At the risk of making myself unpopular…

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At the risk of making myself unpopular…

…you really should consider doing some serious off-the-bike strength and conditioning work!


If there’s one thing which unites us cyclists (or at least those I talk to) it’s a dislike for training off the bike. Unless they are triathletes, of course, in which case they also swim and run, but still detest going to the gym… Like cod-liver oil, we know it’s good for us, but we’ll find any excuse to avoid it.


So let’s do a reality check and tick off the reasons why it’s important:


Along with aerobic endurance, muscular strength is the most important determinant of cycling performance, and it really can’t be developed effectively on the bike (because high enough loads can’t be sustained for long enough). Conditioning is an important complement to strength training, reducing or reversing the limitations in mobility which hinder correct movement patterns and thus progression in strength.


While cycling, your muscles only contract concentrically (while shortening). Over time, the result is tighter leg muscles, pulling at the spine and pelvis, causing imbalances and lower back pain. Weaknesses in stabiliser muscles surrounding the lower back and hips contribute to increasing the risk of overuse injury. Strength & Conditioning counteracts these effects.


Strength & Conditioning becomes more and more important the older we get. The natural production of anabolic hormones greatly decreases with age, resulting in the loss of muscle and of course strength. Strength training with heavy loads stimulates anabolic hormone secretion and thus slows or even stops this natural process.


You’re probably familiar with most if not all of these reasons. If you are anything like me, you know why you should be doing more strength and conditioning. What stopped me in the past was a mixture of inertia, not knowing exactly what to do or where to go, and of course that evergreen excuse: lack of time.


I can’t overemphasise this point: it’s extremely important to have expert guidance. The risk of injury through poor movement patterns is just too high. I have personally injured myself twice through unsupervised strength and conditioning exercises. One of these injuries resulted in severe sciatic pain, cut short my progression and prevented me from cycling for 12 months. It’s not worth it.


The “perfect solution” is to have an expert come to your house 3 or 4 times a week. If you can afford this, go for it! Unfortunately, the cost puts this out of reach for most of us, so we need to look at the alternatives.


For those of us who can’t afford personal trainers, the “ideal solution” is the next best thing: live online sessions. In this case the expert leads the sessions on Zoom, with an assistant demonstrating correct technique. You set up your own space at home, do the exercises in front of your webcam and receive real-time feedback as you go.


I have been following such a programme for the past seven weeks (*details below). After almost two months I’m confident in saying this is the right training for me. The times are fixed and all I have to do is change 15 minutes in advance and go through a warm-up routine. If I have to miss a session I can catch up through a recording (but obviously without feedback on my technique).


The sessions are demanding (as they should be), but of course each participant controls how hard to push him or herself. The trainer provides frequent and detailed observational feedback to ensure we are using correct technique. After the first couple of sessions I could hardly walk up or down the stairs, but my muscles are tolerating the load much better now.


Read the next article to learn how best to integrate strength & conditioning to your cycling programme to support all-round top performance.


* The programme I enrolled in is run by Warwick Cross, a biokineticist specialised in cycling at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) in Cape Town. The classes last for one hour, three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 17:30 to 18:30 (UTC+02:00). The current programme runs for 12 weeks and will finish at the end of November. A new programme will start in early December (I will be re-enrolling). More information here.

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