Recent research sheds light on the cycling detraining debate and answers the taper from strength training question.
I still can’t seem to wrap my head around rest days! During my decades as a competitive cyclist, I have evolved to accept that rest is as essential as training, but it doesn’t make things easier.
The running joke between my coach and me is that the days I don’t train are the hardest in the plan, and I should prepare myself accordingly. It’s not a joke for the others in my house when they see “the look” and know to be ready for the tempest of potential mood swings to come.
Something to Grab A Hold Of—Data and Sore Satisfaction
I can tell by the numbers if my training went well. If the numbers aren’t there, my quads tell me as I climb the basement steps to emerge from my “gain cave.” There is something to grasp, a data metric, or a feeling of sore satisfaction.
Yes, I hear you, the savvy critical-thinking criticizers in the group. I could look at my Training Peaks fatigue-fitness-form score. If we’re being honest, I’m not always a happy camper if I see that number with a plus sign before it. Especially when my legs feel worse than if I trained, or at least my brain tells me.
Add Weight Training to the Mix—What To Do?
My head explodes when you throw the weight training component into the mix. My intense strength training sessions don’t even show up on that score. I don’t want to lose the strength I worked so hard to get because I know it helps my riding.
Much like I’ve come to acknowledge that rest is critical to performance, so is resistance training. I’ve taken the opportunity to make it abundantly clear in several previous posts, including this one entitled “Strength Training Improves Endurance in Virtual Cyclists.”
If taking a break from cycling is good for me, I should probably quit the intense weight training for a time too. The ideal timing to optimize the outcome for high-priority events has been a mystery. The recovery gain vs. strength loss equation has intrigued and confounded me.
When should I decrease resistance training intensity and volume before my big race? I don’t want to lose the strength gains. I worked hard, but I want my legs fresh to race at my best. If only there were a study I could wrap my head around.
The Study of Elite Cyclists
Researchers asked the same question in a January 2022 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Ten competitive male elite cyclists performed eight weeks of concurrent training—strength training and cycling. After that time, the subjects stopped strength training and continued cycling for six more weeks.
The scientists examined the retention (decay profile) in muscle function and cycling performance during 6-weeks of detraining.
The cyclists performed two explosive-type heavy-load resistance training sessions a week for eight weeks. The researchers chose the resistance training protocol based on previous findings of enhanced muscle strength in cyclists. In addition, the researchers found an increase in nerve-muscle effectiveness with this modality.
The cyclists showed improvement across the board in maximal leg extensor power, isometric leg extensor strength, and rate of force development after the 8-week program. Interestingly, maximal leg extensor power and rate of force development returned to baseline levels during the 6-week detraining period.
The researchers also studied several cycling-specific performance metrics, and the results were even more fascinating. The cyclists performed a 2-hour submaximal effort (55% Wmax) followed by a 5-minute all-out test. Average power increased by 7% after 8-weeks of concurrent training, with gains of 12-17% in maximal dynamic leg extensor power and rate of force development.
Cycling Improvements Across the Board—Even After No Weights
When the researchers tested the cyclists again following the 6-weeks of cycling training alone, the achieved gains in 5-minute max cycling power output remained. The performance-enhancing effect of concurrent training is potent in cycling. The research shows that a well-trained performance cyclist doesn’t have to sacrifice recovery and race preparedness to realize the impact.
Now there is something to grasp. If we decrease the intensity and volume of strength training in the lead-up to a big race, we won’t lose the cycling power improvement. What’s more, it will free up time to increase cycling training volume and leave us better equipped to handle the increased intensity. We can focus on race-specific training and retain the resistance training benefit.
Don't Stop the Weights Altogether
It is good to continue resistance training, but not as often or as much. As the study shows, there was a decrease in muscle power and rate of force development during the 6-week detraining period. However, a single weekly heavy resistance training session was enough to maintain strength in previous studies involving well-trained cyclists.
In addition, by following a periodized strength training program throughout the entire season, we avoid the negative effect of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). No cyclist has time for that.
Strength training has a profound positive impact on cycling performance. The study above verifies that 5-minute power is enhanced, even when tested following a prolonged sub-maximal effort. We know how significant that can be in the race’s final stages—the difference between winning and not.
The same is true of purposeful recovery and finding the perfect taper. We don’t have to sacrifice strength-related improvement during the peak training period. There are six weeks to play with when we can set our sites on the other aspects of training and race preparedness. Every cyclist has time for that!
What will you do armed with the knowledge that you can take a break from heavy weights in the final prep before your A race? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more evidence-based articles on the merits of strength training for cycling performance check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!