Top 10 Irrational Fears About Strength Training
This is from Vol 14, No 3 of Performance Cycling by Harvey Newton. While geared towards cyclists it would also be appropriate for other endurance athletes. These are ten of the most common reasons he heard from cyclists who didn't want to strength train not only in the winter but year-round
1. I'll get too big, ie much larger muscles, if I lift weights: There is no basis in scientific literature for this. If you suddenly add muscle weight you are either training with too much volume and/or eating more and cycling less. More often that not the off-season, or winter training period, is also when training volume is reduced. We tend to eat more than required given the season. Keep in mind that increased strength does not require noticeably larger muscles.
2. I'll gain weight in general: Significant gains in weight only happen if you increase calories, reduce activity, or both of these. Bodybuilders engage in all kinds of behaviors to gain weight and cyclists seem to think that some basic lifting will cause a huge and immediate impact on their weight. This is another reason to lift year-round. You wont likely assume that the lifting in the off-season is the reason for weight gain if it is part of your training consistently. You'll also find that you substituted lean weight for fat and either lost weight or stayed neutral.
3. I'll be slower climbing: Once again, adding weight is not the same as adding muscle. The added muscle will help you climb if you strengthen your lower body to allow more power to the pedals, strengthen your core to allow your upper body to work on the handle bars, allow your lower body to have a stronger mid-section to work off of, reduce fatigue in the shoulders and back, etc. Time on the bike training to climb is obviously still needed but proper strength training will help.
4. Strength training takes away from time on the bike: You only need two sessions of 45 minutes to one hour per week, year-round. This may mean 30-40 less miles per week but the benefits not only to your cycling but also to your general health are well documented.
5. High reps will improve muscular endurance and avoid adding bulk: Improved strength comes from high intensity efforts and this means fewer reps and higher weight. Sets of 15 or more would be considered muscular endurance training. You'll get that on the bike. Shoot for 8-12 reps, and 1-3 sets using 75% of your one rep maximum.
6. Strength training is a waste of time for endurance athletes: For every study that shows no benefit, there are two that show it will help. There aren't any studies that show it to be a detriment if done properly. There is also strong evidence that injury prevention is a major benefit.
7. If you lift heavier weights, you could get hurt: You can get hurt lifting heavy or light weights. The key is to start off with lighter weights and then build to heavier as you gain strength and develop proper lifting technique. You do want to work on strength so heavier weights will be necessary. Get proper instruction if you are not familiar with lifting techniques.
8. I'm not sure what to do in the gym: There is no one program that will work for every athlete. you don't need a large variety of exercises to achieve basic strength goals. A few upper body, lower body and core exercises can be sufficient.
9. I just want to train my legs, everything else is a waste of time: Cyclists overly strong legs are a reason to train the upper body and core. Muscular balance is important to maximum performance. The upper body is needed to pull on the bar and resist fatigue in the upper and lower back from long hours in the saddle.
10. Cross training is more fun than lifting and provides me with the upper body strength needed: Cross training (cross country skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, running, etc) is still engaging in an endurance sport, not strength training.
More thoughts on Winter Training
I was talking with Will Peveler, exercise physiologist at NKU, about the increase in strength training that endurance athletes typically incorporate into their training during the winter months. I told him that the people I train/coach all comment that after a workout with plenty of lunges and squats that they can "feel" certain muscles when they ride that they never felt before. This is obviously a good sign that the exercises are stressing muscles used in cycling. Recruiting these muscles is going to be beneficial in adding more power to the pedal stroke. The cycling motion itself is using these muscles but not as completely as the exercises in the gym.
My question to Will was why would the endurance athlete stop these exercises once the race season starts if we know that after just a week to ten days that the muscles will start to revert to their previous condition and after a month it's as though we never did the training at all? I've always kept pretty much the same workout program year-round and taper it along with my time on the bike for key events. Will thought that made sense but he also noted that he couldn't produce any studies that backed it up. I'm going to stick with my year-round strength training. Maybe Will will assign this question to some students. Could be interesting.
