Illustration photo: Jonas Hvideberg at the U23 European Championship. Copyright Norges Cykleforbund.
Should junior riders be doing strength training?
I recently received the following question to my instagram account.
As this question might be relevant to more riders, I decided to put my answer in a blog post.
NB! This is a rather brief post. For a more in-depth article on the science, see Strength training in cycling – The science of core stability and resistance training.
A word of caution on training advice
Before getting to the topic of strength training, allow me to say the following:
The better your race results get, the more people will be approaching you with their strong opinions on how you should be training.
Attempting to all of this advice at the same time can often end up in a big mess.
Trust the process that brought you to where you are today. Trust the people that helped you get there. No one knows your situation and your needs better than yourself and the people who are close to you (and to your training).
Start with the big picture in mind
Most junior riders aspire to become professional bike riders.
Before considering specific training modalities like strength training, let us first consider what is required to get to that highest level of performance.
Professional cyclists ride approximately 35 000 km a year (1). The yearly training volume of top level riders is reported in the vicinity of 900 hours (2-3). And to become the best of the best, these efforts need to be repeated for several years.
In order to perform at the highest level, not only do you need to put in this training volume. You also need to tolerate it to the extent that it makes you stronger. As opposed to causing you to overreach.
As such, aspiring junior riders will need to gradually develop their ability to tolerate higher training loads. This includes yearly and incremental increases in training hours.
A key criteria for success in this process is avoiding unwanted breaks in your training. In other words – staying clear of injuries and overtraining.
Strength training promotes development by preventing injuries
Strength training has a strong injury preventative effect by increasing load capacity in tendons, increasing muscular strength and enhancing bone health.
Analyses of the effects of strength training estimate that strength training could eliminate 50% of overuse injuries in sport (4).
It is also a commonly held, and plausible belief that the loading of the skeleton induced by weight lifting may counteract the loss of bone density that is so common in cyclists (5-6).
Staying clear of injuries is such an important prerequisite for the physiological development of athletes that one could argue that any injury-preventative measure is also a performance enhancing measure.
Elite athletes that can maintain training availability at 80% have a significantly greater chance of successfully achieving their key performance goals (7).Raysmith & Drew, J Sci Med Sport 2016
Strength training is quite certainly effective in reducing the risk of injuries. Thereby, it facilitates long-term development.
Strength training improves endurance performance
Aside from injury prevention, strength training in the form of weight lifting also has positive effects on endurance performance in cyclists.
Numerous studies report that strength training leads to increased power output and utilization of a greater part of your VO2 max.
As such, the performance enhancing effects of strength training are fairly well established.
The question that remains answered is:
is strength training the right thing to introduce as a junior rider?
Before starting strength training, be aware of the pitfalls
There are a few pitfalls with strength training that aspiring riders should be aware of.
- added total training load
- the risk of doing “too much, too soon”
Accommodate the added total load
In my opinion, the potentially biggest downside to strength training is that it adds significantly to your total training load and need for recovery.
This is probably the case for strength training with heavy weights more so than gentler “core” and “stability” exercises using body weight as load.
The common experience for many riders new to strength training is reduced leg freshness. As a result, intervals may feel harder to execute and the balance between training and rest is somewhat shifted.
Keep in mind, this may also be the case for those riders who successfully improve their performance after taking on strength training. Adding strength training to a full on endurance training plan is a bit like walking a tightrope. So you need to ensure you fall down on the correct side – that is on the side of adaptation, not overreaching.
The practical consequence of introducing heavy strength training into your program is that you may need to make adjustments to your endurance training to accommodate the added load and need for sufficient recovery.
This is probably best done together with someone that knows your training in detail, and that also has experience with how strength training impacts endurance training.
Allow time to ease into the new (strength) routines
To the best of my knowledge, there is little evidence to suggest that strength training is not safe for athletes in their late teens and early adulthood.
Expert opinion would appear to agree that athletes in their teens can safely be introduced to resistance training, given that the proper neuromuscular skills are in place and sufficient supervision is provided (8-9).
The limiting factor is not their chronological or biological age, but rather the amount of time that they have been practicing these basic movements while gaining competence and confidence in their abilities to move.Myer et al. American College of Sports Medicine Health Fit J, 2013
While strength training is most likely safe, you will need to manage the very real risk of doing too much, too fast and too soon.
When you start out lifting weights, you typically experience a quick increase in strength. This rapid improvement is due to changes in your nerve endings and muscle tissue that adapt rather quickly.
As your neuromuscular strength increases, the natural desire is to add more load to your weights.
However, you need to remember that your tendons and other soft tissue structures are far slower to adapt to these new loads compared to your muscles.
Your muscles will typically tolerate a greater load increase than your tendons will.– me
Most likely, you are already balancing on a knives edge in terms of the load applied to your tendons and bones during regular endurance training. In this setting, adding too much load to strength training may just be too much for your tendons.
This is when overuse injuries occur.
In many of these cases, neither endurance training or strength training are to be blamed. I would argue the injuries are caused by insufficient load management.
As long as you take this issue into account, and allow sufficient time for recovery, adaptation and gradual load progression, strength training can probably be applied with little added injury risk.
Again, if your are inexperienced with strength training, it is probably best to discuss the matter with your coach/trainer.
What time of the year to do strength training?
Studies and real life experience often suggests a 2-3 month strength development phase applied during base training.
This typically involves 4 initial workouts across 14 days where you ease into the strength training. Then followed by 10-14 weeks of 2 weekly strength sessions.
This will normally be sufficient to achieve a significant enhancement of muscular strength and endurance performance.
Furthermore, research also suggests that these effects diminish rather quickly if not maintained (10).
As such, if maximal effect of your strength training is the goal, a single maintenance session every 7-10 days may be applied throughout the rest of your season.
This is certainly not how all riders in the peloton do it – but it is a point worthy of consideration.
Closing remarks – plan for the long term and confer with qualified trainers
There is little doubt that strength training has potent effects on injury prevention as well as endurance performance.
Furthermore, experience suggests that strength training is commonly applied by many elite level cyclists.
However, before taking on strength training it is advisable to make some careful considerations.
For the aspiring junior rider, I would recommend the following:
Create/consider your long-term plan throughout your junior years and into U23 and senior age
With this plan in mind, confer with your trainer and decide if and where strength training is best introduced
If starting up strength training, consider a conservative approach to scheduling and load progression in order to avoid injuries and/or overreaching
- Faria EW et al. The science of cycling. Physiology and training – part 1. Sports Medicine, 2005;35(4):285-312
- Pinot J & Grappe F. A six-year monitoring case study of a top-10 cycling Grand Tour finisher. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2015;33(9):907-914
- Rønnestad B et al. Treningsanbefalinger for å bedre sentrale fysiologiske faktorer i sykkelprestasjon – teori og praksis. Olympiatoppen, NCF, HIL.
- Lauersen JB et al. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2014;48:871-877
- Andersen OK et al. Bone health in elite Norwegian endurance cyclists and runners: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 2018;4(1):e000449
- Layne JE and Nelson ME. The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medical Science in Sports and Exercise, 1999;31(1):25-30
- Raysmith BP, Drew MK. Performance success or failure is influenced by weeks lost to injury and illness in elite Australian track and eld athletes: A 5-year prospective study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,2016;19:778-783.
- Myer GD et al. How young is “too young” to start training. American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journals, 2013;17(5):14-23
- Faigenbaum AD et al. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009;23(5 Suppl):S60-79
- Rønnestad BR et al. In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists’ performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2010;110:1269-1282