In our last issue we looked at ways of strengthening our legs and increasing our power output by integrating gym workouts into our training. This time we examine ways of building strength sessions into our workouts on the bike.
By developing strength and power we gain significant advantages in terms of acceleration, top speed and muscular endurance – in conjunction with a big aerobic base and high-intensity interval training we come that much closer to becoming the complete rider: fast, strong and with a big engine.
Think About It
When working on your strength it’s vital to engage all your muscles, including your brain. It’s no good just going through the motions – if you were to go out for a steady three hour ride, it would be quite feasible to put yourself on ‘auto-pilot’ and get the kilometres done without really having to think about it too much. A strength workout is different. Each pedal stroke and every effort need to be done with focus and intent. Near enough really isn’t good enough. So concentrate – strength workouts are usually not very long, so put all your physical and mental energy into making it as effective and rewarding as you can.
Strength Workouts on the Bike
Standing Big Gear Hill Repeats
As far as on-the-bike workouts go, this is one of the very best for building strength in the legs. Select a hill with a gentle gradient (2-5%) that will take you somewhere between two and three minutes to climb. Start at the bottom at a steady pace in an easy gear, then change up through the gears until you are pedalling at 55-60RPM. Stand up out of the saddle and maintain your pace and cadence all the way to the crest of the hill. Keep your pace steady and consistent, and focus on the feel of your legs having to work extra-hard to churn that big gear. Keep your shoulders and upper body as steady as you can, and at the same time concentrate on keeping your grip fairly light on the handlebars.
Safely execute a U-turn and roll to the bottom of the hill – repeat six to eight times. Remember, this is not necessarily a cardiovascular workout but rather a strength-building one. Your heart rate will not skyrocket the way it would if you were spinning your legs at 100+RPM, but your legs will get seriously strong!
Steady Speed Intervals
This workout is not particularly hard, so it’s a great one to do when you’ve already had a big training week. Alternatively, you can tack it onto the end of a shorter, high-intensity workout.
Select a long stretch of road with as few interruptions as possible, ideally with no traffic lights and not too many vehicles. The road can be flat or undulating, but avoid routes that incorporate too many hills, as we want to establish a consistent pace. Start off in a comfortable gear at a steady pace, preferably in one of the easier gears on the back, but in the big chainring on the front. Once you’ve reached a speed you feel you could maintain for at least 10 minutes, change up a gear. Hold it for a minute, then change up another gear. Keeping your speed consistent, work your way up through the gears until you reach either the biggest gear you have or the biggest gear you can ride in whilst maintaining your speed. Hold it there for five minutes, then work your way back down again, spending one minute in each gear and never varying your speed.
Big Gear Double Efforts
As the name suggests, this session requires a twofold effort during each interval. Select a flat or gently rolling stretch of road and gradually build up your pace until you are pushing quite hard and breathing heavily. Keeping your speed fairly consistent, move up through the gears until you are pedalling at a cadence of about 60-65 RPM. This is your baseline. Now, jump out of the saddle and accelerate as hard as you can for 20 seconds, giving it 100 per cent of your focus and effort. Sit back down in the saddle and return to your baseline effort, resisting the temptation to coast along. Keep working, and gradually your heart rate will return to a manageable, if not comfortable, level. Continue at your baseline effort for five minutes, then repeat. Depending on your fitness level and the time you have available, this workout will take somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour to complete.
This is a workout that we have already integrated into your training plan, but pedal smashes are so effective it’s worth having another look at them – they are fantastic for building leg strength, perfecting your pedalling technique and increasing your anaerobic capacity.
Find a straight stretch of road about 200m long with a gentle uphill gradient – make sure it’s not too steep, though, or it will detract from the efficiency of the training session. An incline of between three and five per cent is perfect.
After a thorough warmup, select a BIG gear – something in the region of 53-14 (big chainring on the front and a medium to small cog on the rear cassette). Stand up out of the saddle and ride very slowly toward a preselected landmark on the edge of the road, such as a tree or power pole. As you draw level with it, smash the pedals using all your leg strength and power to get the bike up to top speed as quickly as possible. Because you have selected such a big gear, you will feel that it’s impossible to get ‘on top of’ the bike and that you’re really struggling to build up speed. That’s part of the plan – if it’s too easy to build up speed then you’re just doing sprint training, which is a different thing altogether. Keep pouring on the power until you reach a second prearranged landmark. If you’ve selected the correct hill, the right gear and distance, then you should have almost reached top speed when you reach your second landmark. It’s not about speed, it’s about the build-up to it when riding such a large gear.
Relax, slow your pedalling down and let the momentum you’ve generated carry you along for a while. Take at least five minutes to recover before attempting a second effort. If, during your first attempt, you managed to get up to top speed with relative ease then you need to select a bigger gear before you start your next interval.
Remember, these intervals are only about 200m long, and they’re done really hard – that’s why four efforts is enough. It’s crucial to have a good recovery between efforts and at the end of the session. If you don’t feel you’ve adequately recovered after five minutes, take a bit longer or just finish the session early. When the quality starts to suffer it’s time to call it quits during this workout.
When You’re Done
At the completion of any of these workouts it’s important to go for an easy cool-down in a very small gear, concentrating on spinning the legs smoothly and flushing the waste products out of your system. Given the choice between doing one extra effort or having a better, more effective cool down, take the cool down every time. Your legs will thank you for it and your subsequent workouts will be more effective.
Combining Strength Training
When putting on-the-bike strength training together with gym workouts, it pays to remember just how much work your body is doing. This means that you need to schedule proper active recovery sessions between workouts, and you need to structure your training so that you’re not doing consecutive hard strength sessions day after day. Don’t forget – it’s not during your training that you get stronger; it’s when you’re recovering that all the growth and improvement occurs.
Put It All Together
You might well be sold on the idea of strength training by now, but it doesn’t really work on its own. Your strength program needs to form part of your overall riding plan. Many top-level track riders and pro roadies only undertake a strength regimen for part of the year – they work super hard in the gym for perhaps two months or 10 weeks, then start to phase out the weights and phase in their aerobic base work or whatever. This is a pretty good approach, and it ensures you stay fresh and don’t turn into a gym junkie. You may choose to do strength training all year round, but if you do then make sure you don’t go overboard with it. There is a point of diminishing returns that you’ll reach quite quickly, and from that point on you’d be better off out riding your bike and enjoying the sunshine.