Another topic is the idea of using the winter to build base miles with many long, moderate hours on the bike. The one problem with this is the challenge of getting in a lot of hours on the bike in the winter. I'm ok with maybe two hours a day, sometimes three, but I wont ride an indoor century (although its tempting---I'm sure I have enough live Skynyrd and Allman Brothers to go for several days). The most recent TriAthlete Magazine had an atricle by exercise physiologist Matt Dixon. He makes the point that your weekly training should include time in every training zone, from the lowest to highest intensity, to increase your aerobic base and to train your body to use stored body fat. The key is planning how much time in each level and allowing for adequate recovery. the months of January and February have always been my most intense training on the bike, and my coach has been recommending this for the last nine years. The difficult two and three hour rides in the winter usually allow me to get right back into the longer rides in the spring and start racing close to my peak power of the previous year. Ideally we take that peak power a little higher each year right about the time my key events are on the calendar.
Dealing with indoor training
I've been known to log a lot of miles inside much to the amazement of many of my friends. In the last six weeks I think I've only ridden outside about 5 times but have still managed to get in 13-15 hours most weeks. To me its all about the environment where you'll be riding inside.
Long ago I took over the basement for my bikes and music gear (lots of drums, piano, pa system---thats for a different blog). For the riding, I have a Cycle-Ops Indoor 400 which is truly an amazing indoor bike. Besides the usual current/max/avg cadence,speed and HR, it has the ability to set target wattage or slope from -10% to +10% or gearing from 1 to 22. It also provides training stress score, intensity factor and the best adjustment of saddle and bar heights on any indoor bike I've ridden. After 30 years of wind-trainers, magnetic resistance trainers,fluid trainers, CompuTrainers, shredded tires, and flat tires, I am enjoying the Cycle-Ops 400.
But does it make the indoor training go by faster? Not really but it has made it more efficient. The target wattage has been especially beneficial. If I want to hold 280-290 watts for some long tempo (this week it was 4x20 one day and 3x20 the next), I set the wattage and will be right in the zone as long as I keep my cadence steady.
How do I pass so many hours inside? I will note that I don't own even one indoor cycling training dvd, no Tour de France dvds,or really anything cycling related. Quite honestly I find watching bike races pretty boring. I'd rather watch a movie, a concert, a basketball game or listen to one of the XM radio channels while I read books, magazines and newspapers. I have a music stand that allows me to read quite easily on the bike. For certain intervals, I'll concentrate on just that effort but for longer efforts I've found that I can hold the power while I read or watch the tv. I've actually found that some of my best training occurs indoors given the consistent environment and efficiency of the time spent on the bike. My goal is to start the spring ready to go and not having to ride myself back to my race fitness. If you can train hard inside, you'll be able to ride even better outside.
January and February are critical months on the training calendar. My coach will usually recommend increased time on the bike that includes some very long weekend rides. Unfortunately with the weather in our area, these hours are usually inside, and quite often reduced by 15 to 20% or so. What we don't compromise on is the intensity of the training intervals within those hours. The intervals can always be completed inside if the weather doesn't sccomodate riding outside.
Intervals in January and February should be designed to start the development of the skills you'll need for your event(s). If you plan on racing primarily crits, you may want to work on tempo efforts with high intensity sprints every 5 to 10 minutes. If road races are your goal, you may want to work on holding tempo efforts that will also incorporate steady state efforts and/or some climbing efforts. Time trial specialists may want to start working on steady state efforts and power intervals. The basic idea is to start getting your mind and body ready for the type of efforts you'll be needing once the race season begins.
In addition to some specificity training you should work on any aspects of your racing that may have been lacking in the previous year. In otherwords, you may have a sprint that is outstanding but an inability to ride at steady state power wont allow you to be in the right spot to use that sprint. Spending more time on some longer efforts just below threshhold power may help. You can also use shorter but more intense power interval efforts to increase your Vo2 and LT which will translate into better steady state power. The point is that there are a number of ways to improve your performance through interval training and the winter months are a fine time to start this process.