Scientists reveal cyclists' ability to make continuous power and sprint improvements and maintain them in-season and year after year.
Scientific evidence supporting the endurance benefits of resistance strength training for cyclists is growing. Multiple variables influence performance and competitive results, and heavy strength training may play a secondary role to endurance training. Mounting data have examined the question, and strength training has produced a wide range of beneficial physiological improvements.
It’s difficult to deny that resistance training makes us stronger. It reflects in our sprint and anaerobic power and all endurance metrics as detailed in this The ZOM article entitled “Strength Training Improves Endurance in Cyclists.”
Increased muscle strength and subsequent cycling sprint power are adaptations specific to heavy strength training and less affected by endurance training. However, repeated observations point to strength and sprint power improvements essential for endurance performance and competitive results.
Real-life cycling road races and closed-circuit criterium success hinges on sprint performance and anaerobic capacity to power through corners and prepare for the finale. Optimal anaerobic sprint power is critical in cycling esports, where event durations are short, intense, and require multiple accelerations and adequate recovery to make the unrelenting selections.
Studies primarily focus on strength training durations ranging from ten to 25-weeks. In the larger picture, the relatively short timeframes represent a small percentage of an athlete’s competitive season and even less of their career. The data examining the influence of continued heavy strength training across seasons is scarce.
In a 2022 study published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, Norwegian researchers asked and followed four members of their national cross-country mountain bike team for four years to find the answer.
The Study of Elite Cyclists
Of the four cyclists, two performed heavy strength training in combination with endurance training and the others endurance training alone. They all trained together under the same coach and competed in international and world championship events.
The heavy strength training protocol consisted of two weekly muscular strength-building sessions and one in-competition maintenance session every 7-10 days. The cyclists performed Smith machine half-squats, single-leg presses, one-legged hip flexion, and toe raises—three sets of four to twelve repetitions with two minutes of recovery based on the repetition maximum principle. The cyclists completed the strength training session 4-6 hours following a low-intensity endurance ride.
Researchers tested the cyclist’s leg press peak force and peak power utilizing a single trial of 9-13 lifts while increasing the resistance until they achieved failure. Following a five-minute recovery and a ten-minute cycling warm-up, the cyclists performed two 6-second sprints, one seated and one standing. The mean power output data was recorded and analyzed.
The scientists broke the case study into two phases spanning almost four years. All four cyclists participated in phase one, consisting of two multi-month preparation periods separated by in-season competition for a total of 1.5 years.
Phase One of the Case Report
During the first preparation period, the heavy strength training cyclists improved leg press force by 11 and 22-percent and leg press power by 15 and 32%. 6-second cycling sprint power output increased by 22 and 11-percent, respectively.
Following the second preparation period, leg press force for both athletes improved by 22-percent, and leg press power increased by 16 and 37-percent, respectively. There was a less dramatic increase in cycling sprint power, resulting in 23 and 16% improvements throughout the phase. The heavy strength training cyclists maintained improvements throughout the in-season competition periods.
During the 1.5 year phase one, the endurance-only cyclists had a three and 10-percent reduction in leg press force, a nine and 8-percent decrease in leg press power, and a slightly inconsistent and minor 6-second cycling sprint power change to -2 and 4-percent, respectively.
Phase Two of the Case Report
In phase two of the report spanning an additional 1.5 years, the scientists followed one cyclist from the heavy strength training and endurance group and one from the endurance-only. However, the endurance-only cyclist was unwilling to watch as his teammate improved and decided to add strength training to his program. The results were eye-opening.
The cyclist that didn’t perform heavy strength training in phase one showed improvements consistent with his counterpart during the initial part of the study. Following the 1.5-year phase consisting of multiple preparation and competition periods, the subject increased leg press force by 24-percent and improved cycling sprint power by 22-percent.
After the second phase, the cyclist that kept heavy strength training demonstrated continuous leg press force improvements resulting in a total increase of 44-percent after 3.5. years. The cyclist’s sprint power improvements were less dramatic in the second phase, with a 25-percent improvement at the end of the study. Both cyclists maintained their positive results in competition.
Heavy strength training provides short-term strength and cycling sprint power improvement, and ample scientific evidence bears this out. Of course, the tiny sample size and lack of a specific measure of cycling performance beyond the 6-second sprint limits this case report.
However, the study is exciting and unique in a few ways. It is the first to follow cyclists across several preparation and competition periods for multiple years. In so doing, the study shines a light on the ability to make consistent strength and cycling sprint power gains with continued heavy strength training in combination with endurance.
What’s more, the athlete can maintain the improvements during competition with only one strategically constructed resistance session every ten days.
Leg strength can improve for as long as we keep hitting the weights despite how strong a cyclist you may be to start—year after year. Cycling sprint power seems to follow the development of leg press performance and strength increases, so my sprint can get better too? And the gains stay with me even when I’m racing? I’m convinced!
Are you convinced?
Are you a believer in the long-term cycling performance benefits of heavy strength training? How has your career-long strength program made you a better cyclist? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For a different perspective check out The ZOM article entitled, “Two New Studies Will Change the Way You Look at Strength Training and Cycling Performance.”
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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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!