My long-time friend Bruce Perry asked me a good question. I met Bruce and his wife Becky when we rode the PAC Tour Transcontinental in 1988. Bruce and Becky rode tandem. We averaged 152 miles / day for 17 straight days. I remember a couple of days that were almost double centuries. Bruce reminisced “As I remember the trip now it was not severely physically challenging but for me it was more the mental challenge a few times and the last couple days.” I agree – it was tough getting on the bike at dawn and trying to finish the stage before dark … and doing it again the next day.
Bruce wrote, “I have a question about cycling and stair climbing. I find that taking stair steps requires much perceived effort. It is a particular feeling of weakness but also perhaps caused/occasioned by feeling of what I perceive as muscle/leg discomfort. I have been reasonably strong (for 71+) climbing my bike on steep or long climbs and don’t expect this. This is something – not sudden – that I have noticed last couple years. It is not related to my weight as it good especially in cycling season. Getting ready for gym season here in Florida and will attempt to add some stairs but I am already anxious as to how that will seem.
“I don’t think I have bad knees but they are not like when 35! When stair climbing I guess I am lifting full weight – starting at moderate deep knee bend and thru whole motion. That is something that isn’t done on bike? Not clear in my mind how leverage/force changes with pedal rotation as compared to vertical motion of stair climbing. Also the stair climbing is in erect posture compared to bike position – that seems to recruit different muscles.”
Coach Hughes Several newsletters ago Dr. Mirkin wrote an excellent column on Retaining Strength with Aging Improves Quality of Life. In addition older people who lift weights at least twice a week have a lower death rate.
There are at least three reasons why you feel some weakness climbing stairs even though you are a strong climber on the bike.
1. Different types of activity
You’re on to part of the answer – climbing stairs uses primarily the same muscles as cycling but the biomechanics are different. As you noted you’re lifting your full body weight. Scientists tested sprinters at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and discovered that even at a full sprint the cyclist isn’t exerting as much force as walking! Why? Because the sprinter is exerting all that power against the pedals, which alternate moving down but when you’re walking you’re exerting power against the stable ground.
It’s cross-country ski season here in Colorado and I’ve skied 21 days. Even though skiing uses the same muscles as cycling it took a number of days before my legs stopped hurting from the different biomechanics.
2. Range of motion
Range of motion is another factor. Muscles can exert more power in the mid-part of the range of motion than at either end of the range of motion. Cycling your legs never go through the full range of motion. When you’re stepping up on a stair the start of the motion is similar to the range of motion on your bike. Toward the top you’re straightening your leg fully, which you don’t do on the bike — this partially explains the feeling of weakness.
3. Fast-twitch muscles
Dr. Mirkin points out, “Exercising as you age keeps more fast-twitch muscles.”
You have three different types of muscle fibers:
- Type 1: slow-twitch muscle fibers have great endurance but aren’t very strong.
- Type 2A: fast-twitch muscle fibers have moderate endurance and moderate power.
- Type 2B: fast-twitch muscle fibers have low endurance but great power.
Your body recruits the fibers progressively as you demand more of your legs. Cruising along on an endurance ride you’re using your slow-twitch fibers. Climbing a hill you continue to use your slow-twitch fibers and add type 2A fast-twitch fibers. Sprinting for the city limits sign you add fast twitch type 2B fibers along with the slow-twitch and fast-twitch 2A fibers.
When you are climbing stairs you are demanding maximum power from one leg at a time to lift your body 8 – 12 inches for one or more flights of stairs, i.e., for a short duration. You are using all three muscle fiber types. Climbing on your road bike you’re working but not as hard as going up stairs and you’re using just the first two muscle fiber types.
One study of male master cyclists in their 50s who had raced for at least 10 years but done little or no weight-bearing exercise found that, “Although highly trained and physically fit, these athletes may be at high risk for developing osteoporosis with advancing age.” (Nichols, Jeanne F., Jacob E. Palmer, Susan S. Levy, Low bone mineral density in highly trained male master cyclists, 2003, International Osteoporosis Foundation) Osteoporosis is low bone density, which makes your bones more fragile. This is why weight-bearing exercise is an important complement to riding your bike. Climbing stairs is great weight-bearing exercise. Descending stairs is even better because of the higher impact with each downward step.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 30 to 60 minutes per day of weight-bearing exercise three to five days a week.
Some types of lower body strength training are also good weight-bearing exercise.
