#8: Gym Part 1
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Welcome to the Coach’s Blog powered by Dillman Coaching. I have been racing and training for over a decade, including national and international circuits on the road, mountain bike and cyclocross, with a primary focus on cyclocross. I have gained a wealthy amount of experience and knowledge through these years of racing and this is where I get to transfer that knowledge to your brain, free of charge!
For this post I want to discuss another aspect of training that I believe is highly beneficial: the gym. I’m sure for some the gym is an exciting part of training that you look forward to, but for others it seems like a scary place with big dudes lifting heavy things. That was me a few years ago. I want to answer the “W” Questions: What, Why, When, Who and How. For this post I am focusing in on just the What and Why. Look for Part 2 for the When, Who and How.
I like to refer to it as simply “gym,” but the technical term would be “strength training.” For cyclists, strength training is an off-bike form of cross-training. Generally strength training is something we focus on during the off season when we aren’t racing our bikes. Strength training involves lifting, jumping, pulling, pushing, free weights, dumbbells, barbells, machines, bands, boxes and a whole lot of pain.
Gym workouts can be accomplished with free weights in your basement or through a local gym membership. Personally, I recommend a gym membership because you’ll have a large variety of equipment to choose from and when you go to the gym it’s not as easy to get distracted as it is at home. If you’re not familiar with the gym then head to a local one and they will show you around and usually give you a free pass to try it out for yourself before committing to a membership. Ranging from $10/month to $50/month, gym memberships are really affordable and well worth the investment. Especially during the off-season when you could be hitting the gym 2-3 times every week for off-bike training.
When the race season draws to a close, we transition from one training phase to the next. After a few weeks completely off the bike it’s time to get back to the grind. This is the time of the year we often refer to as the “Off Season” which doesn’t mean we are off our bikes, but rather means we are off from racing. But, as you may have already guessed, this doesn’t mean we get to sit around and be lazy for the next couple of months. There is still work to be done and pain to be inflicted. One of my favorite things about the off season is the gym, because of the serious amount of pain and suffering it can add to training.
Scared yet? To better understand my Pain Tolerance training methodology check out Blog #2.
If we want to get faster at cycling why would we go to the gym? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to spend that time on my bike instead? The simple answer: the gym makes you faster. The complex answer: it enhances your riding abilities by increasing your strength and power output. I am a firm believer that the gym is beneficial to those who want to excel in this sport. Is the gym necessary? No. Is it beneficial? Absolutely.
The addition of gym and strength training can actually improve your performance in endurance sports. You have to be careful when you explain this. I don’t think strength training increases endurance; that comes from long days in the saddle. But I do think it gives a rider a few extra matches to burn at the end of a long event that he otherwise wouldn’t have. Edmund Burke in “Off Season Training for Cyclists” explains that “strength training and endurance training are not mutually exclusive.” He goes on to say, “If you have honed your anaerobic energy system through strength training, you will be able to ride harder and faster before fatigue sets in.” Notice he doesn’t say “longer” because endurance is built from long rides at moderate pace. Or as we call it “base miles.”
Another reason Burke says strength training is beneficial for cyclists is because it prevents injury. By strengthening muscle groups in our shoulders it is less likely that we will break our collarbone in a crash because that bone now has some extra protection around it. Think of it like when you go sledding and you have 10 layers of clothes and your pretty much invincible because all the clothes give you an extra layer of protection that just a t-shirt and shorts don’t provide. We give our bones some extra protection by surrounding them with stronger muscles.
Strength training also allows us to correct some muscle imbalances that we as cyclists tend to have. We seldom do anything to strengthen our upper body or core. By spending some time during the off season working on strengthening these parts of our body we can improve our efficiency and comfort on the bike. When we have a stable core and upper body we are able to put more power into each pedal stroke, in turn improving our pedal stroke efficiency. And when we have an efficient pedal stroke, we produce more watts and when we produce more watts, we go faster and when we go faster, we win races. A strong core also prevents lower back pain which is a very common ailment among cyclists.
The biggest benefit to going to the gym is the increase in power output and strength. The off season isn’t the time of the year when you should be out crushing intervals on your bike. The off season is the time of the year when we should be focusing on building a strong aerobic engine by riding long endurance rides and gaining valuable base miles. Remember back to our Training Pyramid; this is the foundation that everything else is built upon. The bigger our base, the higher our peak. So instead of pushing our limits on the bike, we should be pushing our limits in the gym.
The mental aspect of training can really take a toll on a rider, especially if training volume is high or if you’re stuck to the trainer for a lot of your rides, which are both characteristic of off-season training. Going to the gym can offer some mental motivation to the dreary training of the off-season. There is something about the pushing of one’s body to new limits that really gets the blood pumping. I get excited for gym workouts that will push my limits. I think we get so accustomed to on-bike training that when we get the opportunity to push ourselves in new ways it motivates us and pushes us to excel.
The gym is also a great way to add some diversity to a cycling-focused training plan. I don’t think solely riding your bike year round is the best way to get faster. Our minds just can’t take it. There has to be some time spent training through other methods. Imagine forcing yourself to ride the trainer all winter without any other form of exercise and then once the weather gets warmer you’re already burnt out on riding. What a bummer! Rather, let’s spend some of that time hitting the weights instead. And then, right when our on-bike workouts start becoming more important, Spring rolls in bringing with it warmer weather, and the off-bike workouts will start to go away. So having spent less time in the saddle by the time April rolls around, we should be pretty motivated to get outside and start pushing it on the bike again. It’s all about variety when it comes to staying motivated. Nobody wants to do the same workout, on the same route, on the same bike every single day. You gotta mix things up a bit.
You often hear of the extra 1% in cycling. It’s the idea of marginal gains. That once you get to the top level of the sport, the difference between racers is so close that even just making a 1% improvement could put you on the top. I’m not sure if I fully believe in the whole 1% idea. But, if drinking beet juice adds 1% and eating more vegetables adds %1 and running adds 1% and strength training adds %1 and proper sleep adds 1% then you quickly have 5% and your marginal gains have just become significant gains.
I do not believe you have to go the gym to be fast at racing you’re bike. There are plenty of fast dudes who are fast without any time spent in the gym. However, I do think it is beneficial, both physically and mentally. And if you’re like me, I want to do every little thing I can to enhance my riding performance and get an advantage on my competitors. The gym is one way to do that.