tiny legs.
Although it is possible that the burn you feel when you cross your anaerobic threshold is due to muscular failure, it is just as likely a result of poor pulmonary or cardio fitness. If the lungs can’t take in enough oxygen or the heart can’t pump enough blood to the legs, the result is pain, weakness and exhaustion.
Obviously, muscles alone can’t win a race, but neither can your heart or your lungs. However, these three energy systems, plus a little leg speed combine to form a thing called power. In the sport of cycling, the equation goes Power = Strength x Speed. What does that mean and how can you apply it to your training?
Although leg strength isn’t everything, it is still an important part of the equation. Aside from sprint events on the track (which still rely heavily on leg speed as opposed to pure strength), it is muscular endurance rather than maximal muscular strength that is necessary to cycling performance
In general, the off season is the best time to work on strength. This is because strength work can negatively affect performance. Strength work also requires longer recovery time than other types of training. During the season when you are racing regularly or doing strenuous group rides, you can’t afford to take two or three days between workouts to let your muscles recover, therefore, strength work is done in the off season.
Strength work can be done in the gym and on the bike. Most cyclists do a three to four month weight lifting phase that accompanies their winter base training. They start with a cycle of Muscular Adaptation in order to prepare the muscles for the heavier stuff to come and to prevent injury. This phase is also useful for working the core and the stabilizing muscles. From there they move on to a Maximum Strength phase which entails low reps of four to five per set with very heavy weights. The final phase takes the brute strength gained in the Max Strength phase and translates it into Muscular Endurance by increasing the reps to 15 or 18 per set.
At the same time, on-the-bike strength work should be incorporated into the schedule. This involves long, moderately paced rides in the big ring at low cadences of 70 to 80 rpm. Also useful are long tempo intervals up to two hours and shorter 10 minute Muscle Tension intervals done at 50 to 55 rpm. During this phase, you will see some improvements to your cycling performance but mostly at long steady moderately hard efforts. You won’t have much “zip” and your pedal stroke will not be smooth and efficient. Think Jan Ulrich on a climb.
You’ll want to make sure you cover all the bases in your winter program because the strength you gain from November through February (depending on where you live), will have to carry you through the entire season. As you start to transition into spring training, you will start to incorporate weekly high spin intervals into your program. Starting with 10 minutes at 110 rpm with very little resistance, you will slowly build to a full hour at 120 to 125 rpm. Don’t expect to be smooth at first. After a long winter of low cadence work, you will find your pedal stroke to be choppy and uneven. You will bounce around in the saddle and your heart rate will rise dramatically. However, as muscle memory and efficiency improves, you will start to settle down. Your heart rate will drop by as much as 15% and you won’t rock back and forth in the saddle as you pedal.
During this first phase of peak performance training, as you work on your efficiency at high cadences, you will also be doing threshold and anaerobic intervals. As your winter base start to translate into high end fitness, you will begin to see an improvement in road speed and power. However, you will eventually hit a ceiling in terms of your ability to put out massive efforts when most of the stress is placed on the muscular system. There is a limit to how much the leg muscles can do alone. At this point, you will begin to combine the strength you built in the off season with the leg speed you have started to build in the early part of the spring. By combining the two, you will finally start to see significant gains in power.
Leg speed is essential to all elements of cycling, from climbing to sprinting. We all remember seeing Lance scale the Alps at 100 rpm while Ulrich crept up behind him at 80 rpm. Although they were both masterful climbers, by using a higher cadence, Lance could easily respond to attacks and changes in tempo. Meanwhile, Ulrich had to slowly increase his pace until he was able to latch on to the group again. On the opposite end of the spectrum, track racers have incredible leg speed. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just strength that makes for a successful track sprinter. Although they need the strength to turn their massive gears, it is the quick acceleration that puts them into position to win the sprint. This acceleration comes mostly from ridiculous leg speed.
If you’re thinking that spinning at 110 rpm in your 49/23 is not going to win you any races, you’re right, but spinning 110 rpm in your 53/11 will. So how do you get there?
The biggest training element that most cyclists neglect is what I consider “Power Training.” Although all training incorporates power to some extent, as you close in on your peak events you will start to combine all energy systems to produce massive results. This is done by continuing with threshold and anaerobic work while stepping up your cadence from 80 to 85 rpm all the way up to 100 or even 120 rpm. Sounds crazy, but if you can comfortably perform at anaerobic capacity interval at 120 rpm, you won’t think twice about pedaling at 110 in a crit, where leg speed and acceleration are they keys to success.
There are several reasons why many cyclists shy away from crossing over into this territory. The first is that when they hit the ceiling of what they can do in terms of leg strength, the immediately assume that they are lacking in strength and then revert to low cadences and, in extreme examples, return to the gym. Another reason they fail to make this transition is that at the very beginning of the transition to high cadence power training, there might be a slight drop off in threshold and anaerobic power. However, this will be minimal and it will be more likely come from a perception of a loss of power due to less pedaling resistance than any real drop in power.
As you begin to peak for your event, you will steadily increase your interval and all around cadence to over 100 rpm. It will take some time to adjust to this and if you didn’t do your high spin intervals over the last several months, you will be somewhat limited, but the overall outcome will be a higher level of ride fitness power in every cycling discipline. There is another advantage to training and racing at these high rpms. By taking the stress of your muscles, you will be able to do multiple high intensity training days in a row. Day to day stage race performance will also be maximized and recovery time will be minimized. At a higher cadence, you will be able to perform more intervals at a higher power with less recovery.
STRENGTH x SPEED = POWER
By now this equation should make a lot more sense to you. Strength is built in the off season. Speed is developed as you transition into the spring and power comes as a result of a combination of the two. Make sense? So get out there and do it!
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. To find out more about the Liquid Cycling club, go to LiquidCycling.com.