Exercises that use full body weight are better weight-bearing exercise than exercises that use machines because they are weight-bearing. Exercises that use free weights strengthen the secondary stabilizing muscles in addition to the primary muscles. Machines only exercise the primary muscles.
Dr. Mirkin cites a study that shows older men gained more muscle strength by spending more time lifting lighter weights. This means you’re better off doing 15 – 20 repetitions with the appropriate weight than 8 – 12 reps with a heavier weight. You’ll get most of the benefit doing just one set. If you have time and enjoy it then two or three sets are better.
Start with a weight with which you can do 15 reps and then session by session keep increasing the number of reps until you can do 20 reps. Then increase the weight, start with 15 reps and build up to 20 reps again. This is like cycling. If all you do is ride the same distance every time you won’t improve much. If all you do is the same number of reps with the same weights you also won’t improve much.
Here are eight of the leg exercises I use with clients. Coach Dan Kehlenbach is demonstrating these in a gym; you can do the same exercises at home without any special equipment.
Wall squats: Wall squats are the best place to start your strengthening program. If you have any knee problems, only do the partial wall squat. If your knees are pain-free, do the full wall squat.
Full: Hold a dumbbell or other weight in each hand (Dan’s holding a couple of cloth bags with cans of food inside). Stand with your exercise ball between your butt and the wall. (Or use a basketball or soccer ball.) Put a folded small towel or small ball between your knees and squeeze your knees together enough to keep the towel (ball) there. You can also put a mini-band around your hips to keep them in alignment. Move your feet out so that when you squat down, your hip and knee joints form right angles like sitting in a chair (First photo). Bend your knees and, using the ball as a roller, squat down like you’re sitting in a chair (second photo). Then stand back up.
Partial: The exercise is the same as the full wall squat but only go down as far as you can without any knee pain (third photo).
For an added challenge try one-leg wall squats!
Split squats: Split squats are more cycling-specific than wall squats. Start standing (first photo). Step forward about 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) with your right foot. Lower your left knee toward the floor until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Only go down as far as you can without knee pain. Keep your right knee over your ankle, not in front of your foot (second photo). Come back up like the first photo — that’s one rep. Go down and up for the set. Then switch legs.
Dan is illustrating split squats without any weights and this is where you should start. If you can do 20 reps with no weights then add weights.
Lunge: The various versions of the lunge are the best exercise for cycling. However, I have some clients do split squats because there’s less stress on the knees.
- Full: Start standing (first photo). Step forward about 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) with your right foot and lower your left knee toward the floor. Only go down until your right thigh is almost parallel to the floor. Keep your right knee over your ankle, not in front of your foot (second photo). Stand back up like the first photo. Step forward with your left foot, the same as the second photo but opposite leg. Go down and stand back up like the first photo. Alternate right and left legs for the set.
- Partial: The exercise is the same as the full lunge but only go down as far as you can without any knee pain. Keep your right knee over your ankle, not in front of your foot. Return to standing and repeat with left leg. Alternate right and left legs for the set.
- Reverse: Step backward about 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) with your right foot and lower your left knee toward the floor. Only go down until your right thigh is almost parallel to the floor. Keep your right knee over your ankle, not in front of your foot. Return to standing and repeat with left leg. Alternate right and left legs for the set.
You can also do partial reverse lunges.
Step-ups: These are not as cycling-specific as split squats or the lunge but are still great leg strength exercises. These are complementary. Each session do one and/or the other.
Front: Hold a dumbbell in each hand or use other weight. (Dan’s wearing a backpack.) Stand facing a box or step approximately 8-16 inches (20-40 cm) high. Start with the lower step and after you master it then increase the height. Put your right leg on the step (first photo). Step up with your right leg; don’t push off with your left leg (second photo). Step back down. Do a set of reps with stepping up with one leg, then a set stepping up with the other leg.
Lateral: Hold a dumbbell in each hand or use other weight. Stand with your right side along the same box (first photo). Step up sideways with your right leg; don’t push off with your left leg (second photo). Step back down. Do a set of reps with one leg, then a set with the other leg.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process explains in detail the best ways to do cardiorespiratory endurance exercise and intense cardio exercise to meet the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The eBook includes upper body, lower body and core strength exercises that you can do at home. Each is illustrated with photos. There are also chapters on weight-bearing, balance and flexibility exercises. The strength, weight-bearing, balance and flexibility programs all meet the recommendations of the ACSM and are important complements to riding your bike. The 106-page eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is available for $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.