On Sunday I met one of my goals for the year. I rode from my house up to the Vista Ridge trailhead, which included 10 minutes of all out effort. I was deep in the hurt locker! Then I enjoyed one of my favorite mountain bike trails. Last year by the time I got to the trailhead all I could do was coast home. I’m fitter this year because I’ve done strength training weekly. This along with short hilly neighborhood rides made the difference. Here’s why.
Our muscles have two kinds of muscle fibers, which fire progressively depending on the demand for power:
- Slow-twitch fibers, which refers to how fast the muscle fibers contract (not how fast your cadence is). Slow-twitch fibers have great endurance but low power.
- Fast-twitch fibers are of two types:
- Fast-twitch IIa (moderate power and endurance)
- Fast-twitch IIb (high power and shorter endurance)
Your body recruits the muscle fiber types progressively as the workload increases. Riding at an endurance pace you’re only using your slow-twitch fibers. Climbing a moderately hard hill your fast-twitch IIa fibers start firing along with your slow-twitch fibers. When your going flat out, e.g., sprinting for the city limits sign all your fibers are firing.
1. Improved power and cycling economy
Climbing the wall to the trailhead I was demanding almost maximum effort from my muscles. My slow-twitch and fast-twitch IIa fibers were all firing and on the short, steepest pitches my fast-twitch IIb fibers kicked in. I do squats, split squats and two kinds of step-ups with heavy enough weights I can only do 10 – 15 reps. This builds general strength of all the muscle fibers. The short hilly rides convert the general strength into cycling-specific power.
Cycling economy is the steady state oxygen cost of a given workload. Improved economy means handling a higher workload for the same oxygen cost. For example, climbing to the trailhead was the same workload this year as last year. But I wasn’t using quite as much oxygen so after about five minutes I was recovered enough I could ride the trail.
An experiment indicates that maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. 13 competitive cyclists (10 men and 3 women) were randomly assigned to an intervention group and a control group. The experiment lasted eight weeks. The intervention group did four sets of four repetitions of half squats with the maximum weight each could handle. They did this three times a week in addition to their normal endurance training. The control group did the same endurance training but no strength training. The intervention group improved cycling economy by 4.8% while the control group only improved cycling economy by 1.4%. The intervention group increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power by 17%. A similar experiment with cross-country skiers also showed improvements from heavy strength training. PubMed Strength Training Improves Cycling Performance.
The cycling experiment was with a very small study group and was disproportionally men. The experiment was with competitive cyclists. And they lifted very heavy weights. Unless you’re a racer and do the very heavy lifting the results may not apply directly to you; however, it suggests recreational cyclists could still improve – just not as much – with strength training.
According the Harvard Health Preserve Your Muscle Mass “Age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging. After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. Most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes.”
Use it or lose it applies to your muscles. The cross-sectional area of your muscle fibers decreases, resulting in a loss of strength. You differentially lose muscle mass in the fast-twitch fibers because as you age you tend not to do activities that require a lot of power. Even though you have a greater proportion of slow-twitch fibers due to differential atrophy, your endurance is not enhanced. Unfortunately, as your muscles atrophy from less use, they are replaced by fat and connective tissue.
Notice that Harvard Health says “natural part of aging” and “most men.” I don’t want to age normally and you probably don’t either. The rate of atrophy can be slowed with resistance exercises, and most of it can even be reversed!
3. Weight management
With normal aging basal metabolism declines by about 2% per decade. Because of this if you continue your normal activities and diet your weight will go up by about 2% per decade.
Several studies show that the combination of endurance and resistance workouts is optimal.
A study on Combining Aerobics and Weights Tied to Optimal Weight Control looked at the health records of 1.7 million Americans. “The researchers noted whether or not the men and women reported having completed at least 150 minutes a week of aerobic activities such as walking or jogging during the past month, meaning that they had met the standard health recommendation for exercise. They also recorded whether they had reported having done any resistance exercise, which would include not just weight training but activities like yoga and calisthenics, at least twice a week.” The study concluded “Those men and women who reported completing both types of exercise — who jogged and lifted or walked and downward dogged, for instance — were about 50 percent less likely to be obese than inactive people and about 20 percent less likely than people who participated in aerobic exercise or weight training alone.”
Another study How Weight Training May Help with Weight Control looked at the health records of 12,000 Americans over almost 20 years. Men and women who reported strengthening their muscles a few times a week, for a weekly total of one to two hours, “are about 20 to 30 percent less likely to become obese over time than people who do not, whether they also work out aerobically or not.” The benefits remained when the researchers controlled for age, sex, smoking, general health and aerobic exercise.”
The New York Times just reported on new research on what happens at the molecular level. Weight training produces tiny bubbles, known as vesicles, in muscles that, through genetic signals, direct the breakdown of fat into fatty acids, which other cells then can use as fuel, reducing fat stores.
4. Weight bearing exercise
In January 2018 I stupidly fell off a ladder and fractured my ankle. After it healed I had a bone density test. I had mild osteopenia, very mild thinning of the bones. My 10-year risk of an osteoporotic fracture of the hip, spine, wrist, or humerus was 8.7%. My doctor assured me this was normal for my age and also asked if I ever fell. I’m a mountain biker and skier and although I’m careful, falls happen.
I don’t want to be normal. In order to reduce that 8.7% risk I have to strengthen my bones. Bones get stronger when loaded more than usual, just like muscles get stronger after hard exercise. However, cycling isn’t weight-bearing exercise. Studies at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, found that even while sprinting, cyclists don’t load their bones as much as they do just walking.
Walking is great exercise for maintaining existing bone strength, but I want to improve bone strength. Cross-country skiing is a little better than walking. The technique involves loading all of my weight on one ski, flexing that knee and forcefully straightening my leg and shifting my weight to the other ski.
Increases in strength are proportional to the load. XC skiing loads my bones a little more than walking. High impact activities like running, pickle ball, basketball, etc., are great for strong leg bones but with my bum knees those are out. And the high impact activities don’t do anything for my wrist and humerus.
In order to really strengthen my bones I resumed resistance exercises.
Resistance Exercise Doesn’t Mean Lifting Weights!
You don’t have to go to a gym or buy a set of dumbbells. Many resistance exercises can be performed with a backpack or a couple of cloth bags full of cans. You can also use stretchy cords and bands. One of my clients uses different sizes of inner tubes!
How to Incorporate
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends:
- Frequency: Two or three days per week using a variety of exercises and equipment.
- Intensity: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) between moderate (5 to 6) and vigorous (7 to 8) intensity on a scale of 0 to 10. These RPEs are determined by how hard the resistance is and apply only when you are actually doing an exercise. An RPE of 5-6 is at the top of your aerobic range — you’re breathing deeply but not gasping for air. At RPE of 7-8 you are breathing very hard.
- Type: Progressive resistance training program or weight-bearing calisthenics of 8-10 exercises involving the major muscle groups as well as stair climbing, and other strengthening activities that use the major muscle groups.
- Recovery: Wait at least 48 hours between resistance training sessions.
If you do resistance training on your recovery days then they aren’t really recovery days. And it’s tough to do resistance training after your long ride(s) of the week. One option is to do a moderate length ride in the morning and resistance training in the afternoon.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process describes in detail different strength training programs depending on your goal(s): 1) increase endurance, 2) address atrophy and increase power 3) improve very hard riding. I include 30 illustrated exercises for lower, upper and core, which require very little special equipment. I explain how to combine resistance exercise with endurance and intensity training, which varies by season. My 108-page eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.