How do you increase the amount of power you have available, especially as you age?
Of course, training is the key to increasing power. Many dedicated cyclists use power meters to accurately record their wattage output during interval training. Then they use sophisticated software to help them analyze the results and plan subsequent workouts.
Although intense training helps the body produce more power, eventually the curve of improvement flattens. Two reasons:
- Progress slows when riders reach their genetic ceilings — they’ve gotten nearly as much out of their bodies as possible.
- Improvement declines inexorably with age. Despite hard training, even the most gifted riders lose about 5% of their VO2 max per decade after approximately age 40.
The genetic ceiling is something we can’t alter. We have to live with that. But what’s really depressing is that simply growing older robs our potential.
Why should age rob us of the benefits of all our interval training, climbing and endurance rides? Is there any way to retain the fitness that we’ve built through the years?
The answer lies in the muscles that propel the bike down the road. Aerobic capacity is driven by the musculature. When muscles are working hard, the heart is forced to pump large quantities of blood to supply them with fuel. If you have weak muscles, you can’t make the heart work as hard as it’s capable of working. So you go slower. And the weaker you get, the slower you go.
Jim Martin, Ph.D., a leading cycling researcher, says, “Maintain muscle mass at all costs, and you’ll retain function regardless of age. Muscle mass and fiber type account for 88% of performance variations regardless of age.”
But not everyone agrees. You may have heard cycling coaches say that weight training isn’t effective for cyclists. Chris Carmichael, argues that “weights and cycling are like oil and water — they don’t mix well.” He recommends that time-pressed recreational cyclists concentrate on riding rather than lifting.
British cycling coach Ric Stern, also a sports scientist and writer, is a staunch advocate of riding, not lifting. He argues that cycling is an aerobic sport and it is aerobic capacity, not muscular strength, that determines performance on the bike.
EF Education First team director Jonathan Vaughters was one of the top climbers in the pro peloton during his riding days. Yet he once told me that he had trouble leg pressing 300 pounds (136 kg).
So it seems that cyclists should heed the time-worn advice of Eddy Merckx and simply “ride the bike.” After all, cycling, like most sports, is extremely specific. You get better at riding a bike, it appears, by riding — not by doing squats.
However, there have been some high-profile dissenters along the way, and it also is an age-related question. Former pro David Millar advocated weight training: “The big advantage of combining weight training with cycling is that it improves both time trialing and sprint power. . . . Work on building muscle strength, because by doing endurance training you train the muscle strength away.”
Young elite riders may need to spend every available minute on the bike, but as we age we lose the muscle volume and strength we had in our 20s and 30s. The muscles that drive us down the road get weaker. So while weight training may not help a young, naturally strong rider, it is crucial for aging cyclists in order to maintain their motors.
Then there’s the issue of “functional strength.” As we age into our 70s and 80s, we need strength not so much to ride a century but just to get out of the chair. If that strength isn’t maintained in middle age, it’s hard to get it back in later years.
Don’t worry about gaining weight from lifting. It probably won’t happen no matter how much you pump iron. It requires an optimum combination of hormones and muscle structure — plus hours in the weight room — to gain significant weight. And body builders who want to get big steer clear of any aerobic activity because they think it lessens their ability to bulk up. If you’re training on the bike at even a moderate level while also in a lifting program, weight gain shouldn’t be an issue.
But don’t panic if you do gain 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of muscle. (Fat is another story!) Martin’s research shows that modest extra weight adds less than 1% to 1-kilometer time trial times. The added weight is negated by improved power.
So the thinking, by Martin and others, is that riders over 40 (and, especially, 50) should make resistance training a key part of their overall workout routine. Only in that way can we maintain the muscle mass that allows us to keep riding strongly as the years slip away.
Weight Training Tips for Cyclists
If you’re sold on a dose of iron, here’s my advice for making your workouts more productive.
“Weight training” is resistance training. This means you don’t need an elaborate gym or much equipment at all. Body-weight exercises such as pull-ups and push-ups work well. Any resistance above what your muscles normally encounter helps build strength. This includes riding up hills in a larger-than-usual gear.
Create, then preserve. From early autumn to spring, depending on your cycling goals and how weather determines your ability to ride, lift 3 times a week doing both upper- and lower-body exercises. During the cycling season, lift twice a week for about 20-30 minutes each session to preserve strength gained in the off-season. Leg exercises are optional during the season, depending on your energy, time and whether leg strength is a weakness.
Build strength. After you have developed good lifting form and a solid base by using light weights and fairly high repetitions (10-25), concentrate on building strength with 2-5 sets using higher weight but lower reps (3-8). Cut back to 1-2 sets for maintenance during the riding season, still using relatively high weights.
Don’t overdo it. You’re a cyclist, not a bodybuilder or competitive weightlifter. Weight sessions should last no more than 30 minutes. Choose one exercise from each of the following 4 groups to perform each time you lift.
- Upper-body pushing muscles: push-ups, bench presses, dips, incline presses
- Upper-body pulling muscles: pull-ups, seated rows, pull-downs, bent rows, shoulder shrugs
- Core: crunches, back extensions, various exercises using an exercise ball
- Legs: squats, leg presses, step-ups, lunges
Finally (unabashed plug), check my comprehensive eBook, Fred Matheny’s Complete Book of Road Bike Training, for detailed advice on weight training and how to blend it with on-bike training. I give you detailed techniques for converting weight-room strength into cycling-specific power.
Another terrific resource in the RBR eBookstore is former U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Coach Harvey Newton‘s Strength Training for Cyclists System.